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Stephen Donnelly: will the taekwondo black belt be good for our health?

To his admirers, he is a brilliant strategic thinker. To critics, he is all hot air. Can the Fianna Fáiler walk the walk after talking the talk? Kim Bielenberg profiles the new Minister for Health

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On the campaign trail: Stephen Donnelly talks to Marguerite Deegan while canvassing for Fianna Fáil in Greystone, Co Wicklow during the general election this year. Picture by Gerry Mooney

On the campaign trail: Stephen Donnelly talks to Marguerite Deegan while canvassing for Fianna Fáil in Greystone, Co Wicklow during the general election this year. Picture by Gerry Mooney

Stephen Donnelly with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin in 2018

Stephen Donnelly with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin in 2018

Stephen Donnelly after getting elected as TD in 2011. Photo by Michael Kelly

Stephen Donnelly after getting elected as TD in 2011. Photo by Michael Kelly

Stephen Donnelly with his fellow co-leaders in the Social Democrats in 2015. Photo by Gareth Chaney

Stephen Donnelly with his fellow co-leaders in the Social Democrats in 2015. Photo by Gareth Chaney

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On the campaign trail: Stephen Donnelly talks to Marguerite Deegan while canvassing for Fianna Fáil in Greystone, Co Wicklow during the general election this year. Picture by Gerry Mooney

When Stephen Donnelly became a TD nine years ago as a complete unknown, he found the world of politics utterly bewildering.

He said it felt like jumping on to a fast-moving train, blindfolded, while balancing a full tray of drinks and debating the speed and condition of the train with the driver.

On his first day at Leinster House, the man who trained at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government was so unfamiliar with the surroundings that he turned up at the Natural History Museum next door by mistake.

He was redirected from the stuffed elephants in the dead zoo to the stuffed shirts in Leinster House - and so began the career of a politician whose star has sometimes dazzled and at other times faded.

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Stephen Donnelly with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin in 2018

Stephen Donnelly with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin in 2018

Stephen Donnelly with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin in 2018

If Donnelly found the existence of a newly elected independent backbench TD precarious, what will he make of his new post in perhaps the most difficult job in government as Minister for Health? Hardly any minister has come out of the job with an enhanced reputation, and for most occupants it is an exercise in damage limitation before they move on to safer pastures.

In appointing Donnelly, Taoiseach Micheál Martin has placed his confidence and trust in a deputy who has never held any other political office.

The 44-year-old will manage an annual budget of €20bn in a dysfunctional health service where some of the administrative systems are less efficient than the average corner shop.

He will be responsible for steering the ship of State through the greatest health crisis in its history, and he takes on the role just three years after he joined a party that he only recently abhorred.

When he first came into the Dáil, he declared: "Take a look at Fianna Fáil policies for the past 15 years and tell me you don't see serious incompetence."

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Stephen Donnelly after getting elected as TD in 2011. Photo by Michael Kelly

Stephen Donnelly after getting elected as TD in 2011. Photo by Michael Kelly

Stephen Donnelly after getting elected as TD in 2011. Photo by Michael Kelly

He suggested in 2013: "I don't think FF has coherent policies."

A year later, he quoted approvingly a walking companion who referred to Fianna Fáil's "culture of jobs for the boys, bonuses for the boys, lack of accountability and two fingers to the Dáil".

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Now, Fianna Fáil has a serious job for Donnelly, and many of the other boys and perhaps the odd girl in the party have their noses out of joint after the new ministerial appointments.

They have not taken kindly to being supplanted by an arriviste who has clearly impressed Martin with his neat line in mid-Atlantic management consultant patter.

"People who dedicated their lives to Fianna Fáil have been overlooked for a f*****g Social Democrat," one TD told the Irish Independent this week, referring to the party Donnelly left three years ago before joining Fianna Fáil.

In February 2016, as a co-founder of the fledgling Social Democrats, Donnelly said: "We must challenge the stale cartel of Irish Civil War politics." That was then. Clearly, he has decided that the best way to challenge the cartel is from within.

