Ivor Callely a controversial and divisive figure during his long political career
Callely an anomaly in the world of politics, writes Harry McGee
Ivor Callely’s political career had ground to a halt long before his conviction in Dublin Circuit Criminal Court.
But his guilty plea on charges relating to submitting false claims for mobile phone expenses was a reminder of why this particular political career was always going to end in failure.
Ivor Callely was always an anomaly in the world of politics. Though a member of Fianna Fáil for over 30 years, there was a sense that the only cause to which he gave blind and unquestioning loyalty was the advancement of Ivor Callely.
His image was a 1980s take on the mohair suit brigade of the 1960s - loud pin-stripe suits and carefully groomed hair provided his trademark look. There were the other trappings including a large house, a Range Rover, a motorboat and the palatial holiday home in West Cork.
His nickname was ‘Ivor the Driver’. It was a testament to his ambition and ego but also his energy. He was a relentless worker and, in fairness to him, annexed Clontarf for Fianna Fáil when he was at his height (it was never a traditional vote-getting area for the party).
But throughout his political career, he never gave a sense of having a point of view or a set of values – other than a general pro-business outlook. His most outspoken comments were vitriolic (and ignorant) remarks about asylum seekers in the late 1990s as well as a slightly bizarre defence of Dublin taxi drivers fighting regulation in the industry.
In an RTÉ interview in the autumn of 2005 he declared he wanted to be Taoiseach. But his ambition and ego was never accompanied by depth of thinking or any self-understanding. In truth, Callely’s great political project was Ivor Callely. Along the way, he cut corners, alienated party colleagues, muscled in on initiatives, and continued to break rules to attain his goals.
Callely was born in Dublin in 1958 and educated in St Paul’s in Raheny and Fairview College. He graduated with a diploma in business studies and worked as a representative for a pharmaceutical company. His political breakthrough came in 1985 when he was elected to Dublin City Council. Around that time he candidly, and refreshingly, described himself in non Fianna Fáil terms as a “young sexually active person.”
He made his Dáil breakthrough in 1989 when Fianna Fáil won three seats out of four in the constituency. It was an impressive performance as the then Taoiseach Charles Haughey was the dominant personality and Callely’s success was a direct challenge to the Haughey regime. There is a long-standing enmity since then between him and the Haughey.s.
His graft was legendary. He devoted Michael Ring-like levels of energy to his work. He also had an eye for the gimmick. He has a caravan that he has hauled around the constituency with a day-glo tangerine VW Beetle. ‘Ivor Callely is here to meet you’ read its livery.
His energy marked him out early as a ministerial prospect. But it is clear from the time he did not recognise boundaries between his political life and his personal interests. Controversies inevitably cropped up. His wife Jennifer won the franchise to run the hairdressing salon in the new Beaumont Hospital in 1987 at a time when Callely was chair of the Eastern Health Board. At the time too there were questions about Callely’s’s involvement with a company called Eurokabin, which collapsed in 1992 with debts of £7 million.
His fundraising events were also raising eyebrows. He organised golf classics and an annual dinner in the Dáil for supporters. In 2005, the €70,000 he raised at a golf classic in the K Club half of all donations declared that year by the 166 TDs in the Dáil.
He waited 13 years for promotion. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern made him a junior minister in 2002, initially with responsibility for the elderly in the Department of Health. His record was poor. Paul Murray of Age Action Ireland said of him at the time. “We never found him to be totally engaged or to understand fully the issues. He was difficult to deal with.”
Callely was no slouch on the publicity front. In his first ministry in Health, he accounted for twice as much of the photographic budget as the senior minister Micheál Martin. Later, in Transport, he got referred to the Standards in Public Office Commission for putting a prominent image of himself on Operation Freeflow billboards.
According to a former Fianna Fáil handler, he was obsessed with publicity to the point of comedy.
There was a high attrition rate of staff in his office. During four years as a junior minister, six of his staff transferred or quit. According to those who worked with him, he had Napoleonic tendencies and was unreasonably demanding. He also started to encroach on the territory of senior ministers. Martin Cullen had to pin his ears back for solo runs on matters that were Cullen’s’s responsibility.
The end of his ministerial career in December 2005 was comical. His first difficulty was when two of his staff resigned because of difficulties with his style. When it came to light that he offered to buy his personal assistant a car to stay in the job, an annoyed Bertie Ahern told him that he was on his last chance. Within days, a new controversy broke. A major construction company, John Paul, arranged for Callely’s home in Clontarf to be painted for free in the early 1990s. The writing was on the wall.
It descended into farce. Ahern tried to force his resignation but could not locate Callely. The Budget of that year was eclipsed by the affair. The next morning, a very annoyed finance minister Brian Cowen’s was left kicking his heels for half an hour waiting for his post-Budget interview with Pat Kenny on RTÉ to begin.
The reason for the delay? Callely was giving a rambling defence of himself on air. The interview was long on self-justification and victimhood and short on humility.
His career plummeted after that. He was reportedly inconsolable after losing his Dáil seat in 2007. He misery was compounded by failure to win election to the Seanad. Many were surprised to see him named as one of Bertie Ahern’s eleven nominations to the Upper House.
Callely’s work rate in the constituency fell dramatically after 2007. Those who know him said that the double-blow of losing his ministry and his Dáil seat badly affected him. On a huge health kick, he exercises daily and has lost a lot of weight. He hit the headlines briefly in the summer of 2009 when two boat owners in West Cork said his motor cruiser struck their boats while berthing, causing €40,000 worth of damage.
Later, it emerged that he had been claiming travelling expenses from his holiday home in West Cork to Leinster House to attend the Seanad. The caused a furore in the media and among his colleagues, who argued that his habitual resident should have been Clontarf.
A Seanad Committee censured him and suspended him for 20 days. However, Callely challenged the decision in the High Court and it ruled that the Committee had acted outside the powers of the relevant act, had made a “political judgement” and had thereby breached Mr Callely’s right to natural justice and fair procedures.
At the time it seemed like a victory for the former TD and senator. However, it was relatively short-lived.
• A section of this profile first appeared in The Irish Times in June 2010.