Thursday 19 September 2019

The treacherous business of politics


MEP Deirdre Clune with Pat Fitzpatrick. Photo: Daragh McSweeney
MEP Deirdre Clune with Pat Fitzpatrick. Photo: Daragh McSweeney

Pat Fitzpatrick

It doesn't take long for Deirdre Clune to proposition me. We're sitting in a hotel foyer in Kinsale, discussing the best way to forge a career in politics, when she says it, out of the blue: "Maybe you could stand for Fine Gael in Cork at some stage yourself?"

I decline, awkwardly. Whatever about being involved in politics, I'm not sure I'd be cut out for Fine Gael.

Deirdre Clune was cut out for Fine Gael. "I was born into a political party," as she put it, when I ask about her lineage. Her late father, Peter Barry, the former Tanaiste and Fine Gael blue blood, was a key negotiator of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Her grandfather, Anthony, was a TD in the 1950s and 1960s.

She didn't just walk into politics, though, getting a degree in civil engineering and working in the industry for years before taking a Dail seat in Cork South Central, after her father retired.

I can see why people vote for her. She has a nice, easy way about her; calm and assured, mixed in with a bit of flirty mischief, a bit like my Aunt Lil. That said, Lil was a formidable woman when she needed to be, another characteristic I'd say she shares with Deirdre, who is looking to retain her European Parliament seat in the May elections. (Unless we go mad in next few weeks and decide to have a Brexit of our own).

I ask Deirdre how I might get into politics. Bad news for anyone who reckons there is fast track that could turn you into the next George Lee. She tells me the best route is to join a local branch, get vocal on local issues, run for the council and, all going well, I might end up on the ticket for a run at the Dail. Or I might not. Deirdre and I discuss a mutual acquaintance - a really bright, sound guy who worked hard on the ground locally in Cork, but never made good on his national ambitions. As you might have guessed from one or two people on the national stage, talent and intelligence are no guarantee of success, and the competition is lethal.

You can see why. A TD earns around €94k a year, basic. This is topped up if you hold office. A minister, for example, gets an extra €74k a year, while the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar gets a top-up of €104k. There is also a travel and accommodation allowance, which can be up to €34k, depending on your distance from the capital. In addition, a member can claim a Public Representation Allowance, up to around €20k a year for fully vouched activities relating to running a constituency office. The pension isn't what it used to be, but still includes healthy lump sums and top-ups if you hold office. Nice work if you can get it and, better still, hold on to it.

Deirdre is no longer a TD, having lost out to party colleague Jerry Buttimer in 2011, when Fine Gael ran three candidates in Cork South Central and only won two seats. She shrugs this off as part of the territory when it comes up in our conversation, but you'd imagine losing political musical chairs to a colleague like that has got to hurt.

Still, when the music stopped in the 2014 European elections, Deirdre ended up with a seat, and party colleague Simon Harris was the one left standing alone. Things have improved for him in the last four years, if you are one of those people who can see the positives in being Minister for Health. The message is clear though - politics is a treacherous business, you wouldn't be getting into it for the job security.

Deirdre now spends 40 weeks of the year in either Brussels or Strasbourg, working as an MEP. She uses the term 'gravy train' ironically before I get a chance to throw it in. Still, it's not exactly volunteer work. The annual salary is €104k, with an allowance of €313 a day, for every day you attend official business. Deirdre also has an allowance of €4,416 a month to run a constituency office. That's not a bad return, if you fancy putting in the hours.

For 40 weeks a year, her alarm goes off at 4.30am every Monday morning. An early morning flight from Cork to Amsterdam, followed by a train to Brussels, gets her to her desk for 10.30am. She flies home late on Thursday night and attends to constituency business on Friday. That can seem attractive, particularly to anyone in a house with small kids who can't find the time to think. But then, Deirdre describes her downtime in Brussels and I start to have my doubts.

You see, I thought it would be all hobnobbing and drinks receptions and gossiping with Nigel Farage in the snug of some beer house, while he wolfs down the cigarettes. (Go on, admit it, you'd love to.) But it's not like that at all. According to Deirdre, you usually work until 6.30pm, after which there might be a working dinner with something like a trade representative group from Ireland. There are a couple of words for that, but paar-tay isn't one of them.

