Rebel without applause
John Deasy has been prominent twice in his political career: once for smoking in the Dáil bar, and now for his remarks about Enda Kenny, which have caused great embarrassment to Fine Gael. By Emma Browne
John Deasy has caused controversy and damage to his party by making a remark so bland as to merit no attention at all: that if Fine Gael is not in power after the next election, then Enda Kenny should be challenged for the leadership of the party.
Since Garret FitzGerald's time, the constitution of Fine Gael has required a leader to submit himself/herself for re-selection in the event that the party fails to get power after a general election. What John Deasy was saying – whether he knew it or not, probably not – was little more than what the rules of his party require. And, in any event, everyone knows that if Enda Kenny does not make it this time he is gone. So what is so unobvious about the obvious?
There was a presumption in his assertion that he himself might be a candidate for the leadership after the next election if Fine Gael is not in power. Jim Higgins, now of the European Parliament and not one of Enda Kenny's most enthused admirers (Kenny was elected by a handful of votes in Mayo in the last election, ahead of Jim Higgins), said his terrier dog Sputnik had a better chance of becoming leader of Fine Gael than John Deasy.
Deasy's only previous prominence occurred in April 2004 when he lit up a cigarette in the Dáil bar and on being asked to comply with the new anti-smoking laws, refused. He was summoned immediately to Enda Kenny's office. He refused that request too and was fired from the front bench, where he had been the party's justice spokesman.
Since then, nearly three years ago, he had been entirely anonymous until his comments on the party leadership during an interview on Waterford Local Radio's Deise AM programme.
John Deasy was born in Abbeyside, Dungarvan, Co Waterford, son of Austin Deasy, a former Fine Gael minister for agriculture. Austin was a bit of a loose cannon too. He led a few leadership revolts against Alan Dukes and John Bruton and had been openly critical of Garret FitzGerald while he (Garret) was both leader of the opposition and Taoiseach. Indeed, it was because of his criticisms that Garret felt obliged to include Austin Deasy in the cabinet from 1982 to 1987.
Austin was in the Dáil from 1977 to 2002 and on his retirement John Deasy was elected, also for the Waterford constituency, with 7,303 first preferences votes.
John was educated at Coláiste na Rinne, Ring, Co Waterford, and at St Augustine's College in Dungarvan, Co Waterford. He attended university in the United States at Mercyhurst College, Pennsylvania on a golfing scholarship where he studied art history and communications.
In 1990 he got a job as a legislative assistant for Republican US senator John Heinz. He worked briefly for a multinational waste company in the US before he returned to politics, working as a legislative assistant to a member of the US House of Representatives, Ronald K Machtley. After that he worked for a Chicago-based law firm lobbying on Capitol Hill.
He returned to Ireland in 1997 and began a law degree in University College Cork. In 1999 he embarked on a political career and was elected to Waterford County Council.
On election to the Dáil he was an early beneficiary of the electoral tsunami that had struck Fine Gael in 2002, when it lost more than 20 seats and several of its more prominent spokespeople. He was immediately appointed to the high-profile position of spokesperson on justice, equality and law reform, marking Michael McDowell. Others who benefitted from the 2002 massacre were Damien English and Olwyn Enright.
He was no match for McDowell but then neither is the current spokesperson, Jim O'Keeffe. A justice spokesperson from another party says that Deasy was “confrontational and loud” but “never seemed to have substance”.
Within his first year he criticised former party leader John Bruton's perceived anti-nationalist stance on the North and called for Enda Kenny's predecessor Michael Noonan to be restored to a prominent position in the party ranks. He also disobeyed the party whip and voted with the government on an immigration bill.
He embarrassed his party (and himself?) by several blunders: he called, for instance, for the legal drinking age to be raised to 20. McDowell said his positions were often “puerile and ill thought out” and he “should cop himself on”. But this didn't stop McDowell from approaching Deasy and asking him to cross the floor and join the Progressive Democrats. Deasy declined (would he decline if asked again?).
His only forays, until the latest controversy, were to criticise his fellow Fine Gael TDs.
He is a “loner” and “keeps to himself” around the Dáil, say colleagues. He lives in Dungarvan and commutes to Dublin three days a week while the Dáil is in session. He is married to former TV3 newswoman and presenter of Ireland AM, Maura Derrane. She stepped down from TV3 in summer 2006 to spend more time with John. They met when she was TV3's crime correspondent and he was Fine Gael's justice spokesperson. They were married in Rome in May 2005.
He lost out on a front-bench position in the 2004 reshuffle but was appointed chairman of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Affairs. He was also appointed to the Public Affairs Committee.
He says the number of seats in the Dáil could be reduced to 100 from 166 and says TDs' pay should be increased to attract more talented politicians. He has challenged his fellow TDs to not read from scripts. He says, “A lot of politicians are afraid of answering questions, they are terrified of the media and of expressing themselves... a little realism wouldn't be a bad thing.”
He has said the motivation for many TDs to enter politics is “because of the good living and the trappings”.
He himself has done well out of the trappings.
In 2005 he claimed the most in expenses of any TD – €110,091 (although some of this was back claims for previous years). Again in 2006 he was high on the list, claiming €85,954.66. He also missed two weeks of the Dáil when he jetted off to play in a parliamentary world cup, partly sponsored by AIB.
Deasy does not consider himself a maverick or controversial, just “normal”. He is unrepentant for lighting up in the Dáil bar. “I made efforts to open the door and I was refused... perhaps I should have kicked the door down... I am not going to make apologies for something that I tried not to happen.”
He says he is “sick of subterfusion and evasion”. He may also be sick of Fine Gael, for his recent comments on the leadership have been perceived as deeply damaging. The party badly needs some good press to counter the seemingly unassailable popularity of Bertie Ahern. But it's early days in the election and it's early days in the career of John Deasy.