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Stephen Donnelly with his fellow co-leaders in the Social Democrats in 2015. Photo by Gareth Chaney

Stephen Donnelly with his fellow co-leaders in the Social Democrats in 2015. Photo by Gareth Chaney

Stephen Donnelly with his fellow co-leaders in the Social Democrats in 2015. Photo by Gareth Chaney

The TD, who spent the early part of his career working for McKinsey, the US management consultancy firm, inspires sharply contrasting opinions among those who have encountered him in politics and elsewhere.

There are plenty of admirers and friends who testify to his brilliance. According to friends, Donnelly is a policy wonk who likes nothing better than a graph, a pie chart or a Powerpoint display.

Civil servants in his office can expect a whiteboard full of lists and diagrams.

In a typical Donnelly scenario, he will ponder a complicated set of problems and then break them down into simple solutions in an accent that veers between Dublin 4 and Massachusetts: "We need to do three things..."

On Donnelly's appointment this week, the respected cancer specialist and former senator Professor John Crown gave him a ringing endorsement, describing him as the most impressive parliamentarian he had met during his time in the Oireachtas.

The oncologist expressed delight that Donnelly is in cabinet as Minister for Health. He welcomed his technocratic training and told Review: "He is extremely bright with an analytical mind, and he is very good at getting to the core of a problem.

"He brings an unusual curriculum vitae into Irish politics and scientific level of knowledge of problems that will be a breath of fresh air. It is very important that he doesn't let himself be pushed around by the civil servants. He will be less overawed going into the job than others might have been."

Micheál Martin clearly rates him highly and, having overlooked more seasoned campaigners, the Taoiseach has a lot riding on the Wicklow TD's success.

The party leader went out of his way to attract him to Fianna Fáil after that stint in the Social Democrats, and placed him straight on the front bench as the spokesman on Brexit, the biggest issue of that period.

Then in 2018, Martin appointed him as health spokesman, where he was able to highlight one of Fine Gael's weakest links in government.

Long-time observers were impressed by the way he grilled officials and his opposite number Simon Harris, who also comes from Greystones and went to the same school, St David's.

"He was very impressive in committees and he ensured that the hard questions were asked," said one seasoned health analyst. "He is good at highlighting the inadequacies of the health service."

Civil servants will watch with interest his relationship with Jim Breslin, the secretary general of the Department of Health.

They have had some tense encounters at Oireachtas committees. On one occasion, during the CervicalCheck controversy, Donnelly asked the top civil servant the same question five times: why were audits on a number of women's smear tests not brought to the attention of the Minister for Health?

While he is one of the Dáil's more fluent speakers, at times he has had a poor attendance record at committees. In 2015, he had one of the worst attendance rates at the Oireachtas finance committee, with official records showing he was present at only six out of 27 meetings.

Others who have encountered Donnelly are much more sceptical.

One official who worked with him in the Social Democrats, where there was an acrimonious parting of the ways, said: "Donnelly is all talk and hot air. He is the kind of guy who breezes in, gives a great interview and then vanishes, but what has he actually delivered? If he gets his teeth into something and he is obsessive about it, he will do quite well, but he doesn't put in the hard graft."

Donnelly is given credit for highlighting the obscure tax loopholes that vulture funds could use to slash their tax bill by claiming charitable status.

While he is one of the Dáil's more fluent speakers, at times he has had a poor attendance record at committees. In 2015, he had one of the worst attendance rates at the Oireachtas finance committee, with official records showing he was present at only six out of 27 meetings.

He said at the time that he had been busy setting up the Social Democrats, and complained that he was frustrated by the then government's rejection of opposition amendments.

Taking a swipe at Donnelly in the Dáil in 2016, the former minister Pat Rabbitte referred to his previous employment with McKinsey.

Rabbitte said that all young deputies should do "a few months" there. "It does wonders for one's self-confidence, if not for one's economics or one's attendance at committee meetings," the former Labour leader added.

Others who have worked with him said the work-shy image is misleading, and that he put in long hours.

Rival politicians and commentators like to ridicule his high-powered education and experience at McKinsey.

A friend of the minister says: "I heard him remarking one time that only in Ireland would an education in Harvard be held against you."

There may be some envy among rivals that he did not have to serve the long and arduous apprenticeship of a conventional politician. He has weaved a narrative of his own life story as the man who gave up a lucrative management consultancy job to save the country.

