Don Mac Monagles’ classic photo of ‘The Healy-Raes On The Move’ was taken during the election campaign of 2007. Jackie Healy-Rae flanked by his sons Danny and Michael (who ‘inherited’ the seat from his father) march through the streets of Killarney with ‘pikemen’ brandishing flaming torches. It was one of 10 photographs that Don Selected for a feature I did in the Irish Independent (27 July 2013 WEEKEND Magazine) on 100 years of photojournalism by the MacMonagle family.
Don has documented the Healy-Raes since the 1970s. “I would consider myself non-political but I am fascinated by the Healy-Raes,” says Don. He got a tip that ‘Jackie’ was planning an old style rally to make an impact in the final week of the election. The picture went viral and a pundit reckoned that it would get Healy-Rae re-elected. It did.
Like Healy Rae, Fox and Blaney were of the Fianna Fáil gene pool. Gildea was a single-issue candidate and didn’t last long in national politics. As for Fox, her father whose seat she ‘inherited’ was a member of Fianna Fáil before he went independent. Harry Blaney got his brother’s seat (briefly occupied by Cecilia Keaveny) who had in turn gotten it from his father. In fact the Blaney ‘dynasty’ ran from 1927 to 2002. It started with Neal Blaney whose son Neil was expelled from Fianna Fáil in 1972. His other son Harry took Neil’s seat after his death in 1995. Confused? Well, there’s more. Niall Blaney, Harry’s son (I think) took the seat in 2002, rejoined Fianna Fáil in 2006 and resigned the seat in 2011. The seat was then taken by Sinn Féin.
The Healy Rae phenomenon may be more recent but it is as complex and dynastic as the ‘Donegal Mafia’ (as the Blaney’s political organisation was called). That’s only part of the point. The really interesting point is the battle between the margins and the centre in Irish politics. The increasing centralisation of the mainstream parties forced the likes of Healy Rae to go independent. When the independents were lucky enough to hold the balance of power they screwed the parties for all they could get in order to consolidate their positions in their constituencies, and lucrative positions they are too. In 2011 journalist Ken Foxe (Irish Daily Mail) calculated that the Healy Raes had earned €8m over 14 years ‘in salaries, expenses and contracts from the public purse.’ That is a side issue and, as Jackie Healy Rae pointed out, it was the system.
What is more interesting is the way the Healy Raes turned the institutionalised clientilism of the big parties into a very localised power base – and turned the entire system on its head in the process. As a young civil servant I was fascinated by the fact that government ministers were provided with elaborate constituency offices within government departments at taxpayers expense, a massive advantage at election time. I learned very quickly that getting around fines, housing lists, planning, education grants and jobs in state agencies mattered more to politicians than policies. As a civil servant I worked under the best/worst of the clientilist politicians of the time – Gerard Collins (FF) Jim Mitchell (FG) and Sean Doherty (FF) – although I did refuse a transfer to Doherty’s constituency office on ethical grounds. It was an interesting encounter and as well that I decided to attend NCAD on a full time basis shortly afterwards.
The nature of clientism was summed up by anthropologist Lee Komito in 1984 (The Economic and Social Review, April, 1984). ‘The political broker who intervenes on behalf of constituents to help them obtain government benefits and the client who rewards the politician with his vote has become an acceptable, and even fashionable, model of Irish political life.’ Healy Rae’s election in 1997 showed just how well that model could work for constituents in a tight Dáil and, very soon, every constituency wanted the same! The assault by independents on the mainstream parties had begun.
30 years on it seems like the independents and others (32%) now stand in the way of any viable coalition. Fine Gael (19%) has become the incredible shrinking party and Labour (6%) has compromised itself out of existence. It even looks like Fianna Fáil (21%) and Sinn Féin (22%) couldn’t form a government (even if they wanted to) without the support of independents. It’s not all Jackie Healy Rae’s fault. He got lucky but the real lesson of his role in Irish parliamentary politics is that clientilist politics have wrecked a system and the rise of the independent has been driven as much by the mainstream political parties inability to take reform seriously. Political parties how are you, it’s every man for himself and Jackie Healy Rae wrote the manual.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.