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Dublin: 4 °C Monday 11 November, 2019
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'I’ve gone to funerals where mourners would refuse to shake my hand'

Fine Gael TD Frank Feighan opens up about a turbulent four years that convinced him to retire from politics.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

JUST BEFORE CHRISTMAS last year Frank Feighan went to a funeral in Roscommon.

As he paid his respects, the Fine Gael TD found he was getting a particularly cold reception from some mourners, even those he knew well:

I put out the hand and people I knew pulled back the hand and said: ‘I’m not shaking hands with you, you closed the hospital.’

This would be unfortunate and upsetting for Feighan, who has represented Roscommon-South-Leitrim since 2007, if it wasn’t for the fact that this has been the norm since July 2011.

On that summer night in the Dáil, he voted with the government to defeat a Sinn Féin motion opposing the downgrading of emergency services in small hospitals, including Roscommon County Hospital.

While his party and constituency colleague Denis Naughten defied the whip and was expelled from the Fine Gael, Feighan stayed loyal to his leader Enda Kenny.

Ever since there have been protest marches outside his office, he was called a liar and a coward, and subject to threats on social media and in the post.

In many ways it’s remarkable that Feighan backed his party given that Kenny made a very specific promise during the election campaign, just months before the Dáil vote, to “protect and defend” services in Roscommon County Hospital.

Source: FiannaFailParty/YouTube

“Promises were made by other politicians, not by myself. Promises that they couldn’t and didn’t keep,” Feighan says, while never specifically referring to his leader.

While other Fine Gael politicians have seen abuse on the doorsteps gradually turn to acceptance and even praise as the economy recovers, Feighan has not enjoyed such pleasures.

It’s one of the reasons why, at just 53, he’s retiring from politics at the next election. He claims it’s a decision he made three years ago as he continued to face a backlash in his constituency.

He believes he simply has too much “baggage” to hold the seat for Fine Gael. His story, and self-sacrifice, is one that will largely be forgotten when the history of the 31st Dáil is written.

While plenty of government TDs have had to deal with unsavoury incidents over the past few years none have been subjected to the level of sustained unpopularity that Feighan has endured in parts of Roscommon. It wasn’t always like that:

I think where I came from I probably got involved in politics but I was a kind of a popular guy. I had two or three businesses, I employed 30 people in the town of Boyle, I was involved the Roscommon GAA Supporters Club – I got around.

Hospital Protests Feighan makes his way through protests over Roscommon Hospital in 2011 Source: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

That local popularity saw him approached by Fine Gael to run in the 1999 local elections when he was elected to Roscommon County Council with one of the party’s best-ever results in the area. He went onto serve in the Seanad between 2002 and 2007 before being elected to the Dáil that same year.

“When I got involved in politics I felt that I was liked. But an issue like this sometimes defines the more fundamental things in life,” he says.

You lose your good name and once you lose it, it took me about two years to understand… the fact that I was a scapegoat, that my life had changed.
I’ve come to terms with that and I believe it’s not about being popular, it’s about making the right decisions and I now look back on it that [and], to me, the right decisions have been made. I know that history will judge me kindly.

Feighan fundamentally believes that closing Roscommon’s Emergency Department was the right decision:

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

I am absolutely convinced that dozens and dozens of people are alive today with the decision I made in Roscommon. Not one person has died because Roscommon A&E has been downgraded.

Others vehemently disagree. Naughten has argued that the ambulance service has not been sufficiently resourced that it can speedily and efficiently transfer patients to other Emergency Departments in surrounding areas.

“Things haven’t improved from the point of view of provision of services for people in Roscommon,” Naughten told TheJournal.ie last year.

This week, Roscommon hospital’s consultant surgeon Liam McMullen publicly apologised to Feighan and said the outgoing TD had been “politically destroyed” and “personally vilified” for the stance he took.

Feighan feels vindicated but surprisingly, given the abuse he has had to take, he does not feel in anyway that he was let down by what has been a lack of support from his own party.

Frankie2

But he thinks HIQA, the health watchdog, could have done more to explain its rationale for closing the Emergency Department in Roscommon. There are others too, though he doesn’t speficially name them. The “lack of moral support” hurts.

“I was a lone voice when it came to people standing up and here I hardly knew what a paediatric surgeon was,” he says.

So here I am, standing up, talking on medical matters and I felt I was let down by, let’s say the leaders of society, the professional people, the HSE or HIQA, or whoever, they went to ground and they let me battle it out.

It’s not hard to see why Feighan may have been angry about it all.

That boiled over in September 2014 when, while the Taoiseach was visiting Roscommon, Feighan elbowed John McDermott from the Roscommon Hospital Action Committee.

scuffle-2 Source: RTÉ

“I probably misread the situation, which I did, I overreacted and I have since apologised to John McDermott,” he says now of the incident.

“I suppose it was a bit of anger as well, but in the scheme of things, the Taoiseach of the day is going back to Roscommon and I am looking around, there’s no guard, a guy is running down the way… But, you know, I’ll put up my hands. I was embarrassed about it.

McDermott sees it somewhat differently and described Feighan’s apology as half-hearted.

In any case, Feighan won’t have to accompany the Taoiseach on many more, if any, public events now.

He says he’ll canvass in the election if anyone wants him to but jokes that the marriage referendum would have passed in Roscommon-South Leitrim – the only constituency that voted No – if he hadn’t been on the doors urging a Yes vote.

Frankie1

He believes his successor Maura Hopkins is “young, articulate, enthusiastic” and will take his seat for Fine Gael in next year’s general election.

As for his own future, Feighan says it maybe “time to take care of Frankie”:

My own personal life changed over the last three years and I am a lot better off mentally for being involved in politics. Although it did take me about two years to get over the shock of kind of being disliked. I prefer to do the right thing than being liked and I think in years to come I know I’ve done the right thing.

He’ll miss it, but, he concludes: “Life is good and we’ll move on.”

WATCH: ‘I’ve never tried to pull the wool over people’s eyes about my history’

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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