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Just one big, happy political family? Certain names keep cropping up in politics

Toiréasa Ferris, daughter of Sinn Féin TD Martin Ferri

Being the son or daughter of a politician can get you elected, but may be an unfair point of comparison once you are in office, says Political Correspondent Elaine Loughlin.

Haughey, Lemass, McGrath, Healy-Rae, Currie, Dempsey, and Andrews: Certain family names keep cropping up in politics. Political dynasties are not unique to Ireland, but our system of multi-seat constituencies is more amenable to them.

Political parties like putting forward the sons, daughters, or relatives of sitting politicians. Independent representatives are now also hoping to pass the baton on: In Kerry, for example, three Healy-Raes will contest the local elections.

Independent TD Mattie McGrath will be hoping his daughter, Máirín, will be elected in Tipperary, while OPW Minister Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran’s son is looking to win a seat in the Athlone area, but faces opposition from Mr Moran’s brother, Anthony, who is running under the Renua banner. Johnny Fallon, author of Dynasties: Irish Political Families, puts the success of political dynasties down, simply, to name recognition.

“People need to feel that connection and there is something of a security blanket that people have around names they recognise.”

Hannah Lemass, the great-granddaughter of Seán Lemass, who was taoiseach from 1959 to 1966;
Hannah Lemass, the great-granddaughter of Seán Lemass, who was taoiseach from 1959 to 1966;

But he said there are “double benefits” in dynastic politics, due to our favour-based system, especially at local level.

“It’s the old thing of where people will say, ‘they fixed the road’; it may be that their father fixed the road, but people still feel they owe them. That loyalty becomes much stronger with the family name than it does with the party brand, and parties, in particular, like to jump on that opportunity,” he said.

This time around is no different and political parties have latched onto the lure of a surname. In Dublin, Fianna Fáil is putting forward Cathal Haughey, grandson of former taoiseach Charles Haughey, and Hannah Lemass, the great-grandchild of another Taoiseach, Seán Lemass.

Jackie Healy-Rae
Jackie Healy-Rae

Aisling Dempsey, daughter of former minister Noel Dempsey, is running in Meath, while in Cork, Seamus McGrath, brother of TD Michael McGrath, is looking to retain his local council seat.

Fine Gael is hoping Eimear Currie, whose father, Austin, served in John Bruton’s government, will carry on the family name, and, in Louth, John McGahon is seeking to retain his seat, following his father, uncle, and grandfather, who were all elected for the party.

Likewise, in Kerry, Toiréasa Ferris will stand in the local elections for Sinn Féin, although her father, Martin, will not contest the next general election. While having a well-known surname may significantly boost the chances of being elected, it does have its drawbacks.

“The only disadvantage is, once they get in there, they carry a huge weight of expectation to live up to exactly who was there before them,” said Mr Fallon. “People question whether he or she is as good as their father. A lot of them fail to live up to their famous predecessor.”

With a new generation now putting themselves forward at local level, some family names will remain on election posters and ballot papers across the country for at least another generation.

“There was a lot of talk in 2011 that we were getting rid of dynasties, because the collapse in the Fianna Fáil vote seemed to suggest that some of the big names, the Haugheys, the Lenihans, the Andrews, were taking a hit, but, really, when you looked across it, there were just new names coming,” said Mr Fallon.

FIVE IS THE LUCKY NUMBER

If all of those carrying the Healy-Rae name are successful this Friday, five of them will have been elected.

Twenty-three-year-old Jackie Healy-Rae is looking to join his cousins, Johnny and Maura, on Kerry County Council, and will also be following a route taken by his father, Michael, uncle, Danny, and grandfather, Jackie.

Putting his name forward for election was a natural progression. “I remember my father brought myself and my younger brother, Kevin, to Dublin; it was when my grandfather was a TD, I was around 10 or 12.

“I remember we left Kilgarvan and it was still dark when we left. We got the train up to to Dublin and we went to the Dáil. We visited Croke Park and we even did a bit of shopping. It was a big ordeal,” he said.

Mr Healy-Rae began working with his father, Michael, in late 2014, shortly after finishing school, taking over from a staff member who had to leave due to illness.

“I have done my five years of training and slogging and learning the tricks of the trade. I am lucky, in the fact that I have great people around me. I would never take for granted the name. The name is one thing and I am my own man,” he said.

POLITICAL ROYALTY

Some names carry more weight than others and, in politics, the Lemass moniker is as valuable as gold. By running in the local elections, Hannah Lemass, 27, will continue the family tradition. She says her great-grandfather, Seán Lemass, is often a “good conversation starter” with voters.

“I am very lucky that he is so well-remembered after all this time. It is very humbling and I am always very proud to hear that he obviously had a very positive impact on people, that he is still remembered now.

“People still talk about him, even young people on the doors, and people that were born long after he passed away.”

Máirín McGrath, daughter of Independent TD Mattie McGrath
Máirín McGrath, daughter of Independent TD Mattie McGrath

Her cousin, Cathal Haughey — the grandson of former taoiseach Charles Haughey — is also standing for Fianna Fáil in the local elections in Dublin.

She is adamant that she won’t be relying on family ties. “I always felt a strong sense of social and civic responsibility, wanting to give back and help the community be its very best, so I had always planned to go into politics at some stage, at local level anyway.

“The reason why I decided to do it now, rather than later, is because I wanted to have young people represented in the city council,” she said.

“WE ARE NO HEALY-RAES”

Máirín McGrath is adamant that her family are “no Healy-Raes”. The 21-year-old daughter of Independent TD Mattie McGrath, she has been campaigning for a seat in Tipperary while studying for her final-year exams in DCU.

“I probably wouldn’t be the person that I am today if it wasn’t for the family I grew up in. When you grow up in a family like ours, you have no choice but to be interested in politics.

“People will recognise me for being Mattie’s daughter, but then I am the sixth child out of eight children in our family and I am the only one to get into politics.

“So we are no Healy-Raes; we are not trying to create any kind of dynasty like that,” she said.

Ms McGrath is running on the campaign slogan, ‘youth backed by experience’, an experience gained over years of canvassing and leaflet-dropping with her father.

“It is definitely a help. I would never deny who I am and absolutely everything I have learned came from home,” she said.

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