Post-election legal action, drinking with Nigel Farage, a brother involved in anti-Government protests, EU broadband funding demands — oh, and the little matter of the Ireland South MEP race. Fiachra Ó Cionnaith meets Fine Gael’s Sean Kelly.
As the early summer sun beats down and the lakes of Killarney shimmer silver in the distance, Fine Gael MEP Sean Kelly should be relaxed and living the Kerry dream.
But instead, the former GAA president’s face is momentarily etched with the look of a man who has the world’s problems on his shoulders. And, as any politician around the world knows, those problems can only mean one thing - the polls.
Days earlier, the latest Ireland South opinion poll placed Mr Kelly at 18% support, making him - in the eyes of the public - a racing certainty to be re-elected next week.
In other words, exactly the impression a savvy politician facing into a crucial political dog fight doesn’t want to give. ‘Where’s a spot of rain when I need one,’ you can almost hear him thinking as he looks out at the blazing heat outside.
“You have to see that in context, it was only a poll of 500 people and I’d like to know how it was done,” Mr Kelly explains, trying his best, like all good Kerry GAA people in early summer, to downplay his chances.
“There was obviously a margin of error involved in it, and it contradicts evidence of polls that have been done which showed me far behind initially, so I’ll take it with a pinch of salt.”
Given what is at stake, Mr Kelly’s reluctance to admit that he seems likely to retain the MEP seat he first won in 2009 is understandable.
The decision by consistent poll-topper in Ireland South, Fianna Fáil MEP Brian Crowley, to retire from politics means the sprawling constituency is not as predictable as it once was.
And with Sinn Féin MEP Liadh Ní Riada, Fianna Fáil duo Billy Kelleher and Malcolm Byrne, and Independents4Change TD Mick Wallace all in the mix, there are unavoidable internal rivalries for the three Fine Gael candidates.
Fine Gael officials still claim that the party can win three seats.
However, Mr Kelly - who earlier this week revealed that he and Andrew Doyle are in a running turf war with fellow party MEP Deirdre Clune over where they can campaign - is clear that the crowded field and other factors mean only two are realistically still on the table, spelling trouble for at least one of his colleagues.
“I think initially in fairness to Fine Gael, there was this talk that maybe on a very good day you could get three out of five, but there’s not going to be five now, the British are having elections, there may never be five because the Brits may never go, you’re talking two out of four. So that has changed the dynamic,” he says.
What happens to the fifth seat that has muddied the election waters is anyone’s guess.
Under complex EU rules that would make a Super 8s All-Ireland explainer blush, Ireland is officially being given two extra seats in the next European Parliament to fill part of the gap left by Britain’s departure.
As part of the plan, Ireland South is moving from four to five seats and Dublin from three to four, with Ireland South’s seat increase meaning that Laois and Offaly have been taken from Midlands North West to meet a strict population-to-MEP ratio.
However, should Brexit be cancelled or paused and British MEPs take up the seats they are reluctantly running for at the moment, the extra Irish seats will be scrapped.
After a lifetime in the GAA and a decade in politics, Mr Kelly spots trouble from a mile away.
Forget bowing out gracefully - the MEP says that if someone finishes fifth and has ‘their’ seat snatched away from them there is every likelihood of legal action.
“I have a mischievous sense of satisfaction it has turned out this way because when they were debating in the European Parliament how many seats they were distributing, I said ‘take my advice, don’t until the British have actually left’. I think the person who is fifth, if they do not get the opportunity to take up their seat, do not get their salary, would have a strong case to take legally.”
“If it [the results] is tight, there will be questions of how the votes were counted, what was the quota, was it for four or five candidates, and will it affect Midlands North West [due to Laois and Offaly moving] as well. I think the European Court of Justice would like to get its legal hands on. There will be legal minds, I would think, looking at that after the election,” he says.
The Brexit issue does not just loom large for the final seat in Ireland South, however, with the political crisis continue to engulf - and at times undermine - the entire EU.
In his decade in Brussels Mr Kelly has had a ringside view of the issues that have led to the stand-off, including the occasional pint with arch-Brexiteer and long-time MEP Nigel Farage, who the Kerry man describes separately as a “dosser” who doesn’t really believe what he says, and someone he is “fine with”.
“I’ve often had a coffee with him, I’ve had a pint with him once or twice. I think he likes Ireland, he told me his first wife is from West Cork, and the last speech I gave about him, afterwards I met him and he laughed and said [puts on cut-glass English accent] ‘I liked your speech’.
“I’m not sure how really committed he is to an independent Britain, I doubt he really believes it’s taking back control, making the United Kingdom great again and all that. Brexiteers in the European Parliament, while they won’t admit it, are very happy there’s an election, it’s a very handy cop-out for them. The ideal life if you’re a kind of a dosser,” he says.
Mr Kelly admits one of the reasons that has allowed space for Brexiteers to play this game is that “the EU has been too remote for a lot of people a lot of the time”.
And, with Ireland not immune from critical EU views, he says the lesson of what has happened in Britain must be learned here, with a need for politicians to genuinely listen to grassroots concerns.
The EU should consider giving Ireland emergency funding for broadband, he says, saying there are “big opportunities to invest loans from the European Investment Bank” for this and housing if “you got a town or community to come up with a proposal together”.
Greater steps must be taken to limit the attempts by “Spanish trawlers” to come into west Cork and Kerry to “take fish from our shores”, he continues.
And on farming, an issue close to his own family, Mr Kelly is keen to emphasise that EU funds - revealed yesterday to be €50m - will be made available for a crisis “that has already happened for farmers”.
Given his desire to listen to grassroots matters, the farming sector frustration with the Government over the lack of Brexit supports will not have gone unnoticed by Mr Kelly - even if ignoring some of it is exactly what he wants to do.
At the start of this month, the Irish Farmers Association held a 500-strong protest outside Cork City Hall where the Government was holding a special cabinet meeting.
And among the main protesters was one Diarmaid Ó Ceallaigh, a Kerry representative and vocal critic of Fine Gael’s response to farmers Brexit concerns - who just happens to be Mr Kelly’s brother.
When the subject is broached, Mr Kelly pauses for what seems an eternity, before saying “yeah, there’s a brother of mine involved”.
There is no problem, he insists, and every politician has a family member whose views differ starkly from their own. But, given the proximity to the May 24 election, it is not an issue Mr Kelly is keen to highlight either.
“Ah no, he was elected as an officer of the Kerry IFA last year, and, in that capacity he’s taking care of the IFA interests, if he wasn’t prepared to do it he shouldn’t be an officer. He’s the least of my worries, with due respect. Sure everybody has a brother involved or a sister involved in something. He’s fairly well down the pecking order. No conflict of interest, and everything’s fine,” he says.
Thirty minutes later, Mr Kelly is back in the middle of Killarney town, shaking hands with a steady stream of local voters promising to back the popular Kerryman next week regardless of any wider EU issue concerns.
Not that the Fine Gael MEP candidate wants to hear it - or at least have it be heard.
“Oh, no, not at all. Sure this is my home town, if I couldn’t count on support here I’d have no chance at all,” he tells the Irish Examiner again, gripping the handshake tighter to emphasise the point in a bid to wring out every last vote on offer.
As any GAA fan still nursing the bruises of a crushing All-Ireland defeat knows from experience, never trust a Kerryman downplaying his chances in early summer.
Doubly so when that Kerry man is a former GAA president trying to get every one of his supporters out to vote in just a week’s time.