Putting politics to one side for a moment, quite a lot about Michael and Danny Healy-Rae can be gleaned from one image used during their extraordinarily successful 2016 general election campaign. The cunning ingenuity of their campaign, which saw the brothers receive 20,378 and 13,826 votes in the Kerry constituency respectively, could be summed up by an ad the Healy-Raes took out in local newspapers in the lead-up to the election. A map of Kerry, overlaid with the message that “A vote for the Healy-Raes is a vote for experience and common sense” and the county fittingly divided into orange and green segments, encouraged voters in the areas of Kenmare in the south stretching to Tarbert in the north to cast first preference votes for Michael and second preference for Danny, while those in and around Killarney and Castleisland reversed the order. Michael, arguably the more charismatic and public of the brothers, dominated the majority of the county and was voted in on the first count, while Danny focused on key cultural and tourism centres like Killarney.
Just as with that map, it’s increasingly difficult to separate the brothers from each other, and even more from each other’s policies, with them being so tightly bound up in their shared family legacy, political networks and local-centric politics. Indeed, the arguments against such locality-focused politicians holding national seats are as numerous as rural roads, and just as tricky: elected to represent some of the most isolated rural communities in the country, are they justified in calling for special permits to allow moderate drinking while driving on short roads and, most recently, a military presence to combat overgrown rhododendrons, as well as debating the well-ploughed areas of agricultural investment and tourism development? Are they chancers who made it big with clever campaigning or a dynasty of some of the most astute politicians this country has ever seen? Are they, in fact, Ireland’s Donald Trumps? One thing is certain: they’re an anomaly, the extremes of a political system that is typically characterised by local constituency demands and a force to be reckoned with. The question, however, seems more and more pertinent going forward in a government crumbling under its own structures: are they just a hive-mind, spouting mutually-agreed-upon and expertly curated opinions to the masses or are there areas where they differ considerably?
Elected to represent some of the most isolated rural communities in the country, are they justified in calling for special permits to allow moderate drinking while driving on short roads and, most recently, a military presence to combat overgrown rhododendrons?
When you ask them about their backgrounds, they don’t immediately mention politics, as one might expect. After all, their father, Jackie Healy-Rae, a former Independent TD for Kerry South from 1997 to 2011 and member of Kerry County Council, remains a leading political figure, if only for the amount of time his sons speak about him. Instead, they call themselves plant hire operators and farmers, tasked early on with helping to run the family businesses. They quickly found themselves involved with politics, with Michael noting that he assisted his late father, eventually running for Kerry County Council himself in 1999 and working “on the ground … building a sort of support base”. In the years since, Michael has served as TD for Kerry South, getting elected in 2011, as well as serving as Chairman for the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs. Danny, meanwhile, has maintained a firm focus on local politics, being co-opted to the council in 2003 and heading polls in 2009 and 2014. It’s telling that, when asked about his background, his first instinct was to outline his family tree, noting that one of his greatest influences was his grandmother – “She lived to be 97. She could go back to the time of the famine. Her own grandmother was born during the famine and her mother died having her. Not many fellows could tell you that” – and that with his daughter, Maura Healy-Rae, now taking his seat in Kerry County Council, local politics has been well-managed by his family.
Family legacy hangs over the Healy-Raes, in one case literally. Sitting in Michael’s office, an airy room plastered on many sides with newspaper cuttings and a ghostly abstract painting of three men digging, barely more than red and blue splotches, with a sketch of their late father in profile hanging in a gold frame above Michael’s desk. When asked what his father passed on to him, Michael notes it was “a genuine work ethic and that there’s nothing fancy or anything about politics”. Sitting with legs and arms crossed, his posture is at first guarded, and the small black dictaphone on his desk speaks volumes of his awareness of the media and the narratives it can spin. This experience was evidently learned as if it was passed on from generations. Yet, when talking about his father, he relaxes. “Politics is about representing people, it’s about being there for people, whether it is individuals or groups or organisations, whether it’s local or national”, he says. “Like, TD, always remember what it means is ‘Teachta Dála’, what that means – messenger of the people. And like, my opinion of myself is that my function in life is – as long as I’ll be elected – I’m a servant of the people. That’s it, end of story.”
