Kerry politician who was once a thorn in Enda Kenny’s side says he has no regrets after Dáil tenure
On the wall of his office in Leinster House, below pictures of his wife and two sons, Brendan Griffin has put up print-outs of Collins and Griffith.
They are not, however, tributes to the two Irish statesmen who died 10 days apart as the Civil War raged in August 1922. They are pictures of singer Phil Collins and the late Andy Griffith, star of the popular 1980s legal drama, Matlock.
Such humour is typical of the Kerry TD who this week confirmed he is standing down at the next election.
While Griffin has never taken himself too seriously, he is highly rated and respected by Fine Gael colleagues. He increased his vote in every Dáil election since 2011 and his loss will be keenly felt by his party in a constituency dominated by the Healy-Raes.
The former tourism and sports minister has taken the decision solely for family reasons. He will turn 41 in March and wants to spend more time in Keel with his wife Róisín and two young sons before they grow up.
It was halfway through his first term when his first son Micheál was born.
“Even then, at that very early stage, it became apparent to me that it wasn’t an ideal life for someone with a young family so far away in Kerry. We’re over 313km door to door,” he said.
She was 100pc right, it was so difficult for her
He recalled in 2015 bringing Róisín and their newborn son, Breandán, home from the hospital and then having to leave again and not return for a week. Party bosses had organised his selection convention for that week despite Griffin telling them of the imminent arrival.
“I brought them [his wife and son] home from the hospital and I had to go out canvassing that evening,” he said.
For Róisín, who has worked as his long-time parliamentary assistant, Griffin said there was “suppressed anger for a long time” that did not surface until a few years later.
“She was 100pc right, it was so difficult for her,” he said.
Being junior tourism and sport minister between 2017 and 2020 was a blessing from a constituency perspective and a privilege, but he admitted it left him with feelings of “guilt” and at times he was “just miserable” because of the long stretches he was away from home.
A decision on his political future was expedited before Christmas. On the morning of Leo Varadkar’s re-election as Taoiseach, the then deputy government whip learned via a newspaper he was not going to be promoted to chief whip, a Cabinet-level position he would have liked and which colleagues tipped him for.
On the drive home that night, “somewhere between Nenagh and Limerick”, he became angry over it all.
An unnamed minister who rang him got the brunt of the anger. But it wasn’t long before Griffin gained a sense of perspective and realised this was perhaps a sign.
“I said, ‘look, this is what I’ve been thinking about: getting out for so long, for many years’.
“Look, this didn’t happen, if there’s ever a time, now this is it and I was very content after that. That was it.”
He subsequently turned down the offer of a junior ministry, and has gone public with his decision to stand down to avoid it becoming a distraction.
“I was at a funeral last week and the first mourner asked me, ‘Brendan what’s the story, what are you doing?’,” he said.
He believes he’s had a “very successful career in politics” and he wouldn’t change anything, reflecting on achievements for Kerry including the new N22 road to Cork, the preservation of Kerry Airport, and the expansion of Greenways.
He was once considered a backbench agitator, a thorn in Enda Kenny’s side who was part of the infamous Fine Gael five-a-side with the likes of former housing minister Eoghan Murphy, who also quit politics.
Griffin was alone in calling for Kenny to resign nearly a year before he did.
I’d vote for him again in the morning
“I don’t think there’s anything really that I’ve said in the last 12 years here that I really regret hugely,” Griffin said.
These days he has learned to hold his counsel and remains ultra loyal to Varadkar.
“I’d vote for him again in the morning and in the words of Páidí Ó Sé, you can print that,” he said, insisting the Fine Gael leader can turn around the party’s fortunes ahead of the next election and regain his Covid-era popularity.
Less popular might be his view that the anomaly of junior ministers taking an effective pay cut because they lose their entitlement to Dáil allowances should be addressed.
“In any workplace surely the people with more responsibility you imagine should be paid better. That is an anomaly that is there and politicians are afraid of their lives to touch it,” he said, adding that it was “not at all” a factor in his decision not to run again.
Announcing the decision now gives Fine Gael “21 months”, he said, to finalise its Kerry ticket. The constituency has a rich history of GAA stars who have trended to politics – from Dick Spring to Jimmy Deenihan to Martin Ferris.
Former five-time All-Ireland winner Colm ‘Gooch’ Cooper has long been courted by Fine Gael and spurned its offer of joining Griffin on the ticket three years ago. Cooper would be a “brilliant” Dáil deputy, Griffin said, citing the example of Mayo’s Alan Dillon, who he says has become “an excellent” TD after replacing Enda Kenny three years ago.
“He’d [Cooper] do a great job, he’d be brilliant, but he’s got a very successful career in banking and he does the punditry as well. He’s an excellent pundit, he was a handy footballer in his day too, like. I would say possibly he could be approached but whether he would want to… ” Griffin said.
As well as casting doubt on Cooper’s interest, Griffin notes that Fine Gael already has talent in the ranks locally.
“Just knowing what I kind of know of him at the moment, I’d imagine he wouldn’t. We’ve excellent councillors, we have the three councillors in the Listowel area, any of them would be a great TD,” he added. For his part, Cooper has not responded to queries.
For Griffin, his post-political life is uncertain. He has no job lined up, but hopes he can do a bit more writing. He has published two books and is mulling whether there might be a “dark comedy” on political life.
Last summer he wrote in a notebook a children’s novel that runs to 33,000 words. He typed it up over Christmas and gave it to his two boys.
“They loved it,” he said. “I can do that away from the political setting, but once the Dáil term starts I literally become a creative disaster.”
It is a problem he will not have for too much longer.