Tuesday 21 January 2020

Really lucky Jim . . .

Anita Guidera profiles the TD who's survived more scrapes than a bumper car

P oliticians have to be thick-skinned -- it's part of the package. And most can easily shrug off the sort of attacks that would have ordinary people in bits. But secretly they dread one thing: being laughed at. All except one, it seems.

In recent weeks the veteran Donegal TD Jim McDaid has become the country's most publicly maligned backbencher for stubbornly refusing to give up his ministerial pension.

And with the criticisms came the jokes with the barb.

Isn't it time, they said, for a U-turn in his position? Ouch! They were resurrecting, yet again, the horrific drink-driving episode in which he was caught driving the wrong way on a dual carriageway in Kildare.

Then more scorn was heaped on him after the Irish Independent revealed his dismal attendance record in the Dail.

And it isn't just his political performance that has come under scrutiny. Last weekend, he was victim of a sting by the Mail on Sunday in which a wired undercover reporter infiltrated his medical practice in Letterkenny under false pretences and obtained a "sick certificate".

It was a barb too far; one which calamitously backfired on the paper.

McDaid went on Highland Radio to staunchly defend his actions coming across, at worst, as an over-trusting but caring physician. An enraged public rallied, condemning the actions of the reporter and calling for a boycott of the English-owned tabloid.

And on the same radio station, anger among a bewildered electorate turned to support when McDaid belatedly revealed that he had been handing over his ministerial pension to a charity -- widely believed to be the Donegal Hospice -- for the past three or four years.

Such has been the rollercoaster journey for the beleaguered 61-year-old, whose political obituary has often been penned, but who can never be written off when it comes to the home ground.

It all seems a far cry from the glittering career that beckoned for the suave Letterkenny GP, who was headhunted by the Fianna Fail big guns to run in the 1989 General Election.

Instantly surrounding himself with a team of fiercely loyal foot soldiers, many of them female, he was elected on his first attempt in 1989 and has been successfully returned to the Dail at every subsequent election.

He was elevated to the cabinet table as Tourism, Sport and Recreation Minister in 1997, but it was an earlier, brief, nomination as Defence Minister in 1991 that sounded the first warning bells of turbulence.

The celebratory bonfires had scarcely lit the Donegal skies, when he was forced to resign after a picture was produced in the Dail showing him alongside Maze escapee Jim Clarke outside the Four Courts.

From that moment, a relentless litany of controversies has stalked him like a shadow.

His marriage to Marguerite, which had been on the rocks for several years, finally broke down in 1998 against the backdrop of his heavy drinking and socialising.

There followed a tell-all book in 2002, laying bare unsavoury details about his domestic life.

A brief relationship with glamorous newsreader Anne Doyle led to a British tabloid staking out his Dublin apartment overnight.

During the 2002 election campaign, an insensitive comment about suicide victims, albeit that he was quoting a bereaved mother, caused uproar and cost him a senior cabinet seat in the new Government.

Then there was that infamous day in 2005, after a boozy day at the Punchestown Races, when McDaid, three times over the legal limit, drove the wrong direction on the Naas dual carriageway, resulting in a court conviction and a driving ban.

By then, relationships with the party leadership were already strained. He announced in 2006 he was quitting politics only to change his mind weeks later and contest the election, causing consternation within the party, which had just brought the Blaney group back into the fold.

Last year, he lost the party whip after he abstained from voting on a motion to delay the rollout cervical cancer vaccination.

Since then, he has vociferously called for an election and broken the party line on a number of issues.

But against the odds, McDaid has survived.

He has found happiness in his second marriage to child-care worker Siobhan O'Donnell, almost 20 years his junior. The couple and their son Neal (4) live in a luxury two-storey house, compared to something out of Desperate Housewives by one visitor, on the outskirts of Letterkenny.

His wild partying days now firmly behind him, McDaid socialises quietly with a close group of friends. He drives a 2002 Volvo, enjoys golf -- his handicap is 28 -- and continues to be a sports fanatic.

He also enjoys a good relationship with his four children from his marriage to Marguerite and is a grandfather several times.

But to his constituents, and even those who consider themselves to be close to him, he remains a conundrum, wrapped in an enigma.

His recent remarks supporting cuts to the public service as well as social welfare and the minimum wage have alienated him from some of his constituents. There are reports of defection by some of his staunch supporters.

But his legacy as Tourism, Sport and Recreation Minster, when he dished out in excess of €5m in grants to scores of sports projects across the county, will never be forgotten.

As a highly respected GP, he is known to regularly waive fees and go beyond the call of duty to help someone in need. Several weeks ago, he spent an entire weekend at the home of a distressed teenager, after he was asked for help.

Although his roles as TD and GP are inextricably linked, the vexed issue of whether he can fulfil the duties of a TD in a vast constituency, while holding down a demanding full-time job, divides his supporters. And after all this time, some even question his suitability for party politics. He is variously described as politically naive, stubborn, headstrong and his own man. "There is an honesty about him but there is definitely a view that he does not think like a politician. He expresses his own views without consulting the party," said one party insider.

His friends insist that what some people interpret as arrogance or aloofness is shyness. They describe him as generous to a fault, principled and as someone who shoots from the hip.

"There is a very decent guy at the core," said one long-time friend who recalled McDaid as a teenager in the yard of St Eunan's College in Letterkenny in the 1960s.

"The younger lads were often not treated well by the older lads. That was the norm but he stood out. He wasn't led by the pack. He was led by his own personality and how he felt people should be treated," he said.

The fight to retain his seat will be a tough one but, with Fianna Fail's popularity plummeting and politicians scrambling to create a distance, McDaid's credentials as a party outsider are already well established.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss