Jimmy Deenihan looks like a man ready to hit the pitch but wise enough to know who is on his team and who to size up against in any contest.
However, last week he was left stunned after his dramatic loss in the general election. For almost 30 years, the former schoolteacher has served Kerry in Leinster House as a TD. Mr Deenihan has seen legends come and go and lead different teams, on and off the pitch.
In his first major interview since his election loss, he spoke to the Irish Examiner about how Fine Gael’s own election was in fact used against the party as well as why Enda Kenny was too Dublin-based during the campaign.
The outgoing Diaspora Minister also says it is time for his party and Fianna Fáil to bury the hatchet and work together in some type of government.
Under the stewardship of renowned manager Mick Dwyer, Mr Deenihan won his first All-Ireland football medal in 1975. This was the beginning of a golden era in Kerry footballing history, in part due to the Lixnaw-born player’s contribution.
Equally, when Mr Deenihan’s football career was coming to an end, he entered politics at a time when Fine Gael was in a winning position. Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald appointed Mr Deenihan a senator in 1983 and he went on to be elected as a TD for Kerry four years later. Since then, he has been re-elected seven times until last week where he dramatically lost his seat in the newly merged five-seater.
The result left Mr Deenihan shell-shocked, a feeling shared by other Fine Gael TDs who lost their seats.
Unbelievably, he says he found the election campaign initially positive on the doorsteps. Polls suggested he was in a good position. However, voters began to joke with him that he did not need to canvass, that he was safe. His campaign team noticed other things.
“One of my canvassers one night said to me ‘Jimmy, I’m worried’. ‘Why so?’ I replied. He said ‘people are too nice to us’ . He was right at the end of the day,” he says.
“They were being polite. They were thinking otherwise, rather than vote for me.”
Mr Deenihan says voters opposed to water charges, particularly in Tralee and Killarney, did not vote for him. A demand for jobs and anger over road conditions in north Kerry also went against him.
“You had two months of continuous rain and then the Healy-Rae machine came in and their mantra was ‘God we’ve great roads in south Kerry [where the brothers are based] and deplorable roads in north Kerry’.”
However, it was Fine Gael’s message — Keep the Recovery Going — which potentially did the most damage. “People questioned the recovery. There were not any great signs of recovery in Kerry, apart from Killarney.”
“Certainly, I didn’t use that line. Whoever thought up that slogan definitely didn’t connect with all of the population.”
However, at that stage there was no going back, admits Mr Deenihan:
“I think if you start sliding, it’s unstoppable. It’s amazing in politics. It’s very difficult to do an adjustment when you’re in the last week of the campaign.
“This [Fine Gael’s message] was highlighted by the opposition. Many places were going through a difficult period, they were reminded of that. What recovery is happening around here? You’re losing jobs, business, and the retail sector in towns, shops closing … because of competition from chains.
“Very skilfully, the slogan Keep the Recovery Going was used against the government all over the country. The first thing that people were saying is ‘where is this recovery down here?’
“Whether it comes to the provision of roads or broadband, there were huge questions there.”
Mr Deenihan also has issue with Enda Kenny’s presence during the campaign.
“Enda was too Dublin-based. He should have been around the country more. It was very Dublin-based and also a very short campaign.”
The disastrous result nationally was also due to voters “storing up” resentment, he said.
However, as a hung Dáil looms, the outgoing minister says it is now time for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to settle their differences.
“I saw Dessie O’Malley and Charles Haughey who were enemies, who it would appear, detested each other. Also I saw Dick Spring and Albert Reynolds. John Bruton also initially had issues with Democratic Left in 1994.”
“For stability, I think that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael should make an arrangement now, that might not compromise either party but would be in the best interests of the country. The way they can do that is setting out a programme of tax reform, Dáil reform, and setting out the parameters. It could take Ireland through this difficult period to continue the recovery.”
He said Mr Kenny and Micheál Martin could work together and were politicians with “vast experience in government”.
Despite losing his seat, Mr Deenihan is proud of his accomplishments during his three-year tenure as arts minister, even though it was a difficult one. He oversaw a philanthropy initiative, which saw donors put forward €4 for every €1 the State gave, a cultural programme during Ireland’s EU presidency which showcased Ireland’s top artists, and he helped introduce a charter to promote arts in schools.
Another achievement was getting agreement to partially fund a €27m package to refurbish the National Gallery, as well as putting together a 1916 national archives exhibition, as part of the Easter Rising commemorations. Imagine Ireland, a year of Irish arts in America in 2011, was also funded by him.
While some ministers have regrets, Mr Deenihan only has a few. The EU habitats directive, which stopped turf cutting on bogs, “incurred the wrath of local people” and hit his vote. Furthermore, a €6m project for a national opera company never materialised.
One of his biggest regrets is not having been the arts minister in charge, when the new Star Wars film was released last year.
“I would have really liked that,” he says.
As an aside, he says when negotiations where ongoing about the filmmakers using Skellig Michael, Enda Kenny was kept in the dark about the Star Wars shoot.
“The only thing about Star Wars was we told no one. I didn’t even tell the Taoiseach because I was afraid in case he might mention it somewhere,” he says.
Only he and department assistant secretary Niall Ó Donnchú were involved initially with the Star Wars shoot location manager.
“It was very late in the day that he [Mr Kenny] knew, I’d say it was only the week before it went on the rock when he knew it,” he says.
Having this week packed his bags at Government Buildings (a sight that Enda Kenny personally told his parliamentary party was “upsetting”), Mr Deenihan manages to keep upbeat about his future.
“I’ve huge contacts around the world. I’m going to take some time to consider some requests. I’ve always said I’d love to do something in Africa, with overseas aid. I’m a giver, I don’t think about taking,” he says.