From Ming the Merciless to Ming the Mayor

Sat, Jun 26, 2010, 01:00

Roscommon councillors will make Luke ‘Ming the Merciless’ Flanagan mayor of the county on a platform of health reform rather than his usual campaign to legalise cannabis

HE HAS BEEN described as a shaven-headed Charles Stewart Parnell and the epitome of persistence, and on Monday he will become mayor of his native county (in effect, Cathaoirleach of Roscommon County Council). “Barring hiccups, of course – you know anything can happen in politics,” says Luke “Ming the Merciless” Flanagan.

And the independent Roscommon councillor, who is best known for his shaven head, beard and sideburns, and his Flash Gordon comic-strip character middle name, has already ensured that anything can happen during his 13-year political career in the west.

Written off many times as a Monster Raving Loony Party-style eccentric, Flanagan has a commitment to social justice extending beyond his long-running campaign to legalise cannabis.

As he points out, it was a health issue that led to the effort to elect him Roscommon town’s first citizen. An alliance of Fine Gael, Sinn Féin and independent councillors vehemently opposes the downgrading of Roscommon County Hospital. “Fianna Fáil has had the rug pulled from under them on this one,” Flanagan says. A pact agreed by the alliance means he should hold the mayoral chain this year, with Fine Gael taking it for the next three.

Flanagan freely admits that “personal experience” provides much of his political focus. When his late mother, Lily, was diagnosed with cancer he had a taste of the health services – and didn’t like what he saw. “At the same time, my father-in-law would not be alive today if it wasn’t for the treatment he got in Roscommon,” he adds.

In 1997 his experience with the law drove him to run in the general election, on a ticket urging the legalisation of cannabis and as a protest candidate against his landlord, Fianna Fáil TD Frank Fahey. Flanagan got 548 votes.

Early in 1998 he presented himself at Mill Street Garda Station in Galway, having been convicted for possessing cannabis and having refused to pay the £150 fine. To his chagrin he learned his father, Luke, had paid the fine. “My mother put him up to it,” Flanagan says, remembering his mother’s quote in this newspaper that “I wouldn’t like my son to go to prison.” His father was dubbed Ming the Merciful from then on.

Luke jnr had his way later that year, however, when he served nine days of a 15-day sentence in Loughan House open prison, in Co Cavan, for refusing to pay a fine imposed for breach of the Litter Pollution Act.

He ran in the 1999 European elections, polling a respectable 5,000 votes in Connacht-Ulster, and in 2001 he made headlines again when he sent 200 cannabis cigarettes to members of the Oireachtas, as part of his campaign to legalise cannabis.

In the 2004 local elections he topped the poll in Roscommon, and was re-elected on the first count last June.

Now the father of two children,aged five and seven, he has spoken out about the influence of the drinks lobby, about cuts to a teenage health initiative in his area and, most recently, about the rights of turf-cutters affected by the EU-led ban on harvesting in 32 raised bogs.

Again, this is an issue that touches him personally. “My grand-uncle Harry Fleming cut the same area of bog for 67 years, and my father after him, and now me,” he said. “When we didn’t have much money at home it was the turf that my father took in on his Ferguson tractor that kept us in clothes and insured the Hillman Hunter.” He believes that if the EU and the Minister for the Environment, John Gormley, are interested in protecting raised bogs, they would first “repair the damage done by Bord na Móna”.

Flanagan intends to run for the Dáil again, and, like his comic-book hero, he doesn’t give up easily. “And watch out for my T-shirt at the Connacht senior final,” he says. “It’s something to do with Nama.”