Tuesday 15 October 2019

'I never saw myself as a long-term politician'

The Big Interview: Hubert Keaney speaks to Sorcha Crowley about his future plans

A flushed Councillor Hubert Keaney sits in a quiet room outside the Council Chamber, looking like he can't believe himself what he'd just done. The straight-talking Manorhamilton man had just announced his retirement from local politics only minutes earlier to a near-empty chamber. He caught everyone by surprise and councillors rushed back into the chamber to express their genuine shock and dismay.

No, he would not be contesting the selection convention that night for Fine Gael, and yes, he would no longer be a county councillor for the party after the local elections next May.

"In one way, this is not a big decision," he told The Sligo Champion. "I've never seen myself as a long-term politician. It's going to be a big change though, I won't deny it. It wasn't one particular thing, it was a number of things," he said, recalling the months of agonising over his decision.

"Sometimes I'd come to a decision and say I'm going and then I'd take a deep breath and say 'I'll wait for another week or month', because there are parts of this job I love and I know I will deeply miss them," he said.

He called (in vain) for rises in the Local Property Tax during budget meetings because he believed it would significantly boost the council coffers and allow the council to provide more services.

Those are the moments he found his voice and loved it: "I loved the job of being in at the council and bringing the Executive to account, going through detailed budgets and I played a big part in the Estimate meetings and I loved that. Certainly, I loved when we were producing development plans and I'll miss being involved in that, I was a main cog in some of those things."

One of his proudest achievements was de-zoning land in Sligo, becoming the first county in Ireland to do so back in 2010. Villages like Grange, zoned for 2,000 houses in the property bubble were curbed back to a core strategy and planned to be developed from the inside out. "It's proven to be the correct policy. I actually went on a roadshow with the Department at that time to other councils and various different agencies to explain how we got it through the members here in Sligo. Before that there was a huge amount of land zoned in every village in the country," he said.

Looking back, the signs may have been under our nose all along. Cllr Keaney, for we may still call him that, when standing up to have his say on local issues, often connects them to what's going on in the world at large, to international politics.

"I'd be somewhat disillusioned with the way politics is going. It's become more of a celebrity chase. I think we're losing thinkers," he said. "If you look at it globally, we've a President across the world who's tweeting about politics daily - it's demeaning politics. it's too important an issue, at any stage, whether it's county councillors, TDs, senators, making decisions that affect people's lives. With the advent of social media, everything is commented on," he said.

He says he hasn't been at the receiving end of much of the vitriol on social media, simply because he doesn't go there.

"I don't put a huge amount of posts up. I attend events and all I see is, dare I say it many of my colleagues, people on their phones and tweeting. I'm not that person. I'm not going to compete in that space and I don't want to compete in that space. I don't think it's good for society. I may be an old fogie on that.

"Some politics is about the bread and butter issues and the nitty gritty but also there's the big issues and they only can be tackled about by proper informed debate. That's something I want to get involved in again, I don't think in relation to politics but in relation to some issues. I think maybe I can have a better voice outside the political system. That may seem a bit strange but I'll develop them over the next couple of years," he said.

One issue on his mind is climate change, prompting him to suggest at the same meeting that the council ban the use of plastic drinking water cups in the chamber. "The reality is that Hubert Keaney will survive - 'we'll be alright Jack' is my generation but it's for my children and their children and what we're leaving behind for them.

"I've spoken about it in there a few weeks ago at an SPC meeting - we don't seem to get it in this society. We talk about minor issues but we're forgetting the big picture and that's not a criticism of Sligo but a criticism of humanity in itself. We are facing some of the greatest challenges that humanity has ever faced," he stressed.

"And yes, they're going to affect us here in Sligo the same way as they're going to affect people all around the world. You only have to look at the last two weeks - look at the weather patterns in the world. There's going to be more depopulation and displacement of people in the world, these are going to be serious issues," he said.

It's a sign of his disillusionment with the political sphere when a councillor of ten years believes he can tackle those issues better outside of the Irish political system. Cllr Keaney believes his political identity may in fact, be holding him back.

"When you're a politician, and I've been very outspoken on a lot of things, and very associated with Fine Gael, I'm considered to be the spokesperson within the council on that. You'll hear the banter, what does Keaney say about that, defending the Government and I've probably over-defended the Government at times but I always felt that when you walk into a room people don't see me as Hubert Keaney, they see me as Hubert Keaney the county councillor.

"So, no matter what I say, they're going to colour it and form an opinion just because I'm a Fine Gael councillor or if they've heard me say something before they didn't like…so I feel that when you're outside politics you're more independent, more objective," he decided.

Relaxing back in his chair, Cllr Keaney turns reflective, but insists he's not having a midlife crisis. "One of the things I'm going to get more involved in is some charitable work and be reflective on life. I'm turning 55 in a few months' time and I gave up smoking six months ago and started doing fitness, part of my process of decision making. I certainly like the changes that have come about. I think it's important. There's a lot of things we can be doing to change our lives and make our lives better, both physically and mentally. That's certainly an area I want to get into. While a politician - that's not a good place for your mental health," he laughed.

"I won't say it's a mid-life crisis I'm going through but it's a reflective thing I want to do. Did I want to be here in three months' time at a monthly meeting, I thought 'no'. I've done it for ten years. I have enjoyed it. Don't get me wrong. There have been frustrations and there will always be, that's in any job," he said.

Now that he's departing the political arena, what does he think of the state of Fine Gael in Sligo facing into the 2019 Local Elections?

"The local elections will be tough. The last time was a bad day for us (in 2014). I was very fortunate to get the second Fine Gael seat in the Sligo-Drumcliffe area. We went from 12 seats in the previous council to three. It'll be a challenge for us but I think it's doable. I think we'll come back with maybe five seats on a good day. We'll certainly come back with three.

"There's no doubt that the economy is doing well and we're getting a lot of investment in Sligo but there are still an awful lot of issues. I've spoken here in the Chamber before about legacy debt and people are still struggling.

"You've the whole thing of the health services now, the waiting lists, the constant queuing in A&E, the frustration of the nurses, that will all lead into negative stuff for the Government, for the party. It will be difficult but there will be very good candidates there and I'm sure the machine will get behind them and put their best foot forward. It will be difficult for all the parties," he said, adding that he will "absolutely" support the Fine Gael candidates in the next General Election.

For now, Cllr Keaney will remain on as a member of Fine Gael but down the line sees it might be better if he was totally outside a party altogether to do the work he wants to do.

"I would be very committed to social justice and the challenges that we have. Sometimes we get branded by parties as this or that. Society is evolving and changing and it's up to political parties to change with that. It should always be about social justice.

"What policy was effective ten years ago isn't always the policy that is suitable for the next generation," he said.

Hanging up his political boots will no doubt be welcomed by his four grown children and wife Christina, his biggest supporter. "It's tough on family life but they'll be glad with this decision I'm making. It's not about myself, it's about my family as well," he said.

"Hopefully some things were brought about because of my intervention, well I know they did and I'm very proud of that. I think there's a bit of kick in me yet. There's some things I want to do. You'll be seeing some of them over the next couple of months," he said, before darting back into the fray in the Council chamber.

Sligo Champion