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The deals they did: the up-and-down relationship of Bertie Ahern and Jackie Healy-Rae

The making of a dynasty…

Independent TD Jackie Healy Rae

JACKIE HEALY-RAE once said that he’d have to think twice before dying for any man but if there was anyone worth dying for, it was Charlie Haughey.

He later revised his opinion but, at the time, it spoke of his loyalty to the Fianna Fáil party. A member of Kerry County Council since 1973, he also served as director of elections a number of times in the Kerry South constituency in the 1970s and 1980s.

The harmonious union between the country’s largest party and the most local of politicians broke in 1996 when sitting TD John O’Leary announced he would not be contesting the next general election.

What followed was the beginning of an unusual relationship between Healy-Rae and Bertie Ahern, full of ups and downs, twists and turns, all of which are documented in Donal Hickey’s book The Healy-Raes: A Twenty-Four Seven Political Legacy.

His turn

Back 20 years ago, Healy-Rae after years of dedicated service believed it was his turn. He wanted on the Fianna Fáil ticket but an already established dynasty was getting in his way – O’Leary’s son Brian, a councillor for a mere few months, was expected to get the nod.

At the convention in the Gleneagle Hotel, sitting TD John O’Donoghue was automatically added with O’Leary coming in second. Healy-Rae wasn’t taking no as an answer. He and his supporters decided to seek a meeting with Taoiseach and party leader Ahern.

It was the beginning of a Healy-Rae playbook that would not only keep him in Leinster House, but give him an inordinate amount of power over the next decade.

The meeting was granted and Jackie made a list of all the things he had done for the party, according to Hickey. He also warned the Drumcondra man that the party would lose one of its two seats if it didn’t have a third candidate.

According to Hickey’s account, his parting words were:

Don’t put me down the road as an independent candidate. Please give me a chance to run and I’ll be faithful to you.

Bertie didn’t take heed, something Jackie would later describe as the ‘biggest blunder’ of his life. The party leader fobbed him off, saying he would be in contact after a strategy meeting in Dublin. That promised call never materialised.

PastedImage-7911 Source: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Family meetings were called, the decision was debated and ultimately a campaign was launched.

According to the family – and Hickey – the next time Jackie heard from Ahern was when he was needed to ensure the Fianna Fáil/PD government could be established after polling day in 1997.

Of that time, the book says:

Jackie claimed to be flabbergasted at the lack of communication on his request to be added to the ticket. The die was cast and he started to prepare for the biggest solo run of his life.

“What looked like being a predictable, boring constituency became one of the most interesting in the country.”

1997

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During the run-up to the vote, campaigners spoke of Jackie jumping over hedges, telling other candidates they’ll eventually be ‘dancing to his music’ and playing on how the party had treated him poorly.

It all worked. He topped the polls with more than 20% of the vote. And it was time to get his.

On 11 June, he took the trip to Dublin and it was decidedly different to the last meeting with Ahern. This time, Healy-Rae held the power. But, always savvy, he did so subtly.

Fianna Fáil and the PDs needed the support of Independents to secure the government. And Healy-Rae had brought his constituency’s shopping list with him.

He wasn’t gloating though, telling media:

I’m the easiest man in the world to meet. They said I said Bertie would have to crawl to me. I’d never ask anyone to do that, not even a dog, and certainly not Bertie Ahern.

He put together a negotiating team and went about getting himself a “Gregory deal” (Tony Gregory famously supported Haughey’s minority government in return for a multi-million regeneration of Dublin’s city centre).

PastedImage-13506 Tony Gregory Source: RollingNews.ie

According to Hickey, the resulting itemised and confidential agreement included a large number of road projects, money for piers and harbours, grants for agriculture and pledges on job creation. Many of the announcements the politician would make over the next five years were part of that first deal.

Healy-Rae was also given an office in Leinster House on the Fianna Fáil corridor – it was a symbolic gesture for the three days a week that the politician would spend up in Dublin.

Despite that and the fulfillment of most of the promises in the agreement, the Kerry man felt he was not rewarded for “keeping the party in government over the next four or five years”. Why? He was expecting those gestures to move south during election time. He was wrong.

2002

When the 2002 election was called, he had a fight on his hands to keep his seat ahead of Fianna Fáil’s second candidate Tom Fleming (John O’Donoghue was still a shoo-in).

