Thursday 19 September 2019

'The local work keeps you grounded' - a walkabout with Willie O'Dea in his home city

With young councillors dropping out because of the workload, Kim Bielenberg joins Willie O'Dea on a walkabout in his home city and finds out how his focus on parish-pump politics has made him one of the nation's top vote-getters

Garnering support: Willie O'Dea with Lee Estate resident Patrick Sheehan. Photo by Don Moloney
Garnering support: Willie O'Dea with Lee Estate resident Patrick Sheehan. Photo by Don Moloney
Willie O'Dea with Ann Marie Clancy. Photo by Don Moloney
Willie O'Dea on the campaign trail with candidate Christy McInerney. Photo by Don Moloney
Hug: Willie O'Dea greets Eileen Collopy. Photo by Don Moloney
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

We meet next to Treaty Stone across the river from the imposing battlements of King John's Castle as the Shannon waters roar by. This is the heart of Willie O'Dea's political fortress in Limerick city.

It's a typical day down in his constituency and Willie is up for a bit of canvassing.

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Later he will attend a funeral - "the family would be offended if I didn't go" - and listen to the concerns of residents about mould and damp in their houses. That will be followed by another two-hour canvass and an evening constituency clinic as well as other meetings.

"I left home this morning and told my wife Geraldine I will be home at 11 tonight," he says with a rueful smile, and on an average day he is likely to be as good as his word.

Willie O'Dea with Ann Marie Clancy. Photo by Don Moloney
Willie O'Dea with Ann Marie Clancy. Photo by Don Moloney

O'Dea makes no apologies for being an operator who believes that all politics is local, and happily dismisses claims by metropolitan pundits that he is overly preoccupied by the parish pump on his peregrinations through Limerick.

"The local work keeps you grounded, and keeps you in touch with the big national issues like housing and health," he says, after a woman has a quiet word in his ear about some domestic problem.

This week there were reports that in the run-up to May's local elections, many young candidates are dropping out of politics because they simply cannot hack it.

Councillors, many of whom were only elected in 2014, are bowing out because of the demands on their time, the relatively scant rewards - and the risks they might be subjected to abuse.

The bristles on O'Dea's moustache may be a lighter shade of grey and his relentless walking through his constituency is not quite as brisk as it once was, but at the age of 66 and after 46 years in politics, he still has the stomach for the fight as one of the biggest vote-getters in the country.

As he walks door-to-door in the Lee Estate with local election candidate Christy McInerney, O'Dea seems to know his constituents intimately, and they all seem to know this instantly recognisable figure. If the name of a voter somehow eludes the veteran politician, he greets them as "my friend" - until a party worker quietly comes to his assistance.

Willie O'Dea on the campaign trail with candidate Christy McInerney. Photo by Don Moloney
Willie O'Dea on the campaign trail with candidate Christy McInerney. Photo by Don Moloney

Trademark moustache

One constituent tells me on his doorstep that O'Dea even canvasses on Christmas Day. It is unlikely to be true, one of the many legends that surrounds the politician, but another voter, Geraldine Reidy, offers a plausible explanation as to why O'Dea consistently amasses one of the biggest votes in the country.

"He will always get back to you if you have a problem. Willie does things for people," says Geraldine. "If he can do it, he will do it. With some of the others, you might as well be talking to a wall."

If electioneering is a form of marketing, brand recognition is also crucial to the O'Dea machine, and it can help if you have a prop. Jack Lynch and the British prime minister Harold Wilson smoked pipes. Winston Churchill had his cigars and bow ties. And O'Dea can be spotted from a long distance by his trademark moustache.

Motorists honk their horns and wave as they pass the man known locally as "the Limerick Taoiseach".

Some have tried in the past to persuade him to shave off the moustache for charity, but he has resisted the temptation, joking to those who enquire: "My wife says if I shaved it off, she'd have to see more of me."

O'Dea says he was delighted to be featured on a video by the plastic-bag wearing comedians The Rubberbandits. It has brought him recognition from a whole new generation on his home turf. He tells me he's met teenagers on the doorstep who greet him enthusiastically and ask: "Where are The Rubberbandits?"

As he goes door-to-door, O'Dea tells me he is confident that Fianna Fáil can continue its recovery - with the shine rapidly coming off Leo Varadkar's Fine Gael Government.

"What made Leo attractive to the public was that he could present himself as someone who was not a politician, but you can't do that after a year or more as Taoiseach.

"Now the public no longer regards him as an exotic leader, because there are real question marks over competence - and he is presiding over a government that is making a lot of mistakes."

