Wednesday 21 August 2019

Wayne O'Connor: 'Dominance of Healy-Rae dynasty highlights Kerry's diminishing party political gene pool'

The election of five Healy-Raes in three years shows Kerry party politics is not the force it once was, writes Wayne O'Connor

ELECTED: Maura Healy-Rae and Jackie Healy-Rae Jnr. Picture: Don MacMonagle
ELECTED: Maura Healy-Rae and Jackie Healy-Rae Jnr. Picture: Don MacMonagle
Wayne O'Connor

Wayne O'Connor

We do things differently in Kerry. A question gets answered with a question. People hold on to traditions of the past to milk dollars from tourists with horses and carts while they bemoan the lack of a good road network and decent broadband.

Kerry people talk themselves down to seem more unassuming, yet believed John B Keane when he said: "Being born a Kerryman, in my opinion, is the greatest gift that God can bestow on any man. When you belong to Kerry, you know you have a head start on the other fellow... In belonging to Kerry, you belong to the elements. You belong to the spheres spinning in the heavens."

These disparate Kerry distinctions also relate to the county's politics, where trends are routinely bucked.

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The country's local and European elections were noted last week for an apparent Green surge. While most of this swell of support was confined to within reach of the M50 - where 25 of 48 seats won nationally were filled - only six counties demonstrated less support for Green Party candidates than voters in the Kingdom. In Kerry, there is little consideration given to the national picture or a greater consensus beyond the county bounds. We look after our own and that mantra partially explains why the Healy-Raes are now Kerry's biggest political beast.

Inside and outside of the county, the Healy-Raes are often derided for their approach to political life. The notion that "God controls the weather" is laughable. As is the idea that drink-driving laws should be amended so a person from Gneeveguilla can nurse a hangover on the way to work the morning after a night on the beer in Killarney. But these messages feed the populism on which they thrive. People relate to this better than fiscal theory or the introduction of carbon taxes to protect the world for future generations. This quality is why they popped up on The Late Late Show on Friday night.

It is hard to define the Healy-Raes. There is no Kilgarvan Manifesto other than to be seen to be working hard. They cannot be identified by their policies in the same way as can Labour, Sinn Fein, the Green Party, People Before Profit and other political groupings. And yet they poll much better than them in the county.

The Healy-Raes run on a promise to do their best. To call it parish pump politics is too simple, because they don't always deliver. In the past, Michael Healy-Rae has admitted: "I may not get it done for you but what I will do is a simple thing called my best."

If you need a grant, a medical card, a bump-up a waiting list or a pothole fixed, they do not guarantee to resolve the issue. That is the Government's job. They will lobby the Government on your behalf, turn whatever screws they can and represent your interests as if they were their own.

In 2018, Kerry TDs put down approximately 2,200 parliamentary questions in the Dail. More than 1,300 of these were put forward by Michael Healy-Rae. Most of these related to individual hospital appointments or medical card applications, payments for disability and carers' benefits. He was accused of wasting the time of civil servants by putting them in but the tactic works for him. He polled higher than anyone else nationally at the last general election.

In the Dail, through Michael and Danny, the family holds as many seats for Kerry as any two of Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Sinn Fein combined.

Maura and Johnny - daughter and son of Danny - and Jackie Jnr, son of Michael, were each elected to Kerry County Council last weekend on the first count by securing roughly one quarter of the first preferences available. This means at local and national level, the family holds more Kerry seats than Labour, a damning blow for a party with strong ties to another political dynasty in the Kingdom. Former Tanaiste Dick Spring, his father Dan and nephew Arthur, cut their political teeth in Kerry County Council's chamber. But this does not paint a full picture of the Healy-Rae dominance.

While Sinn Fein returned four council seats in the local elections, it is a less influential voting bloc than the Healy-Raes. This is because of the raggle-taggle independents aligned to the Kilgarvan clan.

Tralee councillor Sam Locke canvassed for Michael to be elected to the Dail in 2016 and maintains a presence for the family in the northern end of the county. On hustings in Killarney, Castleisland and Beaufort two weeks ago, each of the Healy-Raes asked people they met from Tralee to vote for Locke. Considering Locke was only re-elected in the final count last week, he may well owe his council seat to that Healy-Rae support.

Another Killarney councillor, Niall Botty O'Callaghan, also has a long-standing link to the Healy-Raes. A hotel owned by the O'Callaghans regularly hosts Healy-Rae clinics and meetings. Locke, O'Callaghan and the Kilgarvan family are likely to stick together when the council resumes next month. This can only help to steady the family's standing in national politics.

The family is not without its detractors in the county. Locals who attended a recent meeting in Gneeveguilla to voice opposition to the development of a new wind farm nearby, claim Danny was "run out of it" when he came to sympathise. Before he left, it was pointed out that trucks from his plant hire company were servicing the development as subcontracted hauliers. Last year Michael was accused of a U-turn when he expressed support for a Local Link bus scheme he had previously labelled "a sop".

The family is as routinely called out at home for their brand of politics as they are nationally. But we do things differently in Kerry and criticism does not stick if you can deliver.

The rest of the political talent pool in the Kingdom has diminished in recent times. Fine Gael is not helped by the fact that its best political operator in the county, former GAA president Sean Kelly, feels he is best suited to a career as an MEP. Advances by the party to former GAA stars last year shows how desperate it is to secure an attractive running-mate for Junior Minister Brendan Griffin.

Labour has become an also-ran in a county it would previously have banked on to return a TD, and while Sinn Fein will maintain its Dail seat, it will not challenge the second Healy-Rae seat.

Fianna Fail might challenge, but its struggles are most evident in Tom McEllistrim's failure to retain his council seat in this election. The McEllistrims are one of the county's most enduring political dynasties with a tradition traced back to 1914 in Owen O'Shea and Gordon Revington's tome A Century of Politics in the Kingdom.

However, McEllistrim, a former TD, polled at just 6.8pc in Castleisland last week. Tallies show none of the 35 boxes in the area had McEllistrim on top. He lost his seat to a first-time candidate, a 24-year-old who won 28.9pc of the first preferences. His name? Jackie Healy-Rae Jnr.

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