Wednesday 21 March 2018

'Don't rule me out of return to politics'

It's been three years since Jim McGarry's shock defeat in the local elections. He says he hasn't stop thinking about politics ever since and tells Paul Deering about his ambitions to return and if he does, why it won't be with a party claiming he got a raw deal from both Fine Gael and Labour in the past

Jim McGarry
Jim McGarry
Jim McGarry chats about his future with Assistant Editor at the Sligo Champion, Paul Deering.
Cllr Jim McGarry, pictured during his term as Mayor of Sligo.

It's been three years since the most heartbreaking day of his long political career, his rejection by the electorate.

As he stood in the count centre at the Clarion Hotel on that May 24th 2014, Jim McGarry bravely faced the media and called time on his career.

He hasn't done an interview since as he slipped off the political stage quietly and immersed himself into business as a publican of the well known Mooney's Bar at Maugheraboy and a takeaway next door.

A phone call last week however to the former Fine Gael and Labour party councillor found him to be as enthusiastic as ever about issues affecting Sligo and its people.

It was quite clear sitting chatting over a cup of tea in his Oakfield Road house that Jimmy has regained that zest for political life once more, the feeling that he needs to get back into the game. Unfinished business maybe.

"Every day I think about it," is his somewhat unsurprising answer to the question if his election defeat is still on his mind. Another 115 votes would have meant he'd have hung on.

"I did call quits on the night and I think the reason I did that more than anything else was because it was a hard fought campaign. I was there right to the end at the count and I was physically and mentally drained. I was disappointed too after 29 years, particularly as I knew I had worked awful hard for that five years."

In the run up to the election he had been prominent in the Lissadell rights of way issue and had voiced his concern about the infamous motion that was passed at a meeting which ultimately led to legal action that cost the authority millions while also losing the case.

"I saw the dangers of that motion. The item was number ten on the agenda and was sure it wouldn't be reached until the afternoon.

"In the morning I went off and did a bit of representation and came back thinking that I'd be there for the debate but the chairman had taken the motion earlier in the day and had been passed but I could see the inherent dangers in it.

"I did everything I could then to get the council to retract but I couldn't and it's one of the reasons why the council is in such a bad state financially now."

The issue, he says, went down well with constituents and he certainly gained a high profile from it but he doesn't believe he focussed too much on it in the run up to the election.

Despite this he admits: "It certainly didn't help me. It didn't help me get across the line. It didn't hinder my prospects but it certainly didn't help me."

Circumstances, he says, were just against him in the run up to that election. He was running for Labour which was being "absolutely hammered" after going into Government after the 2011 General Election.

National issues affected him locally and he says it was also a bad idea for the party to run two candidates, himself and Marcella McGarry.

"The same name, the same party...Everybody knew there was no way there were two seats for the party, that it was going to difficult to win one seat. The boundaries had changed also so there were a number of factors involved."

He says he was very disappointed with the performance of Labour in government.

"I didn't think they would behave in the way they did in Government. They sold out all their principles. Everything they stood for they did the opposite."

He had believed in the party system, you'd have very little say outside of one, especially if they got into power, he says.

Disappointment with Labour, which he had joined in 2003, had followed disillusionment with Fine Gael. "I got a very bad treatment at the hands of Fine Gael," he says.

It's the first time he has said that publicly. He had kept a dignified silence on the matter up to now.

"I would never have left Fine Gael if I had been treated properly. To leave the party was a landmark decision for me and I can safely say if I didn't I would never have lost my seat."

He was a poll topper locally for the party and he says there was a lot of jealousy as a result.

"Where that should have been seen within the party as something positive and something to nourish and build on there were people within the party who took the opposite view and saw it as a danger to them because they were being politically ambitious too.

"So, all of a sudden I was a threat to them and they took that out on me in an inhuman way which I would never have done to anyone, not to this day."

The party's general secretary even came to Sligo for a day and gave him assurances but he says nothing changed.

"I was left isolated," he says, none more so than when it came to the election of Mayor. In his 29 years he was First Citizen just twice, 1990 and 2009.

There were times when he believed he was going to be Mayor but ended up "being shafted two days before."

"It got to a stage where I couldn't take it anymore," he says. He kept doing his work as his disillusionment was with party politics only.

"In hindsight I should have just went as an independent and got out of party politics," he says, adding however that he had been literally "hounded" by the Labour Party to join them.

Leader Pat Rabbitte came down and spoke with Jimmy's late father, Jim senior, who was a big influence on his life.

"My dad wasn't too happy with it but he went with it in the end," he says but he added, "they treated me worse than Fine Gael did."

In the three years since his election defeat Jimmy has devoted himself to his pub, a business he says he hadn't been paying enough attention to.

"It was all I had left. I still had children in secondary and third level education and I still had a responsibility to them. I had no income so I went into the business to see if I could earn a living out of it and that's what I've been trying to do since."

"You couldn't just live on being a local politician. You had to work, to subsidise that income.

"All down the years you would have people that would think you were making great money, that you were in it for the money

"Of course in later years you were put on a salary of €12,000 a year but the expenses you would incur were big. You couldn't live on it.