In the past, Donnelly has described himself as an "accidental politician". He defied expectations in 2011 by getting elected in Wicklow without any political experience. A close friend said: "He decided to run with just six weeks' notice and I would have expected him to get about 300 votes."

The TD, who spent his early childhood in Dundrum, has highlighted different motivations for putting his name forward.

Three years ago, he credited Boris Johnson for playing a role in inspiring him to be a politician. Before he entered the Dáil, Donnelly worked for McKinsey in London, and his last assignment was for Johnson, who was London mayor. His team carried out a study for the future prime minister, figuring out how to target philanthropic money at disadvantaged parts of the British capital, and helped to set up a volunteering scheme.

Donnelly reportedly thought to himself: "This is what politics should be."

When he met Johnson in London three years ago as part of an Oireachtas Brexit delegation, he told him: "You are partly responsible for me being here today."

While at McKinsey, he worked on other public administration projects and he had a stint at Transport for London.

He was also motivated to take the plunge into Irish politics when the International Monetary Fund landed in Ireland as the country went bankrupt. Donnelly had studied the workings of the IMF at Harvard.

In an interview with the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Donnelly said another factor that motivated him to take an interest in public policy was watching news footage of the Ethiopian famine when he was a child.

"Social justice, human rights and equality form part of my political identity, but it started with the horror of a nine-year-old seeing other children being allowed to starve and die in a world full of food," he said.

Donnelly's mother worked in a reformatory for young girls and at Ballinteer Community School before starting a private career guidance practice. His father worked for Hickey's Fabrics in Dublin, and Donnelly helped him on school holidays. Although he broke his back in his 20s while out sailing, and that has limited his movement, he remains a fitness enthusiast. He does triathlons and likes to follow Joe Wicks' video exercises with his three boys. Donnelly was homeschooling the children during lockdown.

Growing up, he enjoyed sailing, scouting and swimming and he has a black belt in taekwondo, which has come in useful on occasions.

"When you're a young kid growing up in Ireland with a big red afro, you end up in a few fights," he said in an interview. "I nearly got killed in Australia at least once [and] to be honest, martial arts actually turned out to be really, really important. I didn't start any of them by the way, but sometimes you have to defend yourself."

Donnelly will have to be able to defend himself in other ways as he tries to get to grips with the unwieldy health ministry. Now that he is at the top table in health, he can expect an avalanche of criticism and abuse online and elsewhere.

Apart from the coronavirus, he will face the usual health problems: overcrowded hospitals, spiralling costs and shortages of doctors and nurses.

His defection from the Social Democrats to Fianna Fáil and the brickbats that followed might have prepared him for that.

In a memorable interview with Vincent Browne, he was accused of being "utterly careerist and shameless".

Browne said: "You excoriated Fianna Fáil in your columns in the Sunday Independent on several occasions. You joined Fianna Fáil obviously because you think your chance of getting a ministerial job is enhanced."

Donnelly denied this, and at other times said there was no deal with Martin where he was promised a job.

But one of the points of difference between him and the Social Democrats after the election of 2016 was that he was keen to go into government.

A friend said he would never be content to sit on the backbenches forever and was keen to get into government to make changes: "He took a 40pc pay cut to be a TD, and if he was still in McKinsey, he'd probably be earning double the income he will be making as a minister."

Now he faces the ultimate test. The time for talking is over.

His priority will be to manage the Covid-19 pandemic. Anthony Staines, professor of health systems at Dublin City University, says: "He will have to decide if he wants to bring the virus down to zero or struggle on with it for the foreseeable future."

Quite apart from the coronavirus, he will face the usual health problems: overcrowded hospitals, spiralling costs and shortages of doctors and nurses.

Donnelly will not find it easy to deal with the health department, says Prof Staines.

"It will be about making a culture where getting things done is valued," he says. "Their internal processes are archaic; they still pass everything around in little paper files. It's intensely hierarchical and intensely territorial and none of these things are conducive to effective working."

As he tries to introduce the universal healthcare system known as Sláintecare, he has indicated that his aim is to ensure that the service is accessible, maintains high quality and is affordable.

As one commentator remarked: "The task ahead of him is like trying to repair an airliner while it is in flight."

If he succeeds, the results may not be known for four or five years. If he fails, he could be consigned to political oblivion, along with his patron Micheál Martin.



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