Minister for Fun finds success the best medicine

 

Factfile

Name: Jim McDaid.

Occupation: Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation.

Born: Donegal, 1949.

Lives: Letterkenny/Dublin.

Why in the news: Was at the centre of the Government's tackle with UEFA over the Yugoslavia/ Ireland match.

Most Likely to Say: The drugs don't work.

Least Likely to Say: I'll have one of your finest shiny tracksuits, please.

Dapper Dr Jim McDaid deserves the title "Minister for Fun". The George Clooney of Fianna Fail wasn't having much of it this week with UEFA officials in Germany. But at least by refusing visas to the Yugoslav soccer players, he will take much of the credit for the sensitive handling of an unwieldy political football.

In addition to the fun portfolio, he is the only Dail deputy who could be awarded best groomed male politician every year (he won in 1994). Sartorial trademarks include flashy gold jewellery, snazzy ties and three-piece suits. He is a "bit of a Bill Clinton", who loves being on the stage, according to Sean Maloney, a Donegal county councillor who has known McDaid for 20 years. As a doctor in a successful medical practice in Letterkenny he was well thought of by locals. "He is regarded as a pleasant person who called a spade a spade, although he could be cutting about some people who didn't like him," said Maloney.

His father died when he was five and times were tough for the large family in Termon just outside Letterkenny. The young McDaid was a conscientious student at St Eunan's College and went on to study medicine at UCG. He met his wife there and captained the college soccer team.

Controversy seems to be as much a part of him as his Donegal accent and his sense of style. In the past he has been ticked off by the Medical Council and been lambasted by the pro-life movement for his liberal views on abortion. He has been open about the fact that as a doctor he gave abortion information to pregnant women in difficult circumstances.

The incident that saw him assume the mantle of Donegal's answer to Alfred Dreyfus, however, occurred in 1991 when his loyalty to Charles Haughey was about to be rewarded by a seat at the cabinet. He was within hours of becoming minister for defence. The goalposts were moved when he was pictured celebrating on the steps of the Four Courts, after his republican constituent James Pius Clarke had successfully opposed extradition proceedings.

Rarely had a TD been so viciously attacked in the Dail and with the cries of "Provo fellow traveller" still ringing in his ears he saved the government considerable embarrassment by withdrawing his name. Those present say McDaid was philosophical about the episode, but it rankled. Although his present portfolio is not his first choice, it was inevitable that he would be rewarded.

His personal life has also been troubled. With characteristic openness, he has on various occasions discussed the breakdown of his marriage to the woman he married at the age of 19; the custodial sentence his son, then 19, received for making hoax bomb calls in London; and the pregnancy of his daughter. Since separating from his wife he has had a number of relationships, one of which, with a high profile broadcaster, was made public courtesy of some intrusive press photographs.

His problems with alcohol are also well documented but he has been off drink since March 1995. One of his other vices however, gambling, proved lucrative when he won £75,000 at the Cheltenham race meeting this year. While controversy has been continual, opinions differ on how he has handled the tourism, sport and recreation portfolio in his two years as Minister. The reactions of objective observers to his ministry range from "woeful" to "excellent" and every adjective in between.

His order that Bord Failte scrap its logo, which had already been redesigned at a cost of millions to the Exchequer, to include a more defined shamrock was seen as undermining confidence in the State's commitment to cross-Border partnership (the Northern Ireland Tourist Board retained the original logo).

Apart from that blunder, McDaid is lucky to be heading up tourism at a time when the growth in that sector is averaging around 9 per cent each year.

The question of drugs in sport and the sexual abuse scandals in swimming have made the brief something of a poisoned chalice. But once again Lucky Jim has had the benefit of a sports council that was initiated by former Minister Bernard Allen and a sports plan already drawn up when he took office.

The executive chairman of the Sports Council, John Treacy, said McDaid was "very passionate about certain issues . . . he is forthright and honest". He has also been praised for more than doubling the Government funding for sport.

McDaid was chief flagwaver when the Tour de France - an event long associated with misuse of drugs - rolled into town last summer. His subsequent comments that the event would not be allowed back until it cleaned up its act in relation to drugs were understandably viewed with cynicism. He has also rather over-ambitiously expressed a desire that the State will one day lead the world in blood testing for doping in sport.

"He makes mistakes now and then as we all do," said one source in sport. "He has stuck his nose into things that maybe he shouldn't." Another observer said McDaid was a loose cannon and had "the concentration span of a gnat". What they all say is that he talks honestly and from the heart, which is perhaps why he has had clashes with mandarins in his department.

Before entering politics in 1989, friends say that despite coming from a staunch Fianna Fail family he hadn't a political bone in his body. The way some people tell it, McDaid was plucked from obscurity by the "FF mafia" in Donegal for the purpose of shafting Fianna Fail TD Hugh Conaghan, who refused to support Haughey and eventually lost his seat to the sharp-suited doctor. McDaid's performance in the 1989 election was described as "outstanding" by one commentator: "Incredible that this man could be recruited to FF on the eve of the election and, after a mere 17 days' campaigning, oust sitting TD Hugh Conaghan."

Political allies and foes all agree that McDaid is "amiable and affable". According to one insider, he is "much better" since stopping drinking four years ago: "He has had a lot of personal traumas . . . but he has come through them."