Ireland ‘turning into Trump’s America’, says presidential candidate Freeman

Pieta House founder funding campaign with €140,000 in loans from US businesspeople

Joan Freeman has a theory. It's that she is the last ordinary person who will ever contest an Irish presidential election, the kind of person who lives in a semi-d, and drives an ageing car with dents in it, and who worries about the mortgage.

She casts her eye around at the rest of the field and says they are either extremely rich businesspeople, or have the backing (and funds) of a political party.

“One of the things I find worrying is I am the very last Independent person who will be a candidate. We are turning into Trump’s America,” she reflects.

“The other candidates either have a lot of money or are aligned to a party. I live in a semi-d, I have a mortgage. Today there were buses pulling up to RTÉ [for the first broadcast debate]. I came up in a small car.


“Somebody [Peter Casey] said: ‘I don’t have a bus’; but he has a helicopter.”

It is two hours after the News at One debate and Joan Freeman is in a room in Dublin city centre again fielding questions about funding. She can't understand the level of interest in her campaign loans. She has raised two loans totalling €140,000 from two businesspeople in the United States. She says she needs the loans because she does not have the backing. "I have to pay them back at 9 per cent interest."

It is put to her that some suggested given her own background and connections, the funding was coming from Catholic and pro-life sources in the US. She is a sister of Theresa Lowe and an aunt of Maria Steen, both of whom were prominent No campaigners in the referendum on the Eighth amendment. She herself also voted No.

She emphasises ordinariness but her own life story is anything but

She laughs at the notion. She said that Los Angeles-based Des Walsh is a businessman whom she has known for 40 years and she was "blown away" when he gave her a loan of €120,000. The other businessman (as yet unnamed) gave her €20,000.

She points out that two of her four children voted Yes in the referendum and rejects the Catholic-first label. "I am a pluralist. I voted No in the last referendum. I voted Yes in the one prior to that. I have so many beliefs. I actually do represent the average person in Ireland. Can you imagine one family that was completely No and completely Yes. That's what makes us democratic and interesting."

For the record would she sign the abortion Bill into law? She replies that her private convictions would not influence any decision she might have to make as president.

She emphasises ordinariness but her own life story is anything but. There were eight children in her family and her parents emigrated to Warwickshire when she was an infant. Her father worked in a factory for Lockheed, which made aircraft parts. Her parents who were “deeply homesick” moved the family home to Ireland when she was 12.

She was completely indifferent to the move back, she says, and lost her English accent within a year. She had, by her own admission, a sheltered life, living at home until she was 24 when she married her husband, Pat.

Her voice and accent bear no traces of the England years but her delivery is velvet-smooth, very like her sister Theresa, a former RTÉ broadcaster. She herself almost became a continuity announcer with RTÉ in her early 20s but her lack of Irish counted against her.

In her late 20s she began training as a relationship counsellor on a voluntary basis. She had found her métier, she said. She did every course she could think of – from bereavement, to child and adolescent, to counselling – and then studied for a degree in psychology followed by a masters.

She sums it up thus: “I was good at listening and good at empathy and I just wanted to help people. That’s really been the story of my life.”

Another significant moment came in 2006 when she founded Pieta House, which dealt with people in the throes of a mental crisis and with suicide ideation. What was the impetus?

“Like most families we suffered a loss to suicide. That was the drive for me. Ireland’s attitude to anything to do with mental health and particularly with suicide . . . was not to speak about it.

"It was a shoestring operation. We had a house in Lucan. I borrowed €130,000, we agreed to use our home as collateral.

“It was a massive gamble but I did not see it that way.”

Pieta House had its own therapeutic model. “It was strength based. We reminded people of their strengths, what they had done well in their lives.

“In counselling the theory is that the solution is found from within but not in a crisis situation. But the person in crisis needs somebody to give him or her the solution and that’s where we came in.”

From that beginning Pieta House grew quickly and now has 280 staff and has helped thousands of people. Its annual Darkness into Light walk attracts 200,000 participants.

Freeman stepped down at the end of 2014. Why? “I have a thing about founderitis. I think it is very important that once you found something, you get it moving and then you hand it over. You can stop the progress if you are hanging around.”

She says nobody should serve more than seven years in the role of president. This was not intended to be a reference to Michael D Higgins, she stressed, adding she pledges "absolutely" she will serve only one term if elected.

I would not be going for it if I did not think I would win

She had no interest in politics before being nominated a senator by then taoiseach Enda Kenny in 2016 (at the behest of Micheál Martin).

She has achieved a fair deal, including staging a two-day event where parents of children with mental illness shared their experience; bringing forward a law that prevented children from being placed into adult mental wards; and chairing a committee looking for solutions for the future of the mental health services.

At the same time, she has found being a senator challenging, frustrating and excruciatingly slow.

“Being a senator I thought I could make changes, I was wrong, it is slow and grinding.”

So that was the motivation for her going for the presidency? People suggested to her she could bring influence to bear, the same way as she had with Pieta House and Darkness into Light.

She knows the powers are curtailed but believes the symbolism, the influence and the actions of a president can lead to change.

Among her suggestions is a national assembly of well-being, where local committees find ground-level solutions to issues that are peculiar to their own area. She says she will also champion more meaningful roles for older and younger people.

But does Freeman hold out any hope of winning given the incumbent is so far ahead in the polls? Her campaign will be done on a shoestring and car-powered and she hopes to drive to every county and every community.

“I would not be going for it if I did not think I would win,” she replies. We are in a different Ireland and I’m sure they will choose the right candidate for this time. “