Cowen’s best friend in politics calls it a day

IN SPITE of being a local Fianna Fáil heavyweight since the 1980s, Batt O’Keeffe’s chances of taking a seat in Cork North West this time round were looking particularly precarious.

Ever since he moved to the more rural constituency before the 2007 general election, he knew that each election would be a battle.

He was victorious last time but with support for Fianna Fáil at 14% nationally and party running mate Michael Moynihan commanding a solid personal vote in the north of the constituency, and the former Fine Gael Mayor and Ballincollig-based county councillor, Derry Canty, running too, the odds were stacked against the Enterprise Minister who had taken the third seat last time around.

When Fianna Fáil cancelled the Cork North West convention at the Wallis Arms Hotel in Millstreet last week, his planned resignation moved from the realm of rumour to probability.

And yesterday, as the country reeled from the news that the Departments of Health, Justice and Transport were temporarily without a commander-in-chief, Cowen’s right-hand man came clean that he too was bidding national politics adieu.

The former CIT lecturer was always a leading figure in Cork politics. A popular, canny TD, known for his political guile as well as an often devilish sense of humour, it wasn’t until the 2004 reshuffle that Bertie Ahern made him a junior minister at the Department of Education.

If anything, his time in politics was undermined, to his likely disgust, by being “in the shadow of Micheál Martin”. Martin took his Dáil seat in 1989, meaning O’Keeffe was exiled to the Seanad and, from then on, they were fierce constituency rivals.

A long-time friend and close confidante of Brian Cowen (in the Dáil yesterday the Taoiseach described him as “a best friend in politics and in life”) he was elevated from “half a car to a full car” when made Minister for Education in 2008.

And, for instance, when Tánaiste Mary Coughlan’s tenure at the Department of Enterprise became an increasing political liability last year, it was O’Keeffe that the Taoiseach put into this strategic role during the country’s worst ever unemployment crisis.

In turn, O’Keeffe’s loyalty to Cowen has been unwavering during the latter’s tenure as Taoiseach.

Described by some as Fianna Fáil’s Phil Hogan for the manner in which he masterminded the Cowen campaign during this week’s heave, he has always spoken about the Taoiseach as an “extraordinary man”.

Described locally as “very affable and very approachable and a man who got things done and didn’t just nod,” Batt O’Keeffe forged a reputation during his ministerial career as a man who wasn’t afraid to push through tough budgetary decisions for his Taoiseach — especially the first round of searing cuts to the Education budget in 2008. He also put his head above the parapet when he expressed the unpopular belief that third-level fees would have to be re-introduced.

The rivalry between him, Martin and John Dennehy was legendary in Cork South Central. As early as 1987, Martin strolled into Ballincollig canvassing, and suddenly found himself hauled up by the then Director of Elections for an ‘illegal’ incursion.

And then there was O’Keeffe’s team’s confrontation with the John Dennehy camp in 1997, when it was suggested O’Keeffe posters were being torn down in Ballincollig. A passing garda was requested to intervene.

A former Cork footballer and Cork Intermediate Handball Champion, O’Keeffe is well known for his sense of devilment and when his personal friend, the then finance minister Charlie McCreevy publicly steam-rolled over the then minister for health Micheál Martin at the 2001 Fianna Fáil think-in at Ballymascanlon, he had a field day.

At a press launch at Cork University Hospital the following day, a grinning O’Keeffe, then chairman of the Southern Health Board, introduced Mr Martin as just having arrived from Dublin, after “asking the driver to put his foot on the pedal so they could make it through the entrails of Kildare”.

Batt O’Keeffe was always perceived as strong on health. A former Southern Health Board chairman, the Fine Gael TD Bernard Allen, who sat on the board with him for years, described him as “a very effective operator” and as a “formidable person on the board”.

This reputation followed him to Dublin where as chairman of the Joint Committee for Health and Children he took on unpopular issues such as the flouridation of water, MMR debate and offered to intervene in the Cork/Dublin blood bank stand-off.

It was this reputation as an “effective operator” that, it’s believed, led Bertie Ahern to give him a junior ministry eventually in 2004.

At the celebrations in Ballincollig, when he was given a full ministry four years later, he spoke with emotion about the day Brian Cowen broke it to him that he was joining the cabinet.

“To walk in and see Brian Cowen there; to see a friend... and the way he introduced himself, he said ‘Hey kiddo, give us a hug’. And the two young fellas, we hugged in the centre of the Taoiseach’s office.”

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