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Lise Hand: Jokes fly but Dial Eireann row is no laughing matter


OH BUT the jokes were only flying around yesterday in the wake of revelations regarding telephonic shen- anigans involving a reality TV show and a certain Kerry TD.

What's the new name for Leinster House? Dial Eireann.

What is Michael Healy-Rae's new nickname? The Ring of Kerry.

But the members of the Oireachtas weren't laughing. The usual rumble of political wagons being circled when one of their number comes under attack was conspicuously absent.

For it's shaping up to be another Dail, another flat-cap folly.

The initial amusement sparked yesterday morning by the intriguing news that more than 3,600 phone calls were made from Leinster House to help then-Kerry councillor Michael Healy-Rae win the RTE show 'Celebrities Go Wild' in 2007, rapidly turned into irritation among his colleagues.

Their annoyance was two-fold. First, it was estimated that the cost of the premium-rate calls (all made from the Oireachtas phone system) was over €2,600 -- a not inconsiderable sum at a time when belts are being tightened everywhere.

Secondly, it appears that the Healy-Rae knack of becoming embroiled in unwelcome publicity has been seamlessly passed down from father to son.

It is a bare three months into the 31st Dail, yet there on the plinth of Leinster House yesterday was the familiar sight of a Healy-Rae surrounded by a circle of microphones.

Kerry South's Michael Healy-Rae, big doe eyes wide under his dark flat cap, was firmly proclaiming his total innocence.

Sure hadn't he been in out in the wilds, nowhere near phones, tellies or computers, when the 3,636 calls were made from the environs of Kildare Street?

"What went on during that week, I had no hand, act or part in," he declared.

Moreover, he had made enquiries into the matter: "I was clearly told was that nobody could say that they were from one individual phone but that they came from Leinster House," he added.

What about the bould Jackie? Could his father who was a TD at the time have masterminded this blizzard of votes for him?

"Absolutely not," replied an indignant Michael. "He organised absolutely nothing. So where or how this happened I do not know."

But one thing in this murky tale was clear -- Michael could expect not a sliver of support from his comrades.

Independent TD Finian McGrath was livid over the carry-on.

"The consensus around the Dail is that it was totally out of order, it's not appropriate behaviour to be spending taxpayers' money on private things outside the Dail," said the Dublin North-Central deputy.

And it's likely that political patience was already wearing thin with the newest Healy-Rae on the block, as he was heading full-tilt for a showdown with Social Protection Minister Joan Burton.

Michael hit the headlines recently after he refused point-black to resign from a state quango, the Citizens' Information Board (CIB), from which he pockets €5,985 in expenses a year -- an appointment made by the previous government at the behest of his father.

"I've no intention of getting off and getting out of the minister's way," he insisted.

But the Kerry South TD's stubborn stance is totally out of step with the mood in parliament and among the general public (inevitably, the Joe Duffy phoneline went into meltdown yesterday over the latest revelation that the mysterious nimble-fingered telephone voter had cost the taxpayer €2,639 for the greater glory of the Healy-Rae dynasty).

Already the Healy-Rae name is synonymous with putting local interests before national issues.

Nobody clung to the rusting parish-pump with more tenacity than Michael's father.

In 2007 when his fierce constituency rival John O'Don- oghue was appointed Ceann Comhairle, effectively ending his ability to do good works around the constituency, Jackie Healy-Rae was beside himself with delight.

"I guarantee the Ceann Comhairle that if there is a bad pothole around Waterville, on Dursey Island in west county Cork or anywhere in Caherciveen, I will do my very best . . . in his absence, I will do my best to sort them," he crowed in the Dail.

And boy, could Jackie deliver for the citizens of Kerry South. He wrangled secret deals out of successive taoisigh Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen in return for his vote.

And as the voting majority of the last government was whittled away, Jackie moved more and more centre-stage as he and Tipperary North's Michael Lowry effectively propped up the tottering administration.

Jackie simply held out his green plaid cap and, hey presto, it was filled with goodies -- there were appointments to state boards (including that of Michael to the CIB), and roads and bridges.

However, recently Jackie claimed not to remember the contents of his secret deals.

"I don't, I swear to God. Between what I looked for and what I got, that's where I'd be getting confused," he said last April.

And for a while it looked as if Jackie was set for a dramatic return to public life. While setting up an April Fool gag this year, a few bright sparks in Radio Kerry rang the now-retired Jackie to see would he go on air and claim to be running for the Aras.

They were gobsmacked to learn that the 80-year old was actively considering the possibility.

"If I want the job, I'll go for it," he declared.

Perhaps he was just taking the Michael. Like father, like son.

Irish Independent