“Men of the people” is a phrase trotted out frequently by both brothers, so much so that it dulls from overuse. But waiting to meet with Danny in the Dáil lobby, mere hours after sitting with his brother in a building about 150 metres away, we saw it in action. Waiting by the framed Proclamation of the Irish Republic and the large group of tourists up from Kilkenny gasping in awe around it, we watched as Danny Healy-Rae was subsumed in their handshakes, hugs and kisses on the cheek. Women blushed in admiration and, noting that we were there on some kind of official business, whispered reverently about how great of a man he was: “The only man for the job, best man in Ireland!” A more JKF-like moment couldn’t have been staged. All that was missing was a baby to be kissed.
His own mobile rings, a battered Nokia 3310 scratched to a pale grey and with it’s distinctive ringtone still in use. One is immediately reminded of reports that, during the general election, Danny used his father’s number and phone.
Minutes later, in the cafe of LH2000 – an unexpectedly modern addition to the buildings pledged by former Taoiseach Charlie Haughey – Danny recalls the influence his father had on him, noting “I knew what he was at every day, I knew what his problems were. Before there was a mobile phone, he’d be in under the stairs there, the minute offices would open at nine o’clock in the morning, you’d hear him up the street asking for things”. Just then, his own mobile rings, a battered Nokia 3310 scratched to a pale grey and with it’s distinctive ringtone still in use. One is immediately reminded of reports that, during the general election, Danny used his father’s number and phone. For the next 10 minutes, he busies himself with casework, fighting for rent allowance for one of his constituents, and, again, much can be gleaned from watching him: a refusal to accept a traditional route to resolution, an insistence on doing better for his constituents, a compassionate stance towards their hardship and a hefty well of experience to draw from all make themselves known here. After three phone calls and many apologies, we continue.
“The most important thing he told us”, he says of his father’s legacy, “was tell the people the truth and if you give a promise to someone, do not go back on that. He was a perfect example, when he was here under savage pressure in 2010 when the government was breaking up and there were ministers pulling out or whatever, he stood his ground and he was there to the bitter end, and even in the last days of the government he assured that he got Brian Lenihan to sanction the money for Conmere Hospital. That was one of the last things he done”. He adds: “The other thing was, those small things – a small problem to an old woman is her problem. It may seem a small problem, but to her it is the biggest issue that they have. And if you try and fail, you will not be condemned for that, but if you don’t try at all, that’s where the trouble is.”
His answer brings up an important note in what will be the history of the Healy-Raes: how do they reconcile their obligations in national politics with their local ties? When asked about how his local career informed his national one, Michael becomes assertive: “If I had my way, I would introduce a rule or a law or a regulation that nobody could run for the Dáil unless they had a least 10 years experience at local government level, whether that’s urban council, which the geniuses here now did away with, or county council.” What he’s referring to is the abolition of town councils in June 2014 as part of Putting People First, an “action plan for effective local government”. He recalls his abject opposition to the move at the time, which saw the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Phil Hogan, shut down town councils. “When I think back on the CVs of the councillors we had representing our town”, Michael says, “we had people that I would call experts, experts, we’ll say, in the tools of industry. And they were working on a voluntary basis, because the money they were getting – and this is a statistic I’ll always quote – the money they were getting wouldn’t pay their mobile phone bill. So it wasn’t money. They were like community activists that were supporting organisations and including all people and it just happened that they had the title of town councillors”. He notes that his experience in the county council was deeply formative for him: “When I started out as a county councillor, I was green, learning my way. I made mistakes, no problem, I always admitted my mistakes. I was very public about them, and it was a case of ‘God, yeah, that was inexperience there, like’, y’know?”