O'Dea says he is not surprised that Varadkar's personal ratings are down in the polls, because he hears it on the doorstep.

The Fianna Fáil spokesman on Social Protection has a clear idea of where his party should stand on the political spectrum: "We are a left-of-centre party and Fine Gael is right of centre.

"One of the reasons why we have a housing crisis is that, deep down, Fine Gael does not want to build social housing. The reason is brutally simple. They won't get votes in social-housing areas."

Not so long ago, in some Limerick council estates, the dominance of drug gangs had become so pervasive that armed gardaí mounted checkpoints.

But as we amble through the Lee Estate, O'Dea is gratified that the situation has improved dramatically now that gang leaders are in jail. There is no tension in the air and the politician exchanges jokes with passers-by across the street.

After joining Fianna Fáil in 1973 as the son of a cumann chairman in Kilteely, Co Limerick, O'Dea worked as a lawyer and accountant before entering the Dáil at his second attempt in 1982. He had been part of a Fianna Fáil think tank that helped to frame the notorious 1977 election manifesto that won the party its last majority with promises of giveaways and goodies.

Despite his reputation as an unsurpassed vote getter, O'Dea's climb up the political ladder to become a cabinet minister in 2004 was relatively slow.

That could be explained by the fact that early in political career he was a member of a group of party malcontents known as the "gang of 22" that was staunchly opposed to Charles Haughey as party leader.

"I was never friends with Charles Haughey and was always seen as part of the opposition to him," recalls O'Dea. "I had worked in the financial sector in Dublin and rumours about him were rife - and I reckoned there was no smoke without fire."

If he is scathing about Varadkar and Fine Gael, O'Dea is almost as critical of those in his party such as Haughey who gave it the reputation as the plaything of big developers and tycoons.

"The idea of Fianna Fáil as the builders' party took root," he says, voicing his opposition to the notorious Galway tent - the party's fundraising hospitality tent at the Galway Races during the Bertie Ahern years.

"I didn't believe it was right. It was enabling people to flaunt their wealth and their connections, real or otherwise, with leading members of the government. It was distasteful and it did not help the Fianna Fáil image."

Hidden homelessness

After his stint on the canvass in an area known as the Island, O'Dea takes me to Katie Daly's pub, where he meets local residents from the Convent Street area who are having problems with dampness and cracks in their walls.

Sipping sparkling water in the back of the pub, O'Dea becomes quite indignant about the housing issue and the continuous overcrowding in the Accident and Emergency ward of University Hospital Limerick.

"It maddens me that when I am meeting people who are homeless day in, day out, that the Government announces a new plan, but nothing is happening. "It is not only that people are living in hotels, hostels and hubs, there is also a hidden phenomenon of homelessness where three or even more generations of a family are living in one house and it is totally overcrowded."

O'Dea says that during a recent visit to the A&E ward at the local hospital, he nearly had to beat his way through trolleys.

"It was like a scene from the Bible, with people trying to grasp the sleeve of my coat."

O'Dea is unapologetic about his regular attendance at the funerals of constituents - a phenomenon that has led him to be dubbed the "grim reaper".

"It's a different culture in certain parts of Dublin," says the TD. "Outside the Pale, if people know you, they expect you to go."

O'Dea met wife Geraldine in the showband era at a dance in the popular ballroom in Dromkeen. "I am an appalling dancer," he tells me, conjuring up images of a flailing Charlie Chaplin. "My dancing is almost as bad as my singing."

O'Dea readily admits that being a politician requires a lot of sacrifice in terms of family life.

"My wife is not really interested in politics. She doesn't like politics," he says. "I'm lucky in one way not to have had kids - I don't know how I could have related to my kids in terms of the time commitments of a politician. It must be difficult."

He rarely goes on holidays, dislikes the sun, and prefers to take breaks in Devon and Cornwall.

As he heads off to meet more constituents, the Limerick poll-topper says he almost gave up politics completely during the crash when Fianna Fáil was almost wiped out. But supporters persuaded him to fight on and he was one of the few big-hitters to survive.

"It was traumatic at the time. I never thought I would see the day when you would ring a doorbell, and you would be apprehensive. I wondered whether Fianna Fáil would survive."

But eight years on, O'Dea has no such ­apprehensions and is confident his party can return to government. Younger politicians, put off by the gruelling nature of the trade, may call it a day, but O'Dea will battle on - and nobody will be surprised if he tops the poll again in ­Limerick.

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