The Healy-Raes had the last laugh. But don’t they always?
The country’s most colourful political dynasty was further strengthened by an intriguing sideshow in the election — the double success in Kerry of brothers Michael and Danny Healy-Rae as Independents.
While people around the country wondered how the brothers could both be sent to Leinster House with one of the most resounding votes of the election, amassing 38.3% of first preferences in the constituency, it came as no surprise in Kerry.
In simple terms, this well-oiled organisation has become an insatiable, vote-hoovering machine due to decades of sheer hard work on the ground.
The family hold an unusual record in Irish politics: A Healy-Rae has never lost a general or local election since Jackie first entered Kerry County Council in 1973.
Populist in nature, the Healy-Rae central focus is on service to the people rather than national policies.
Twenty-four seven availability, highly approachable personalities, dollops of entertainment,and the astute political brains of a family working as a tight-knit team.
They see themselves as champions of rural issues and, dismissing the critics, are unashamedly local, campaigning on health matters, roads, rural crime, farming, and unemployment. Michael is known to be particularly influential in dealing with access to health services.
And the influence of the dynasty’s founder, Jackie Healy-Rae, who died just over a year ago, can still be felt from beyond the grave.
“I know he was driving us on in this election,” said an emotional Danny, who used his father’s mobile phone and number during the last few weeks of the campaign.
Runaway poll-topper Michael Healy-Rae, who succeeded his father as a TD in 2011, had been deemed a certainty for re-election but opportunity knocked for Danny, a member of Kerry County Council, when outgoing Independent TD Tom Fleming was a late withdrawal from the election.
Fleming had formerly been in Fianna Fáil and the feeling a few weeks ago was that Fianna Fáil would add a third candidate to their John Brassil/Norma Moriarty ticket to snap up Fleming votes in the Killarney area where he was based.
When that didn’t happen, Danny Healy-Rae, who polled more than two quotas in the 2014 local elections in the Killarney area, saw an opening.
He held off entering the contest until minutes before nominations closed at 12pm on February 11, first making sure no other candidates from the Killarney area had entered the race.
The coast was clear and he went on to garner a landslide vote in his stomping ground around Killarney and east Kerry, being elected second to brother Michael, who had the highest first preference vote in Ireland — 20,378, 7,165 over the quota.
Shrewd vote management was a critical part of their campaign. They published a constituency map in Kerry local newspapers clearly delineating the areas where supporters should vote for either brother.
The result is a textbook example of an effective strategy.
The sprawling Kerry constituency, stretching from the Beara Peninsula to the Shannon Estuary, is an amalgamation of two former three-seat constituencies, north and south.
As the Healy-Rae base is in Kilgarvan in south Kerry, they were moving into the northern side of the county for the first time. Michael focussed on north Kerry, where he conducted an intensive canvass since early summer 2015.
Students of politics and other politicians will now be looking more closely at the Healy-Rae modus operandi. Though they keep stressing they’re Independents, they’re now like a small political party: Brand Healy- Rae.
They don’t have a branch structure, rather a network of key supporters in every town, village, and parish. Some of these people followed Jackie out of Fianna Fáil when he decided to stand as an Independent in 1997, and have remained loyal to the family since.
Michael took large chunks of votes from established politicians in north Kerry, such as Fine Gael’s Jimmy Deenihan, Labour’s Arthur Spring, Sinn Féin’s Martin Ferris, and John Brassil of Fianna Fáil.
He describes himself as a “servant of the people”, adding: “If you get any other ideas into your head, you’re only a fool.”
Sections of the Dublin media continue to lampoon the Healy-Raes and treat them as a sort of a joke, which the Healy-Raes often turn to their own advantage.
“Some smart Alecs above in Dublin have been picking on me, but they must pick on Danny now before they get to me,” said Michael, 49, a married father of five, at the count in Killarney.
Teetotaller Danny, who says he’s “around 60”, is a married father of six. Unlike other family members, he doesn’t wear a flat cap, but sports a trademark open-necked shirt, is every inch a country man, and is in the pub, farming, and plant hire businesses.
Danny’s son, Johnny, 30, a member of Kerry County Council, was their director of elections and is in the family mould.
Donal Hickey is the author of a new book, The Healy-Raes: A Twenty-Four Seven Political Legacy, published by Rushy Mountain Books.