Even more central to his current work ethic is an awareness of experience, something he particularly stresses. Referring to his committee, he notes that there are older people (“and I mean that in the most respectful way”) who bring their knowledge to their discussions. “So in other words, in my estimation, I’m here”, he says, holding one hand about chest level, “but there are other people in this Dail who are here and who are here and who are here”, raising his other hand to his forehead, “and why they are, in my head, is because of their age”. This thinking only further proves how indebted he is to the kind of hierarchy he grew up in. But, narrowing his eyes and leaning forward, it’s hard to not construe what he says next as something of a warning: “And it’s a very stupid younger person would try and think that they are smarter than an older person. I don’t care what university you go to, I don’t care what letters are behind your name. The person that has the more practical experience than you is obviously more well-versed in dealing with issues and dealing with problems.”
For Danny, he is resolute that there is no problem in mixing his local and national political aims, saying “every problem originates somewhere and like, many of the local issues that I tried to raise here in the Dáil, they are Kerry issues in my instance, but they’re actually affecting other counties as well”. One such problem is that of social isolation in rural counties. What comes to mind here is his proposal to introduce a “special permit” that would allow drivers travelling alone on minor roads to drink two pints and receive no penalties from the Gardaí, and certainly this is something Danny broaches before I even have the chance to. He compares the application for the permit to that of applying for a gun and states that it would apply to certain link roads: “And it’s not that I’m saying people should drive when they’re drunk. I don’t say that, but there’s a big difference in having two pints and having 10 or 12 pints and killing someone.” He acknowledges, however, that it has been and is still heavily criticised. While his proposal was wildly contrary to standard politics that we see in the Dáil, as well as to much common sense, it’s clear to see his reasoning as coming from local-centric priorities, and while this doesn’t negate the problematic statement made, it does – and should – better our understanding of the appeal of such radically different politicians.
Danny compares the application for the special permit for driving on two pints to that of applying for a gun and states that it would apply to certain link roads.
Certainly, this kind of thing has become, for better or worse, one of the Healy-Rae’s selling points, and aside from the media indulging in their peculiarities, it is undeniable that it is an image they are consciously exploiting to some extent. When asked what the Healy-Raes offer voters that is unique, Danny says, “What we do is we offer them an honest voice to represent them in the Dáil, and if we got an opportunity, if we were needed like my father was at the time, to make up a vote, we’d make them pay for a vote. We’d get some of the things that the people of Kerry are entitled to. Government has to realise that rural people need to survive as well, and the emphasis seems to be on Dublin”.
The public has been reminded of such deviations between local politics, national politics and good sense yet again with the rhododendron situation, when last month Michael proposed that the army should be brought in to tackle an overgrowth of rhododendrons and overpopulation of deer. Speaking about it today, Michael reiterates his points: “In about 10 years time, people will look back on what I have said about our national park and all of a sudden they’ll say ‘Oh my god, he was right’. The way I describe it is our national park is dying. Now, it’s dying because of a number of things. First of all, rhododendrons. We’re dying because of that. Number two, deer. If we don’t shoot and kill and eliminate 70 per cent of our deer population in Ireland – this is not restricted to Killarney National Park, we have it in Wicklow and around the country – we have to reduce the population. Out of every 10 deer, we have to shoot seven to bring it back to normal levels. It’s a sad thing to say, it’s not a nice thing to say, but somebody has to say it because it’s a fact.”
His version of facts are admittedly contrary to what are widely accepted, as he states, referencing PWS Ireland, that “they have an idea that when a tree falls, you let it there, you let it rot. That’s rubbish”. He adds that “that has no basis in scientific evidence that shows that that’s good for biodiversity”, an untrue statement given that in the UK alone up to a fifth of woodland species rely on dead or fallen trees for at least part of their lifecycles, as reported by the Forestry Commission. His opinion seems to stem, for the most part, from a tourism point of view, and when pushed on this and on whether or not the rhododendron situation could be read as caused by environmental causes, Michael states his concern for the environment, noting “I’m a farmer, right? I always said that when I hear about agencies who say ‘Oh, well we’re there to protect the environment’. My answer to that is bullshit”. He adds: “The people who know about our environment are the people who own it. They’re our farmers. There is no better custodian of farms and of land than the people who own it.”
