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Loneliness of the long- distance doctor

Kind, workaholic, attractive to women but a confirmed loner, Sports Minister Jim McDaid has learnt that honesty has its price, writes Gayle Killilea.

IT was a freezing February afternoon and Jim McDaid had just left a cabinet meeting. He was due in Kilkenny the next morning to address an Irish Hotels Federation conference and the roads were blocked with snow. But a friend in Donegal had died and the funeral was taking place that evening. Jim McDaid braved the bad weather, drove up to Donegal, attended the funeral, and then drove through the night to reach Kilkenny by the next morning where he completed his ministerial duties.

His name, incidentally, is not Jim, but James. Apparently when McDaid was asked to run for election by Fianna Fáil in 1989, the powers that be reckoned that "Jim" looked more snazzy on the election posters than James. The name stuck. He is Minister Jim McDaid in Dublin, and Dr James McDaid in Donegal.

East or North West, the personality doesn't change. He will travel any distance to visit the sick and dying. He will also go to any lengths to help a constituent with a problem. He is socially skilled as a doctor and a politician. Jim McDaid is by all accounts an extraordinarily kind man.

Once an alcoholic, Jim McDaid is now without doubt a workaholic. He devotes every minute of the day to his political responsibilities.

Even when he returns to Letterkenny on a Friday evening, he is never really off duty. Last night he presented prizes at the Donegal ladies' golf classic. Jim McDaid, or Minister Three Piece Suit, as he is jokingly called, is very popular with the ladies. "I think that women like him because he respects their opinion," says Mary Fitzpatrick, head of the Irish Hotels Federation.

"He likes to be the centre of attention," says a Fianna Fáil colleague. "He's very vain. If he wasn't a doctor or politician, he'd probably be a model. Take a close look at his hands, I am sure he gets a manicure."

Since Jim McDaid and his wife Marguerite decided to live apart in 1997, the handsome 51-year-old has been linked with a series of attractive women. At the Leopardstown races two years ago onlookers observed that Jim quickly left the VIP area when he encountered Eileen Pearson and Anne Doyle seated in close proximity to one another. A few months earlier the News of the World had revealed his romance with Anne Doyle, and the month before he had been seen in the company of Eileen Pearson, another attractive blonde.

But for all the female attention he receives, it seems that personal relationships are not McDaid's strong point. "James is totally engrossed in his job, which leaves room for little else. As a result his family does not see very much of him. We worry that he does not have a life outside politics and that he has not had a holiday in eight years," says his wife Marguerite, who adds that for all ofhis social skills, Jim is a loner. "He is totally self-obsessed. There is nothing Jim likes more than to be home in Donegal watching the television with no one, and I mean no one, to interrupt his deep thoughts."

From a young age Jim McDaid got used to his own company. His father died of heart disease when Jim was only six years old. He is the eldest of five children. At the age of 11 he was sent to boarding school, and then went straight on to university. Those closest to McDaid describe him as a quiet intelligent man, who only speaks when he has something to say. He is a good listener, intensely intelligent and has a photographic memory. So much for being the Ministerfor Fun.

Personal confrontation and communication he may avoid, but the Letterkenny man is famed for being very candid about his opinions and personal failures. "He has a very open style of communication, he is very honest and speaks his mind," says his press secretary Bart Cronin.

McDaid's honesty has been both his downfall and his saving grace. At the time of the Abortion Information Bill he said that as a doctor he supported the right of women to have an abortion in certain circumstances.

As a politician he probably should have kept his mouth shut. He was sent hate mail by pro-life groups and had his car window smashed he responded by calling those responsible "Antichrists" and "fanatics". The whole period was stressful for McDaid, who hit the bottle and failed to turn up for consultations at his surgery. This resulted in a complaint being made about him to the Medical Council. He responded by spending 30 days in John of God's on an alcohol rehab programme. He has since described alcohol as his "Achilles heel". After one liquid lunch he was wrestled to the ground by Yasser Arafat's bodyguards who thought that he was trying to stab the Palestinian leader with a plastic fork.

DR James McDaid's house was never a political one. He was, however, involved with the GAA and the Donegal hospice movement, which explains why the popular doctor was asked by Fianna Fáil to run for election 15 days before the big day.

He won the seat and his political career began on a high note, only to flounder in 1991 when he famously became minister for a day.

He had been nominated as Minister for Defence by the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, only for the PDs to refuse to go along with his appointment because of a photograph of him with a man wanted on a UK extradition warrant.

James Clarke from Letterkenny was convicted and sentenced to 18 years on a charge of attempting to murder a UDR soldier. He persistently pleaded innocent to the charge.

Jim McDaid made a statement saying he was with Clarke at a party in Donegal at the time of the murder attempt in 1977. Once again, his honesty got him into trouble. He resigned without a fight. His loyalty to the party was finally rewarded by Bertie Ahern in 1997 when he was called to the front bench after Maire Geoghegan-Quinn quit politics.

He was made Equality and Law Reform spokesman. "The divorce referendum had been dealt with and promoting someone from the back bench to this job was giving them an easy run. Jim was right for the post because of his liberal attitudes towards travellers, gays, divorce and so on," says a political colleague

The previous year he had put his own constituency seat on the line when supporting Cecilia Keaveney in the Donegal North East by-election, confident that she would win Fianna Fáil another seat.

The knock-on effect came at the general election the following year when McDaid beat Paddy Harte to the seat by just 200 votes. Some say he has a marginal seat, but he has undoubtedly increased his profile as Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation. Jim McDaid is a sports fanatic; he was captain of the UCG soccer team and a medical officer for his local GAA team. From a medical point of view, he believes that the more we promote sport in Ireland, the healthier we will become. He even believes that sport can combat crime. An even bigger sports fanatic, however, is his party leader, Bertie Ahern. The two men have never publicly disagreed about anything, not even the controversial Bertiebowl.

'I THINK that Jim has done a good job as sports minister," says his predecessor, Fine Gael's Bernard Allen. "He has followed through on all aspects of the national plan I created in 1997 and followed my line on the Olympic Council. But I do have to disagree with him over the national stadium. It is Bertie Ahern's brainchild and I don't think that there was much consultation with Jim."

Friends describe McDaid's attitude to the issue as quite complacent. "He reckons that Bertie will build the national stadium no matter what, so he is not going to stand in his way. He isn't paid to have an opinion is these matters," says one. Or perhaps he doesn't want a big confrontation. After all, as he knows too well, too much honesty can get a man into trouble.