In 1976, an ageing farmer living a few miles from Killarney wanted a medical card. He had just turned 60 and a few years previously had suffered a stroke. Medical cards were a relatively new phenomenon in Ireland back in those days and so he called up his local Fianna Fáil councillor to ascertain how he might go about passing the means test and acquiring one. The Fianna Fáil councillor, surveying the 23 acres of farmland the farmer owned, pointed to the farmer’s 17-yearold son and told him brusquely: “Dónal, sign the farm over to the young fella and you’ll get your medical card”. Dónal duly signed the farm over to his son and he got his medical card. That Fianna Fáil councillor was named Jackie Healy-Rae, Dónal was my grandfather and the “young fella” was my father.
The point of this anecdote is to illustrate that the localistic and clientelistic nature of the Healy- Raes’ politics has existed for decades, generations even. Since Jackie was first elected as a county councillor in 1973, he and his family, have acted as fixers, middle- men between the state and its citizens. Knowingly or unknowingly, they have exploited the particular nature of the Irish political state. It’s no surprise Jackie started out in Fianna Fáil and remained a councillor for the party for a quarter of a century. As Dick Walsh wrote in the 1980s: “[Fianna Fáil] may not have invented the phenomenon known to political scientists as localism, but its leading members in any county of the twenty-six must be sufficiently experienced practitioners to be able to give lessons in its operation”.
When Jackie left the party in 1997 and was elected as an independent TD for Kerry South he retained these traits and transported them to the national level. His sons, Michael and Danny, inherited them too. Even as they make hundreds of thousands of euros from county council contracts and own and operate a bar, a post office, a petrol station and a string of residential properties, they’re still able to present themselves as salt-ofthe- earth, modest Kerrymen.
The Healy-Raes are not merely products of Kerry however: they are a product of a highly centralised political system from which citizens feel alienated and by which they feel disempowered and of a weak and inaccessible system of local government towards which citizens feel at best ambivalent and at worst hostile.
Explaining the recent electoral success, which saw Michael top the poll and his brother Danny joining him in second place, requires a bit more digging, however. In 2016 they bagged 40% of the first preference votes in Kerry.
Before, when people from other counties slagged me off about the Healy-Raes I would defend myself and my county by pointing out that they scraped in every year, that their popularity was confined to rural pockets of the South Kerry constituency (my native Killarney being innocent of such foolhardiness naturally), and that it was thanks to ‘backwards culchies in Kenmare and Cahersiveen’ that they managed to get elected. And I wasn’t entirely wrong. If you look at Jackie and Michael’s performances in each general election between 1997 and 2011, they never topped the poll. In 1997, Jackie came second to John O’Donoghue while in 2002 and 2007 he placed third and so did Michael in 2011. This was during the Healy-Raes’ supposed golden era. Jackie propped up Fianna Fáil-led governments in 1997 and 2007 and in return was notoriously compensated by way of infrastructural development in the county, everything from roads to bridges, from hospitals to roundabouts. And yet, during all this time, they never topped the poll, never came close even. So how is it that they managed to finish first and second in 2016?
The Kerry South constituency, which they knew so well, was abolished and amalgamated with the Kerry North constituency in 2013 to form a new Kerry constituency. I thought they’d struggle when that happened: North Kerry is different to South Kerry. It’s more urban and had two very well-established politicians in Martin Ferris and Jimmy Deenihan. It also has a strong tradition of Labour and Sinn Féin support that does not exist in South Kerry.
Allied to all that, the Healy-Raes wouldn’t know it very well and wouldn’t have the same local expertise. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Michael hasn’t been propping up any governments in the last five years which means he wasn’t able to attract much infrastructural investment to the county. No Fianna Fáil sponsored goodies for Kerry people to enjoy and them to brag about and for their companies to make money from. So, what happened?
Well, I’ve got a theory. In the last number of years, themes of rural isolation and economic under-development in areas outside of Dublin have been pervasive in political debate. The basic argument goes as follows:
Dublin and its hinterland gained the most during the good years of the Celtic Tiger and have fared much better in the economic recovery we’ve seen in the last number of years. Rural Ireland was destroyed by the recession and is being abandoned by young people because it has been abandoned by the government. The closure of post offices, Garda stations and hospitals, as well as the lack of infrastructural development in the form of roads, motorways and broadband bear testament to this. I’m not here to argue the bona fides or even the rights and wrongs of that argument but people believe it to be true and their political choices reflect this.