In this statement alone is the root of the difference between the Healy-Raes and the vast majority of national voters who believe in climate change: an over-reliance on generational transition and a (sometimes unfounded) faith in those working the land. It’s also the curse of looking so locally when debating topics of global significance on a world stage, even one as relatively small as the Dáil.
I hear about agencies who say ‘Oh, well we’re there to protect the environment’. My answer to that is bullshit. The people who know about our environment are the people who own it. There is no better custodian of farms and of land than the people who own it.
Although the brothers share a stance on the matter, it’s Danny who is most associated with a rejection of climate change, given his comments last March that “God above is in charge of the weather and we here can’t do anything about it” and subsequent comments that the story of Noah’s Ark disproves climate change. When asked whether his views had changed at all in the year since, Danny is resolute: “There have been serious change patterns going back the ages. I haven’t every figure right but I think in the 12th and 13th centuries, the country was very hot. In the 15th and 16th centuries, very very cold. Actually in the 1740s we had a famine created solely by bad weather and people starved.” He added that “I feel that the scientists that are supporting climate change, they’re being well-paid”, claiming that “the ones who have come out against it and say that they’re not right, they’re doing other jobs and they can’t give their full time to it, but they have their trials and investigations done”. When asked whether one could see the rhododendron situation as God’s work, he stresses his faith in his brother’s comments, saying “any kind of invasive species have to be dealt with”.
It is mostly for their comments on climate change that the Healy-Raes are compared to US President Donald Trump, most recently and most notably by comedian Oliver Callan, who stated that “they too espouse anti-immigrant, climate-sceptical, barmy-policy, anti-PC ideas and resemble an Irish version of the Donald right down to reality TV appearances, crazed fans and attacks on the media”. At the time, Michael issued a firm retort, but speaking today he reiterates that the line Callan crossed was over what he sees as insults against his father. “I’m fair game because I’m elected and I’m there and I’m here now”, he says, breaking the near-constant eye contact he’s maintained throughout the interview so far, “so I’m fair game. Any person in Ireland who wants to say something nasty about me, as far as I’m concerned, take it on the chin, they’re entitled to their opinion. I’m giving my opinion on things so they’re entitled to say rough things back about me. When a person retires from politics, or dies, that’s it in my book”.
He adds that “if my father was alive or if he was still in politics, it would be wrong actually to criticise him even if he was retired but the fact that he’s not here no more, [Callan] shouldn’t have opened his mouth about my father”. On the day of our meeting, what seems to bother him most, however, is how Callan has “copped out twice” so far on engaging in an open debate with him on the matter. Today, he issues a challenge to Callan: “If he wants to challenge me on my views, and my idea on life and politics and if he wants to take me on in any public forum where people can hear us and listen to us, I reissue that challenge. But so far he’s copped out twice. Now he’s supposed to be, well, his thing seems to be he’s a comedian, he’s a person who writes profiles, right? Well, if he’s interested in airing his views, take me on in a debate and I’m issuing the challenge for the third time. And if he doesn’t want to meet me head-to-head, well that tells a tale in itself.”
When asked why he didn’t also issue a statement, Danny seems to unwittingly endorse the idea of the brothers operating as one by stating that “there was no point in being repetitive”, but notes that “if it’s to further his career as a comedian that he needs to attack us … that gives me an idea of how good a comedian he is”. When pressed on how he sees Trump’s politics, Danny cautions against rejecting him: “If we’re not some way nice to him … we’ve a whole lot of people from Ireland living and working over there, trying to raise families, he wouldn’t be nice to them. Until such time that he treats them badly, then we’ll attack, but you have to give the man a chance first.”
