Being appointed minister of state in June 2017 meant that an already busy job became crazy, writes Alison O'Connor
IT DOESN’T matter how many times I’ve travelled the road from Dublin to West Cork but that I’m exhausted by the time we reach our destination. Most of the time I’m not even the one driving. The road between the two cities has improved beyond recognition in recent years. But beyond that and all bets are off.
I remember once a number of years ago a friend getting on a plane from New York to Dublin at the same time as I was leaving Dublin to go to Bantry. She arrived before I did.
That’s what came to mind when I heard that Cork South West TD Jim Daly is to stand down at the next general election — the number of times he must have travelled up and down that road since being elected to Dáil Éireann in 2011. It’s not like he could look forward to getting home, after travelling the distance of around 195 miles from the capital to Clonakilty, taking around four to five hours, and put his feet up.
Weekend time at home means constituency clinics, events, and funerals. The constituency is not just a long distance from Dublin, but in itself is a large rural area with huge amounts of ground to cover.
Such is the life of a country politician. The distances put down by Jim Daly are better, for instance, than those put down by Noel Harrington while he was a Fine Gael TD from 2011 to 2016.
His journey involved going from his home in Castletownbere, at the very bottom of the country, to Dublin, a distance of almost 240 miles and back. Or PJ Sheehan, who I met and spoke to briefly during the summer, as he sat and enjoyed the sunshine in Goleen. No flies on that 86-year-old.
He interrupted my explanation of who I was to immediately tell me whose daughter I was. He covered a 230-mile journey to Dublin during his decades in Leinster House.
This is a similar distance for current independent TD Michael Collins, who is Schull-based, and Fianna Fáil’s Margaret Murphy O’Mahony, who faces a slightly shorter trip as she is from Bandon.
For Jim Daly being appointed minister of state in the Department of Health in June 2017 meant that an already busy job became crazy with up to 15 hour days and staying in hotel rooms up to five nights a week.
Now that the shock of the announcement has receded it’s interesting to speak to him and see how his news was received.
Given that the crux of the issue is the time it takes to travel to and around West Cork, Jim hasn’t thought of any quick-fix solutions to how national politics could be made more family friendly.
One thought is that the Dáil currently sits around 30 weeks in the year and that if the weekly sitting was increased from three days a week to four, there could then be a week in Dublin and a week in the constituency.
It’s a solution of sorts and one lots of people would have issues with no doubt.
But Jim says that as a parent such an arrangement would have meant he missed 50% of his five children’s school plays, rather than 100% of them over the years, as he did: “I never made one of them.” Nor was the school run ever an option.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart to all my friends and supporters in West Cork. It has been an honour.
I will continue to carry out my duties on your behalf until the next general election. pic.twitter.com/KLOt0aKPKg— Jim Daly (@jimdalytd) September 20, 2019
His children are aged from six years old to 16 — his oldest was two weeks old when he went into politics and is now 6ft 2in. When he left the meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to tell him of his retirement decision the 16-year-old had texted asking how it had gone. His son was the only one of the children to know of the plan.
They are getting to an age, Jim said, where he really appreciates spending time with them. I was curious to know if his kids had vocalised their opinions about his absences over the years.
“The kids didn’t give me hassle but I had noticed that they didn’t want to go anywhere with me. I might say that I was going to the Clonakilty Show or the Bantry Show and they would say no. They wouldn’t even want to go down town for a milkshake or an orange. They’d say to me: ‘No Dad, you’ll just be talking to everybody’.”
Once they heard news of the retirement plan they were delighted, including the youngest who said he loved that his Dad, as a junior minister, had a driver and all the rest, but that having him home more than made up for those changes. “They are over the moon about it.”
But there is no escaping the fact that what is most striking about all of this is that it is a man walking away from his high profile political career and saying he wants to spend more time with his children.
Clearly it was a shock for Leinster House colleagues too because Jim says what was most striking in the days after his announcement were the approaches from so many colleagues, especially men, from all sides of the house.
“They appreciate it most what you have to do. We politicians all love being needed and being the centre of attention and being on the merry-go-round.
“But by the same token I think they hugely admired the bravery of what I did and the fact that I’m walking away from €130,000. People went out of their way, politicians of every hue, and rank, to talk to me in a very genuine way. They said they understood why I was doing it. Maybe they had never articulated it or faced it or stared it in the face until I said it.
“I think it really distilled down the thought process for them and no doubt prompted a period of questioning for them.”
CONSTITUENTS he said, almost universally, were shocked and disappointed but said they understood his reasons. He got an email from a CEO he didn’t know saying: “By God have you brought home what I’ve been feeling”.
“I also heard from other men who told me they have done the same thing and had no regrets at all, which is good to hear,” said the junior minister.
Jim first got elected to Cork County Council in 2004, after which he resigned his job as a school principal even though he could have taken a leave of absence. As already mentioned he is currently on a salary of €130,000. It’s easy to get used to a certain standard of living on that sort of money.
At 46 years it will take another two decades for his political pension to kick in and then it will be around half of one, he explained. He has ruled out a return to politics. Previously, he said, the family lived for a number of years on his county councillor salary and “didn’t go a day hungry”.
In every way this is a big step. Jim Daly is a good politician who I believe has been doing his best for the area of mental health. He will be a loss to politics. Hard to know how to make real changes that would improve a situation such as this. But listening to him explain his reasons the decision is entirely understandable.