If there is no event, Deirdre likes to read in her small apartment or go out for a walk. That sounds lonely to me. It reminds me of a year I spent working in Germany, where I didn't speak the language or have any roots. A beer on a cobbled back street in Wurzburg is nice on Instagram, but it's a bit crap when you are there by yourself. Yes, there are always Irish people around if you need a bit of home, but there is no point socialising with them regularly if you are not prepared to become a borderline alcoholic. I wonder what attracts Deirdre to the job.

It's probably not the money. As was widely reported at the time, Deirdre shared €41m with her five siblings when they wound up their property and investment group in 2007. It's only when she starts talking about the work, that I get it - Deirdre is a policy nerd. She likes the details.

On the drive down to meet Deirdre in Kinsale, I had managed a fresh chuckle at Billy Connolly's observation that the desire to be a politician should be enough to have you banned from ever becoming one. I'm not so sure now. Gravy aside, maybe we should be more grateful that someone like Deirdre is willing to spend her time listening to some angry port boss from Denmark.

She offers to show me how to act like a politician. I get in trouble straight away when we leave the hotel for a stroll around Kinsale. Deirdre points out I didn't thank the waitress enough for bringing me a cup of tea. I protest that I clearly said thanks as we left the room. She said it wasn't enough, you have to make eye contact, you need to forget about talking to journalists or colleagues when there is a potential voter around, it has to be all about them. I ask her does this count if the colleague is Leo Varadkar and I'm trying to impress him. She says Leo would also spot if I didn't make proper eye contact. Leo sounds scary.

Deirdre then shows me the art of rubber-necking. This is where you photo-bomb a more important colleague when they are talking to camera, standing just behind them with an 'I heartily endorse everything he or she says' look on your face. The trick is to get on their right shoulder apparently, that's the one more likely to get your face a good airing on the nine o'clock news.

We move on up the town and encounter a bunch of foreign tourists getting off a coach. I'm not sure where the votes are here, but Deirdre starts saying hello to them and I join in because I don't want to seem rude. I'm not sure the tourists are into it; my guess is they have us pegged as Jehovah's Witnesses. I ask her if she did this in case one of them has a vote, and she just laughs and says, "You never know."

At this stage, we're joined by Tim Lombard, a Fine Gael senator from a nearby village called Minane Bridge. He's a rising star locally, with hopes of landing a seat in the next election. If I'm going to make a run for a seat myself, I need to step on Tim's toes.

Tim has four kids under the age of nine. I ask him if it's fair to say his wife is doing the brunt of the childminding so he can focus on his career. He says yes without blinking. (An honest politician, you should keep an eye out for this guy.) Deirdre and himself talk about the toll it takes on family life. Although her youngest is 22 now, she can remember the sacrifices her husband made when she'd arrive back from a week in the Dail on a Friday evening and ask him if he could mind the kids for another bit because she had to go to some chicken-in-the-basket fundraiser. (Apparently, it's more beef or salmon these days, but still, no one gets into Irish politics for the food).

They're good company, Deirdre and Tim. They pass the 'kind of person you'd like to have a beer with' test at a canter. But I feel they are guarded and throwing out the party line when it comes to the dark arts, particularly when it comes to playing musical chairs with a colleague in a multi-seat constituency.

And then we bump into John O'Sullivan in a cafe on Pearse Street. Guarded isn't a word you'd use about John, who introduces himself as a Fine Gael branch member from Innishannon.

His handshake is somewhere between ferocious and 'I'm great crack until you take the piss out of Fine Gael.' Without naming names, he talks about two party hopefuls squaring up to each other at a selection event before an election, and one of them a woman. He follows this with the story of a candidate's wife breaking an umbrella over her husband's rival before a by-election. Say what you will about women in politics, but they've clearly been active in Cork South West down the years.

John leaves me with the quote of the day: "Your own party member would be the most dangerous man or woman to you."

That's more like it. Looking people in the eye and saying hello to bewildered tourists is one thing, but they'll get you nowhere if you don't have what it takes to see off your party rivals. Deirdre Clune took out a front page ad in the run up to the 2014 European elections, showing her talking to her father, Peter Barry. The next day, her rival, Simon Harris called for measures to stop people from buying elections with their personal wealth. He said this was not directed at any individual, which undermines the notion that politicians don't have a sense of humour.

So there it is. If you're good with people, love intrigue and can smile at a colleague while gently knifing them in the back, then politics seems like the job for you. In fact, I hear Fine Gael might be looking for someone in Cork South Central.

Photography by Daragh McSweeney

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