Trump’s treatment of minorities is the one area that Michael highlights as an issue for him. In a discussion of the acknowledgement of the Travelling community as an ethnic minority in the Dáil, which took place just hours after our meeting, both Michael and Danny assert that they have nothing against Travellers – although both say they would not want to see the community using the acknowledgement to get an advantage over other individuals – and Michael segues from here into criticising Trump’s anti-Muslim policies. “I am terrible friendly with an awful lot of people from the Muslim community, just because of my constituency”, he says, and certainly what he hits on is true: according to the last census, the highest numbers of Muslim people outside of Dublin, Cork and Limerick live in Kerry, with over 1,500 Muslims in the county in 2011 and 833 in Tralee alone. Once again using his hands to demonstrate this, he says that he would see Muslims as higher than him due to their work ethic and religion, saying “If they’re looking”, stretching his hand up and out before him, “that direction and saying ‘God is there and we believe in that God’ my idea’s ‘Oh, fine, I’ll respect that very much’”. He adds: “So then when I hear Donald Trump coming out and saying nasty things about people like, he’s insulting then my friends. And I see great traits in him, but when I hear him saying things like that I just have to admit I don’t like it.”
When pressed on these “great traits”, Michael happily answers, noting that Trump’s federal law on over-regulation is something he admires: “In Ireland today, in business and all that, we have an awful problem, and that is regulation.” To illustrate this, he recites an often-repeated story in the Healy-Rae narrative, that of the three stools, and indeed it takes on the cadence of a story told over pints by the fireside. “There was a small business operating and they had a little bit of a counter and they put out three stools, so that elderly people, when they were waiting to collect their pension they could sit down and rest themselves. An inspector from the HSE came in one day and said ‘These stools have to go’. When he was queried why, his answer was ‘Well, there should be a public toilet there with wheelchair facilities if you were going to encourage people to sit down’. So the stools were taken away. A couple of days later, an elderly person came along and said to the proprietor ‘Oh my goodness, why did you take away our stools? I need to sit down’. So the proprietor of the business brought out the stools and rightly bloody well so.”
He continues to claim that this is a systemic flaw within the HSE, adding “Well, the HSE engage people who are under 18, okay? Boys and girls, and they take them around and they send them into shops to buy alcohol and cigarettes and ‘tis like, young girls… Do you know the way some young girls can look flipping 25 and they’re only 16? And there you are, you’re trying to make a judgement call. In other words it’s entrapment by the HSE.” Just then, he gets a phone call and, just like Danny would later that day, busies himself with casework, this time addressing homelessness. Hunched over a small black notebook thick with scribbles and notes, it’s in these moments that you see him as the county councillor still. Whether that’s a good or bad thing for our democracy, whether our system is more or less broken for having elected them, is something to consider.
Hunched over a small black notebook thick with scribbles and notes, working on casework, it’s in these moments that you see Michael Healy-Rae as the county councillor still.
Due to the “new” Irish politics, or politics of a minority government, it could be argued that the role of Independent TDs is going to become more important in the future, particularly with high-profile Independents such as Katherine Zappone and Shane Ross holding seats. Certainly, thought should be given to how deals are struck between minority parties. When asked whether they believe the new system is working, the brothers deviate dramatically. “New politics is a load of rubbish”, Michael states. “Buzzword, new politics, it’s all a buzzword. It means nothing, it has no substance, there’s nothing in new politics, that’s rubbish. Politics is politics, it’s the same that it has been since the foundation of the state.” He is adamant that any focus on rural issues in the new government is due to him, pointing specifically to Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government Simon Coveney’s €60 million Rural Action Plan: “There is €60 million in that project. That wouldn’t be there only for me.” He adds: “What Simon Coveney has now announced in his program for government, or what came into the program for government or what he’s actually announcing now, and the ideas what he has, are word for word what came out of my mouth. And I have two different men’s writing to prove my point. So I turned the whole thing around.”
