Wexford People

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Legal eagle flying high in hectic world of politics

General Election 2020: Barrister turned TD James Browne loves being a hands-on politician and finds the 24/7 role genuinely rewarding. Interview by Maria Pepper

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James Browne outside his home in St. Aidan’s Villas, wearing a protective boot after injuring his ankle slipping off a step while canvassing

James Browne outside his home in St. Aidan’s Villas, wearing a protective boot after injuring his ankle slipping off a step while canvassing

James Browne outside his home in St. Aidan’s Villas, wearing a protective boot after injuring his ankle slipping off a step while canvassing

Enniscorthy man James Browne is seen as the son of a TD who has followed in his father John's footsteps but in fact, his early childhood memory of his dad is from when he was a truck driver and drove an Esso lorry for a living.

He remembers him wearing an overalls, covered in oil, and getting a spin to school in the cab of the lorry, a perk which would probably be frowned upon now, due to improved health and safety regulations.

James was seven years old when his county councillor father first ran for the Dáil, following the retirement from politics of John's uncle Sean Browne, a Pearse Road man who had worked in the printing works of the Echo newspaper and gained a profile through being chairman of the County GAA Board.

'My uncle Matt said he had to beat him into a suit because he didn't own one. He ran for the first time in 1982. I was about seven at the time. I remember there was snow on the ground and going for the first time into St. Senan's school where the voting was on. I was in the Presentation school at the time'.

He grew up as the only son in a family of four, with three sisters, Andrea, Catriona and Judy. Andrea, a make-up artist, was tragically killed in a car accident in 1998 at the age of 20. James was 22 at the time.

'You never recover from something like that, you never forget it, you just learn to cope with it', he said.

Catriona is a public health nurse while Judy works as a part-time receptionist in the HSE facility Carn House.

His first memory of campaigning was the 1987 general election (when he was 12) and especially Dun Mhuire on the night of the count. 'The place was packed and you could barely see in front of your face with the amount of cigarette smoke, the atmosphere, the tension.'

'I remember looking up as he was lifted onto people's shoulders. It was an amazing experience'.

John Browne topped the poll three times but didn't do so in 1989 when Fianna Fail decided to run four candidates, the same as now, a strategy which is generally considered to be risky.

James had a big interest in politics growing up, but international rather than local politics. 'I used to read a lot about the Vietnam War, Iran, Russia, the Berlin Wall', he said.

'When you're a teenager, its's GAA, soccer, girls. I played sports. I love GAA but unfortunately, I was fully useless. I tried it but I was no good. I had terrible hand to eye co-ordination and I was shockingly slow. Everyone has different talents.

'My father won a national league hurling medal for Wexford and the last time the Rapparees won a county title was in 1978 and he was on the team. My uncle Matt played in a few All-Ireland hurling finals.'

After his Leaving Cert in St. Mary's CBS secondary school in Enniscorthy, he spent two years studying hotel management and catering in DIT, Cathal Brugha Street and was working in Jury's Hotel in Cork when a friend who was studying law, encouraged his interest in the legal profession.

'He was interested more in the advocacy side, how you could change the law and make society better. That is what piqued my interest, because I suppose, growing up as the son of a lorry driver, I didn't come from privilege and money. One of my grandfathers worked in the Council yard, another fattened pigs and sold them. My cousins and uncles work in ordinary jobs in factories and supermarkets or in trades.'

He held a variety of jobs himself after growing too old to pick strawberries - from weekend work in the Castle Nightclub, stacking shelves in Pettitts to bar, kitchen and porter work in hotels and resturants in Cork, Dublin and Waterford during college.

'Becoming a barrister would never have entered my head. That was something that other people did. I never met a barrister until I went to college, one of my lecturers was a barrister.

'There is a great phrase, social capital, which is very undervalued. It's the advantage of having contacts and role models which gives you the belief that you can do it too.'

'When they bring out the league tables for schools and you have 90% going to university from one area and 40% from another - money is part of that but I think it goes even deeper than that.'

He obtained a degree in legal Studies from WIT and a Masters from University College Cork before completing his barrister training at the Kings Inns in Dublin and going to work on the south eastern court circuit.

He practised as a barrister for 11 years and was involved in a number of high-profile cases.'I had a very good career. I absolutely enjoyed it. I did nearly everything. I was in the Supreme Court, the Extradition Court and the Commercial Court. I was in a number of cases that became reported decision, that changed the law and went on to be used as precedent.

'I am in the unique position of having been able to change the law in the courts and also in the Oireachtas and am one of only about 20 TD's in the history of the State, who have managed to get an opposition bill into law - the Mental Health Amendment Act which was signed into law by the President about four years ago.'

In 2009, he ran for Enniscorthy Council and got elected and was later elected to Wexford County Council. 'I had decided to go into politics because that is where you could change the law and improve people's rights. I was frustrated with the amount of anomalies in the law, in relation to social rights, in particular.'

'I decided I was going to start at the very bottom. It wasn't a difficult decision to make but it was difficult to put into practice because the Town Council allowance was about €6,500 a year so I had to keep the barrister career going.'

He laments the loss of the old Town Council and said he believes it has created 'a real disconnect' between politicians and the people. 'I feel councillors are drowning in paperwork now, policy papers. There's no realism to it. If they want to challenge officialdom, they would nearly have to go and hire a solicitor or an accountant.

