Friday 19 January 2018

'We were devastated, but I owed it to dad to run for his seat'

Helen McEntee
Helen McEntee

I will never forget last Thursday. Arriving into the count centre in Ashbourne, eight years after my dad was first elected to Dail Eireann, was a very emotional experience. Being greeted by the Taoiseach and seeing my family waiting for me, not dad, with their eyes already brimming with tears, brought home the reality that this was actually happening.

I had been selected by the people of Meath East to fill the seat left vacant by my dad, a little over three months after his death. It was a surreal experience, and one that will stay with me forever.

You probably don't often hear this from a 26-year-old woman, but I've always wanted to get into politics. People who don't know me, and who have never met me, have been quick to make accusations of nepotism and suggest the McEntee family is yet another example of a political dynasty.

People were very loyal to my dad, and that is something I am immensely proud of. But I am here because I want to be here, and I fully expect people to judge me on my own merit. It's funny in a way; my uncle Gerry is a doctor, and his son has chosen to also go into the medical profession. We're all very proud of him, and I'm pretty sure no one has criticised him for following in his dad's footsteps.

My family is steeped in public service, whether it's within the farming community, the GAA or politics. Friends used to tease me that I would become a politician. I'm not sure what they saw in me, but it turns out they weren't far off the mark because before my dad was a TD, I started my degree in politics, economics and law.

After college, I spent a year working in a financial institution, but it wasn't for me. So I did a master's in journalism and media communications.

I used to call into dad in Leinster House on a Wednesday to meet him for lunch. I loved being around him, and seeing the comings and goings of life in Leinster House. So it seemed like a natural progression to go and work with him once I finished studying, in the summer of 2010.

In the two-and-a-half years that followed, I worked side by side with him, as he went from being an opposition TD to a junior minister. We worked hard on the local issues affecting people in Meath East, and I learned so much working inside a government department.

I loved every minute of it. Dad would get me to go to meetings with him, usually meetings in the constituency, just to be a second pair of ears. He wasn't a man for taking notes, but he'd want to discuss every element of the meeting with me afterwards, coming up with ideas on how he could help the people involved, or solve the problems they faced.

His determination to help others was unwavering, and I could never have thanked him enough for how much he thought of me.

Our family was left devastated by dad's death. Completely and utterly devastated. As we were picking up the pieces of our lives in early January, I got a letter from a Fine Gael member from down the country. They were offering to come and work for me if I decided to run for election.

At first, I was stunned. It wasn't something I had thought of so soon after his death. But it got me thinking seriously. I never would have planned on being here so early, but I knew with absolute conviction that I couldn't let this opportunity pass me by.

I owed it to dad and to the people of Meath East, 'We were devastated, but I owed it to dad to run for his seat'for whom there is still so much work to be done, to give it a shot and to run for his seat.

The campaign has been an absolute whirlwind. A rollercoaster. I gave my first ever public speech at the Fine Gael convention on March 7. In the three weeks that followed I've made my TV debut, and conducted more interviews and shook more hands than I ever could have dreamed of.

Through sleet, hail and snow, an army of canvassers have traversed the length and breadth of Meath East to meet with as many people as possible. And at the end of it all, thanks to the huge effort from Fine Gael and the support of my family, we all got the result we were looking for.

It's been a blast, and for all of those who rowed in behind over the last few weeks, I will be eternally grateful.

People are understandably cynical about politics, and about politicians. It's been an extremely difficult few years for families across the country, and people feel downtrodden and frustrated. I certainly saw that on the doorsteps during the campaign.

But I also saw hope, and I heard stories that gave me cause for optimism. I have complete faith in the ability of this country to get back on its feet. I have seen the good politics can do; and I know it's not those that shout the loudest, but those who work the hardest that get the best results.

I am extremely honoured that the people of Meath East have placed their trust in me. And I am delighted that, as a young woman, I will help to adjust the age and gender imbalance in Leinster House ever so slightly.

I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in thinking that if we had more women around the table a few years ago, we mightn't have gotten ourselves into such a mess. We need a variety of voices – young, old, male, female – if we want to make sure we do things differently in the future.

Standing on the stage in the Ashbourne count centre on Thursday evening after the declaration, I said I would be happy if I could be half the TD my dad was. I meant it.

I could never fill his shoes; he was an immense man with a huge heart and an incredible commitment to doing the right thing. But what I can promise the people of Meath East is that I will work hard to vindicate their votes and give them the kind of public service they rightly deserve.

Irish Independent

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