However, he states that he’s grateful for Coveney’s work all the same: “I appreciate now that they realise that they made a mistake the last time, and they forgot about rural Ireland. They thought the world stopped at the Red Cow. It doesn’t.” In contrast, Danny is quietly optimistic in the new system: “It’s beginning to work I think. Everyone is having a say. Before you could have an arrogant minister coming in here with some kind of a proposal and his party backing him and would get through, and it could have devastating consequences for the people of Ireland.” They don’t have strong opinions on the current Fine Gael situation or who may take up the position as Taoiseach, though Michael cautions against another general election, mostly because “it’ll cost the taxpayer €40 million” and there’s the risk that he’ll lose his seat. Danny simply says “It’s no difference to me who’ll be their leader. No business of mine”.
Going forward, there’s one topic that all politicians should take a stance on: repealing the eighth amendment. In the past, the Healy-Rae brothers have been staunch in either their opposition or their silence, with Danny flat out opposing repealing, as noted in a June article on the Journal. Michael has frequently refused to comment, noting only that he sees a referendum as an inevitability and a concerning one at that, but voted against allowing access to abortion in 2013. As any nuanced article will show, it’s an issue stretching across multiple grey areas, and as discussion progresses even a vocal advocate of repealing the eighth is often pressed to be more eloquent: in what instances do you condone abortion? What will be implemented in the amendment’s place?
On arguments put forward justifying access to abortion that he does not agree with, Danny states: “Like, we’ll say when they’re saying about a woman being raped. I mean, we have the morning after pill.”
In an email after our initial interview, which was cut a little short by the bell calling TDs down to the Dáil chamber, Michael once again asserted his opposition to abortion, noting he doesn’t “agree” with it, but stressing that all constituents and voters are entitled to their opinion. Danny’s answer, however, is less easily summed up. At first he reiterates his “firm view” that “when a child is in a womb, conceived, when they get two or three months or whatever, I have to do everything in my power to protect that child”, before adding “as long as it doesn’t interfere with the health or well-being of the mother. The mother would be first”. This is an opinion that does not always come across in the Healy-Rae marketing machine. He adds that there are some arguments put forward justifying access to abortion that he does not agree with, and when pressed on this he states: “Like, we’ll say when they’re saying about a woman being raped. I mean, we have the morning after pill.” He notes that, as a father to six and grandfather to one, he’s “torn” between these two arguments, and acknowledges that “Jesus, rape is a terrible thing and a terrible infringement on a woman, and it would be very wrong. But I can’t understand why that option… I mean the following morning or the following week, I believe it works up to three weeks?”
Surely this is the great risk one takes in treating these two very similar, but not identical, politicians as one. Their politics are deeply out of touch with what the majority of voters, particularly young ones, are wishing to see represented in their Dáil, and the hooks they hang their hats on are history, nostalgia and disbelief in pure, honest fact. They are the odd ones out in many ways, but to insist on treating them as a hive-mind not only increases their reach and influence, but limits the possibilities for effective negotiation. As Danny himself notes, “There are some days where we have to kind of talk about things and try to get a line that we both agree with”.
If the country ever got tired of criticising their misguided policies, however, they can find truth in the statement that the two men are gentlemen. When you ask the brother for their opinions on the other, purely as politicians, their answers unwittingly bind them together yet again. Danny calls Michael “a tremendous worker, and he works very, very hard for the people”, while Michael says of Danny that he’s “deeply committed to what I call sound common sense political service”. He also offers a self-assessment for Danny noting, “he would have the same opinion as me, and I’m not entitled to speak for him, but his opinion of himself would be that he also, like myself, is a political servant to serve the people of our constituency”. See? They don’t need our help promoting themselves. They’ve got that sorted.