The Healy-Raes have tapped into this feeling and exploited the sense of rural underdevelopment better than anyone else. Other politicians around the country such as Michael Fitzmaurice in Roscommon, Michael Collins in Cork and Michael Lowry in Tipperary have done it too but the Healy-Raes have made it into an art. From Michael Healy-Rae referring to the last government as the “most anti-Rural Ireland government in history” to Danny’s moronic attempt to legalise drink-driving so lonely rural bachelors could go to the pub on a Saturday night, they have been allowed to portray the under-development and neglect of Rural Ireland as part of their political DNA. It already was, to a certain extent. Even during the Celtic Tiger Jackie was the cute hoor wangling infrastructure projects off Fianna Fáil governments and confounding the “Dublin meeja” in the process. They’ve always been the representatives of the people who eat their dinner in the middle of the day. And off the floor, if it would scandalise ‘Dublin’ and so get more votes.
However, given just how pervasive the feeling that areas outside of the Greater Dublin Area are not benefitting from the economic recovery, their message resonates even more strongly – and widely.
Tralee is probably the best example. It was thought the Healy-Raes would struggle in Tralee in particular. It’s a big town, very different from their rural South Kerry base, and it appeared its voters wouldn’t respond well to the Healy-Raes’ style of politics. Even though people in Dublin seem to think everyone not from Dublin is a culchie, Tralee is a ‘townie’ town with a strong republican tradition. They didn’t struggle though. Michael picked up 4000 first preference votes there and he was only marginally beaten into second place by Martin Ferris who’s from Ardfert, a small village ten minutes from Tralee. Danny was less successful though that was, of course, down to their electoral strategy of urging voters in North, South and West Kerry to give their number one to Michael and the voters in East Kerry and Killarney to give their number one to Danny. I guarantee you ten years ago Jackie would not have done that. But Tralee is a town that was depressed by the recession and has struggled along in the recovery. Its big rival Killarney was relatively insulated by the economic crash thanks to our famous tourist trade and this has only frustrated Tralee people further. The Healy-Raes political rhetoric on economic under-development and their reputation for getting-things-done clearly chimed with the voters in Tralee, and they certainly put the hours of canvassing in. Still, it does help things considerably if voters relate to your message and your positions and makes canvassing a whole lot easier.
So how do you solve a problem like the Healy-Raes?
They have a Donald Trump style quality to them – well-publicised indiscretions seem to have no impact on their popularity with their voters. Their plant-hire companies have made millions from county council contracts while they were sitting on that council, Danny’s company has installed water meters for Irish Water while Danny the politician rails against water charges and they’ve endured a series of embarrassing gaffes from Michael Healy-Rae receiving 3,636 votes on ‘Celebrities go Wild’ from a phone in Leinster House at a premium-rate cost of €2,600 to the taxpayer, to more recent Godoverestimating climate-change denial. Via a seisiún from the back of a lorry on Molesworth St in Dublin. Yet no one in Kerry seems to care, none of their voters, anyway. Why not?
First of all it’s instructive not to underestimate how little ordinary people pay attention to political affairs outside of election season. I’d wager many of the people who voted for the Healy-Raes simply aren’t aware of the hundreds of thousands of euros they make each year from Kerry County Council, and the conflict of interest that surely arises from that. I care but I’m a politics student. The punter sitting in the pub or the old lady at mass are less likely to know and, if they do know, less likely to care or understand why it’s so damaging. Secondly, when it comes to things like Danny denying the existence of climate change last week, things everyone hears about, people brush it off. They don’t vote for the Healy-Raes to act as national legislators or policy wonks. They’re much more likely not to vote for the Healy-Raes if they can’t get things from them – medical cards, planning permission, that kind of stuff. That’s how they’re evaluated, not on how up-to-date they are with basic climate science.
So, again, how to stop them? Well it’s not easy and, for my money, not possible in the current political system. Decentralisation of power to local authorities and the fostering of local democracy is the only way. The Healy-Raes are often accused of fulfilling the duties of councillors rather than national legislators. The point everyone seems to miss is that is exactly what voters want – and not because they’re irrational or stupid. It’s because they know councillors have so little meaningful power that they simply can’t get things done for them. Local-government institutions are so inaccessible and so removed from the lives of ordinary people too that they simply don’t know where to go when it comes to a simple query regarding planning or medical cards.
The only way to stop them is to give local authorities meaningful power thereby taking away the Healy-Raes’ USP. But the Irish state is not excessively centralised by accident – it was designed that way by de Valera and has been further centralised by successive governments, right up to the last government abolishing town councils.
To the big parties, the Healy-Raes and their ilk are but an irritating side effect to this system and not sufficient incentive for root-and-branch reform. The flat caps and paddywhackery are here to stay, chaps.