Interview: Frank Feighan reborn in political and personal life

Former Roscommon TD and new Senator subjected to five years of ‘hatred and vilification’

A recent lunchtime telephone call from the Taoiseach to Frank Feighan brought good news which the former Roscommon Fine Gael TD saw as political vindication.

Enda Kenny had included him in his 11 nominees to the Seanad, returning him to the Oireachtas after five years of political and personal trauma because of the stand he took on facilities at Roscommon hospital.

“I was subjected to a campaign of hatred and vilification because I voted with that government,’’ he recalls.

His political rehabilitation coincides with a contented personal life. Divorced for some time, his partner Elaine Mooney from Castlerea, a Sligo-based teacher, is four months pregnant.

He is looking forward to becoming a father. “It puts everything in perspective,’’ he adds.

Feighan stood by Kenny's FG-Labour government in 2011 in a row over the accident and emergency unit at Roscommon hospital when fellow constituency TD Denis Naughten broke with Fine Gael on the issue.

Naughten was re-elected in the last general election as an Independent and is now Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment.

Feighan did not run in the general election, knowing he had no hope of saving his seat.

He was not too surprised to get the Taoiseach’s call, he says, adding there had been media speculation he would be among the 11.

“I think he saw I was able to stand up to conflict in the heat of battle,’’ he says.

In 2011, Sinn Féin moved a private member’s motion calling for the reopening of accident and emergency services in hospitals throughout the State. In Roscommon, where the hospital has always been an intensely emotive political issue, it received strong support as voters called on Fine Gael to live up to its election promise to restore its emergency unit.

Some 3,000 Roscommon people held a rally outside the Dáil. Naughten and the then Independent Roscommon TD Luke “Ming’’ Flanagan were shouldered high when they supported the motion and voted against the Government. Feighan, who was rounded on when he backed the government to help defeat the motion, became at times a virtual prisoner in his Boyle home in the following years.

Today, Feighan feels vindicated, noting he had voted against the restoration of the accident and emergency unit in Roscommon on the basis of the medical advice that the safety of patients could not be guaranteed because of the absence of adequate back-up.

There is now a permanent air ambulance unit available, with local patients speedily removed to Galway University Hospital, while Roscommon hospital has an endoscopy unit and is soon to get a € 7.85 million rehabilitation unit covering the west of Ireland.

“I believe dozens of lives have been saved because of the stand I took,’’ says Feighan. “I know of lives saved in my own town of Boyle.”

Back in Roscommon, life was tough. He was frequently heckled in public and sometimes feared for his physical safety. Always active locally, his involvement with the Roscommon GAA supporters’ club came to an end.

He had been a popular figure, topping the poll in the 1999 local elections, elected to the Seanad and then to the Dáil twice.

“Maybe I needed to grow up,’’ he added. “I like to be liked and I had a great time in my early political career, never losing an election.’’

He stayed indoors a lot. “I remember going to Castlerea one day and somebody tried to take the head off me,’’ he recalls. “To be honest, I don’t think I have had a social drink outside of Boyle in five years.’’

He is not bitter. “But I was hurt and angry,’’ he adds. “My good name was taken away and I don’t know if I will ever get it back.’’

He now believes there is an acceptance locally that some people went over the top.

Meanwhile, his businesses, which included a newsagents and a restaurant, and once employed 30 people, collapsed because of his commitment to politics, the economic downturn and his own mistakes. He had outstanding debts to sort out.

Feighan (53) doubts if he will run for elected office again and says his immediate priority is to be an active member of the Seanad.

He says he has no regrets for the stand he took on the hospital and does not resent Naughten his ministry. “I wish him well,’’ he adds. “I hope he delivers as much to the constituency as I did for five years as a TD.’’

He believes there is truth in the saying that what does not kill you makes you better.

“Everything happens for a reason,’’ he adds. “The important thing now is my future with Elaine.’’

Michael O'Regan

Michael O'Regan

Michael O’Regan is a former parliamentary correspondent of The Irish Times