"It depended on the level at which you participated in. I was at a high level. I had an office there and it was open a couple of days a week and I didn't have anyone there on a social employment scheme. I was paying for it out of my own pocket. That was apart from travel expenses and stationary and phone bills.

"You weren't making any money out of it. If you were breaking even you were happy enough.

"It was seven days a week for me., even when the children were small. I tried to get Sunday off. My children don't hold that against me when I talk to them now. They say to me, Dad, you were there for the birthdays, Holy Communions, Confirmations, Christmas. You weren't there to see us go to bed at night but our mum was.

"I'd be gone to meetings and getting home late. That's part of it. You don't look back and say you lost out on anything. I didn't. I'm certain of that and my kids don't think I lost out on anything either.

"If there was a public meeting about say the services at the hospital at eight or nine at night as people are at work during the day you had to be there and that was it.

"If you weren't you weren't representing the people who elected you. I don't think that was an issue with anyone who was elected to the council. If it was they would have left shortly after they got elected. It was never an issue with me. I stayed there for 29 years."

The Recession which struck in 2008 hit the pub trade too and the loss in turnover meant he had to supplement with another business, hence the takeaway opening. "That has helped us stay alive to this day," he says.

Drinking trends have changed too, more and more partaking in alcohol at home which he doesn't like to see.

"A lot of drinking now is hidden. It's not good for society and is manifesting itself in huge social problems."

And, he believes anyone in politics should have a business or economic background. He's flat out with his business life but he still admits he misses politics.

"When you rang I didn't hesitate to meet you and that's an indication. I do miss it. Will I go back to politics? I wouldn't rule it out. You need to have a lot of things going for you. You need good health and please God when it comes up again I will still have and I'd certainly be able to think about it then.

"Secondly, you need to have family support. You need friends and family to help. You can't do it without friends and family.

"It's impossible. If those things were right and I thought I had a contribution to make then I would consider it yes." And, if his name appears on a ballot paper again it won't be with a party. "I've had enough of going into political parties and getting hammered."

He reveals that it's not a given he would return at a local level.

"I'd like to go back into it at national level because you have very little say at local level now. I would like to get back into it at a national level.

"How I could achieve that after losing my council seat and saying I wouldn't go for a political party, that's the ten million dollar question isn't it?

He agrees the local elections could offer a "dry run" to see what kind of support was still out there for him before having a tilt at the Dáil.

Every week, he says, he is asked whether he is going to get back into politics while he is still being contacted regularly by former constituents to see if he can assist with various issues.

If he does return, his children are at least grown up now. Daughters Charlene and Aideen emigrated to London during the Recession. Nicola works in Sligo and son, Andrew is studying law in Dublin.

A return wouldn't be a problem for him now. "Sure, I'm working 70 hours a week as it is. At this stage though if I was to return to politics it would be on a full time basis. That would be the aim but I have to get elected first and secondly then see how best a job I could do for Sligo," he says.

Sligo's youngest Mayor at 28 when elected in 1990. His second term as Mayor didn't come until 2009.

Served 29 years as a local councillor on the Borough Council since 1985 and the County Council since 1991, initially for Fine Gael and later for the Labour Party. Unsuccessfully contested the 2007 General Election for the Labour Party in Sligo/North Leitrim.Lost his seat at the last local elections in 2014 and announced on the night of the count that he was retiring from politics.

Publican for the past 13 years or so, running Mooney's Bar near The Showgrounds in Maugheraboy. Also operates a takeaway next door.

Married to Louise with four grown up children.

Jim McGarry entered politics in the late 1980s because he had a social conscience and wanted to help people improve their lot.

"I'll always remember the first person I went to see. A family who was living in the area I was also living in.

"I was absolutely devastated by what I saw and I only thought about it recently why I was so devastated at the conditions they were living in and it was because I was a little bit better off than the conditions they were in. I was really upset about it. That progressed me in politics, seeing that there was a need to help these people.

"I feel sorry now for the Council because I don't feel they can do anything for people. When I was there you could do things for people. You had a real say and the loss of our Borough Council was huge.

"There was a massive connection between politics, media, business and people. It was very intimate. You could go into town and someone would meet you and say they have a problem. We were building as a nation and as a society for better living conditions.

"We were part of helping people. That to me is all gone now and it's sad. We all worked together for the betterment of Sligo." The replacement Municipal Authority has no affinity with the people of Sligo, he says. "It has no power and there's no money there. Looking at it from the outside and reading at what is going on through the media I genuinely think they've gone back but I believe they are doing the best they can.

"The Recession has left a huge mark on everyone and more so in this part of the World. All the statistics bear this out. Sligo is the worst town in the country for closed businesses. Without any survey being done I'd have known that. Everyone can see it. Employment is not there, services are cut and emigration is an ever present." Above all, he says, Sligo needs political clout.

"We haven't had it since Ray MacSharry and Ted Nealon left politics. I was there during that time. It was a great battle and The Sligo Champion played a great role in that. They put the politicians under the cosh and they had to deliver. But since then there's no political clout. That's a huge drawback because of the system we have means we don't have strong regional or local government," he says.

Sligo Champion