JACKIE HEALY RAE FIANNA FAIL ARD FHEIS 2003 SMOKERS CIGARETTES CONTROLS IN PUBLIC PLACES ANTI BAN ON SMOKING HEALTH ISSUES LUNG CANCER ENVIRONMENTAL TOBACCO SMOKE IN THE WORKPLACE Source: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

The new book details the ‘palpable tension’ between the factions in the count centre after polling day. On Fianna Fáil’s decision to seek a recount because Fleming was 203 votes behind, Healy-Rae said:

I was absolutely shocked. After keeping them in government for four or five years that they’d stoop so low this evening. But I wasn’t one bit surprised and the longer it went on, the more confident I was of being elected.

These were the boom years though, and Fianna Fáil and the PDs sailed into a government without the need for Independents. Despite that, there was regular contact between Ahern’s staff and Healy-Rae (as well as a number of other non-party deputies).

The Taoiseach made it clear that he would give special treatment to these Independents and help them when he could. It was an arrangement that annoyed Opposition leader Enda Kenny.

2007

Ten years after taking his seat in Leinster House for the first time, Jackie decided to go to the polls one last time.

At the age of 76, and the beginning of the downturn, it was a difficult election. But once again, he got it over the line with transfers.

Fianna Fáil, the PDs and the Green Party formed a government but Ahern still secured the support of Michael Lowry, Finian McGrath and Healy-Rae.

The agreement reached between Healy-Rae and Ahern – published in the book – includes a promise of access to both the Taoiseach in the event of “serious difficulties” and Cabinet ministers “when issues arise within particular portfolios that are of interest to you”.

It also gave Healy-Rae important Dáil speaking time out of the government’s allocation and an assurance that he would get a heads-up on anything that impacted his constituents.

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His acceptance speech following the election alluded to the deal, yet to be signed.

Speaking that night in Kenmare (on the back of a lorry), Healy Rae told the crowd of more than 100 that because they had voted for him, they “had three people working for them”, referencing his councillor sons Danny and Michael (now himself a TD).

God knows I know a lot more about it than I did a few months ago. Many’s the house I went to in the west who said ‘of course you’ll get our vote. If it wasn’t for Michael Healy Rae, we wouldn’t have planning permission for this house, this turn wouldn’t be taken or the potholes wouldn’t be filled’.

Source: Ronan Leonard/YouTube

The main priorities set out in the agreement included:

  • Sustain and grow employment in Kerry
  • Allow indigenous industry into IDA facilities in Killarney, Kenmare and Kilgarven
  • Broadband for all in Kerry
  • Allocation of community development funding to south Kerry
  • A review of the National Lottery applications for qualifying projects in south Kerry
  • Change the name of Daingean to Dingle Daingean Ui Chuis
  • Restore Killarney House for tourism purposes
  • Clarify the use of St Finian’s Land
  • Implement Transport 21 which included €71 million in road improvements
  • Access to breast screening for women by 2008
  • Construction of Dingle Hospital
  • An extension to Kenmare Hospital
  • An upgrade to CUH’s cystic fibrosis facilities
  • The provision of a sexual assault unit in Kerry General Hospital
  • A review of the Carers’ Allowance
  • An assessment of the need for an MRI scanner in Kerry General
  • An upgrade of the orthodontic dental service
  • Provision of funding for a public playground in Kenmare and other town for children to exercise
  • 4,000 new primary school teachers
  • New teaching approaches for children with autism
  • No re-introduction of third-level fees

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On Ahern’s resignation on 2 April 2008, his successor Brian Cowen sent a letter to Healy-Rae to confirm he would honour the same agreement.

Since the 1997 split, the family had consistently said they would not return to the Fianna Fáil fold but rumours persisted as the year drew to a close. Two moves from Jackie and Michael made sure this didn’t emerge as true. First, Jackie said he would not contest the next election. Then, Michael dismissed any idea of an amalgamation of his family’s organisation and the old party.

“We have run an independent organisation since my father first won the Dáil seat, in 1997, and that’s the way I think it will say,” he said.

Jackie Healy-Rae died last December, aged 83.

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The Healy-Raes: A Twenty-Four Seven Political Legacy by Donal Hickey is published by Rushy Mountain Books and can be purchased here for €14.99

Related: ‘You voted for me because you get good value for your vote’ – Jackie Healy Rae’s 2007 election night speech

Read: Jackie Healy Rae – the patriarch of a dynasty that doesn’t like being called a dynasty

More: Michael Healy-Rae on the ‘personal vendetta’ people had against his father

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