'I think having a barrister in there challenging issues, the County Council was happy when I went for the Dáil. Some of them may have been canvassing for me.'

He stood in the 2016 General Election when his father decided to retire after 34 years in the Dáil ('although he says I pushed him out').

There were reports at the time that he was a reluctant candidate, forced into continuing the family dynasty.

'I heard that line being pushed a lot when I was running, that I didn't want to do it. I don't think it was being put out for positive reasons, there was nefarious goings on.'

'I was going 100 per cent for it. I had a good career. I was building a good practice. You don't give up a career like that unless you're serious about it. I stopped working six months before the election. I was taking a huge risk but I felt it was something I was determined to do.'

Brendan Howlin topped the poll that year and James Browne took the second seat, with his Fianna Fail running mates Malcolm Byrne (who was successful in the recent by-election) and Aoife Byrne losing out.

Party leader Micheál Martin appointed him shadow spokesman on Mental Health, a position James was happy to accept following the suicide death of the well-known Wexford Fianna Fail county councillor Fergie Kehoe.

'It wasn't long after Fergie Kehoe died. I was on the Council with him. He was great friends with my dad. I had become great friends with him. Having been touched by mental health issues, I was determined that when I had this opportunity I would give it absolutely everything', he said.

Asked how he looks after his own mental health, especially in a position which requires him to listen to other people's problems, he said: 'I used to love pottering around in the garden. My granddad Doyle, (his mother Judy's father) was a great gardener, he was always sowing something, pruning something. He lived in Fr. Cullen's Terrace. Coming from a busy family, I was half-reared up there'.

Having grown up on the old Dublin Road in Enniscorthy, he now lives in St. Aidan's Villas, a traditional area of the town. 'It's an old housing estate built in the 1930's. I love living there. I love living in the town centre. It has great people, great neighbours. Sadly, a lot of older people have died but young couples with children are moving in and renewing the place'.

'It keeps you grounded. Everytime you leave the house to walk down town, you meet someone to remind you of some issue or other. You are kept on your toes.'

He has become the 24/7 politician that his father once was and doesn't get much opportunity to relax- 'I've turned into my dad. In the beginning, I convinced myself that I'd have one day off a week to relax and get my head around things but I think I was fooling myself.'

But he finds the job genuinely rewarding and gets satisfaction from raising overlooked issues in the Dáil and advocating on behalf of people who need a voice. 'When you get those wins, it gives you the energy and confidence to keep going. It's the type of job that if you didn't find it rewarding, you couldn't do it.'

He has always loved travelling and reading books. He once took a train from St. Petersburg to Siberia, across several different time zones and has also been to Borneo and China.

Anyone who has seen James Browne in action will know that he is not a natural seeker of the limelight and adopts a reserved approach to public life.

'Sometimes I turn up at a public meeting and I'm down the back talking to people instead of being up at the front', he said.

It was the same when he was practising law, he was drawn less to the courtroom performance side of the profession and more to the academic, analytical side. 'I have a problem-solving brain, a mathematical brain. If I see a problem, I become obsessive about solving it and then it's a case of what's the next issue. The Fianna Fail press officer will say, that's great but don't forget to tweet that you've done it.'

'You can get a lot of head wind with self-promotion and attention seeking but if you are not doing the work, you'll get found out soon enough', he said.

'I'm comfortable being in public, I enjoy being in public. I really enjoy being with people but not in a 'here I am, look at me' way. That's not in my nature. I'm getting better with the media.'

'I love being a hands-on politician. I love trying to change the law. What you do in Dublin is what you're learning on the ground in Enniscorthy.'

He is nervous about the party's decision to run four candidates in Wexford and said it means 'nobody is safe'.

'The Fianna Fail vote could go up this time and the signs are good but you risk splitting the vote. If you're not in the top five on the first count, your chances of getting elected, historically, are less than 8%.

'You need at least 60 per cent of the quota to be contesting for a seat. The quota will be about 1200 so you're looking at 7,200. Last time, the party got 19,500 first preference votes.'

'I believe I can get elected. I've done the work across the county. Having the four candidates makes it difficult but we'll see what happens.

He is skeptical about two recent opinion polls, one of which had Fianna Fail significantly ahead of Fine Gael.

'I don't think either ring true. They're bouncing all over the place. I think a lot of people are undecided.'

He accuses Fine Gael of 'trying to scare people' with the message that Fianna Fail can't be trusted because it was responsible for ruining the country.

'It's the only message they have left. Look at the massive problems in housing, healthcare, climate, broadband, crime and farming, that are either not getting better or are getting worse.'

'With Leo, Simon Harris and Eoghan Murphy, the guys at the top, it's all P.R., a case of - here's a photograph of me. My issue with them is that we haven't had ministers actually managing the departments.'

'There's a great line in Australia about ' Scotty from Marketing'. There is an element of that - it's Leo from Marketing'.

If Fianna Fail's star rises in this election and the party figures in a future government, he would 'absolutely' have the ambition to be a Minister. 'I'd like to think I've shown I have the ability and the temperament to handle a portfolio but my first job is to get re-elected', he said.

Wexford People