John Deasy: Direct and divisive politician calls it a day

Dungarvan maverick spoke his mind and drew on experience of White House politics

 Outgoing  Fine Gael  TD John Deasy: Waterford politician  brought a direct and sometimes abrasive style to Dáil Éireann. Photograph: Stephen Collins

Outgoing Fine Gael TD John Deasy: Waterford politician brought a direct and sometimes abrasive style to Dáil Éireann. Photograph: Stephen Collins

 

Possibly the first description that would come to mind when describing John Deasy – who announced on Friday he would stepping down as a TD at the next general election – is contrarian.

While there is ample evidence over his 17-year career in national politics to back up that reputation of an outspoken maverick – including long-running disputes with his former leader Enda Kenny and with Fine Gael Waterford constituency rival Paudie Coffey – there were many other aspects to his political make-up.

Schooled in US politics during his 20s, when he worked for a Republican member of Congress, Deasy brought a direct and sometimes abrasive style to Dáil Éireann, as well as an unrelenting focus on the issues he was most passionate about.

The latest iteration of it was when the faction in Waterford to which Coffey is affiliated voted a motion of no confidence in Deasy earlier this year

He single-handedly initiated a campaign to ban handguns in Ireland which culminated in his private members’s Bill being enacted by a Fianna Fáil government in 2008. 

He was also a particularly effective member of the Public Accounts Committee with a capacity to cut through the waffle to get to the core issues. He was an early champion, for example, of Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe.

But that sometimes backfired on Deasy. He was promoted to the key post of justice spokesman by then Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny when first elected to the Dáil in 2002.

Smoking in the Dáil

Deasy strongly opposed the smoking ban and caused a media firestorm in 2004 when he lit up in the Dáil bar and refused to stop smoking. That act of bravado and recklessness led to Kenny firing him from the party front bench. It also led to an animus between both politicians that did not subside.

Deasy (52) is the son of Austin Deasy, a former minister and TD, who was also a thorn in the side of several Fine Gael leaders.

From Dungarvan, Deasy jnr was a scratch golfer in his teens and went to university in the US on a golf scholarship.

After qualifying, he worked on Capitol Hill for almost a decade, where he forged high-level contacts, particularly in the Republican Party. He returned to Ireland when his father retired and was elected to the Dáil in 2002. He is married to the television presenter Máire Dirrane. They have one son, Cal.

Deasy has retained his seat all three general elections since he was first elected. However, a long-running internal rift within Fine Gael in the constituency has continued during his time, personified in his continuous public disputes with Senator Paudie Coffey.

If I had left 10 years ago I would have missed it. I won’t miss it now

The latest iteration of it was when the faction in Waterford to which Coffey is affiliated voted a motion of no confidence in Deasy earlier this year.

“It is a constant factor in Waterford internal politics. It has helped me electorally in that it has galvanised my support base and reinforced my vote constantly,” Deasy told The Irish Times on Friday.

Deasy said the handgun legislation was one of his proudest legacies. It was difficult to steer it through the Oireachtas and there were the after-effects – he received hate mail for five years after.

His differences with Kenny dominated that period of his career. He called for a new leader after the general election in 2007 and suggested he himself would be willing to stand. When Kenny faced a leadership challenge in 2010, Deasy was one of the leading figures supporting Richard Bruton.

Backbench exile

When Kenny emerged as the victor, some of the key people involved in the heave found themselves being exiled to the back benches, including Brian Hayes, Michael Creed and Charlie Flanagan. But over subsequent years, all of them came back in from the cold.

The exception was Deasy. The die was cast. There was an effort at a rapprochement when Kenny offered him the chair of the Housing Committee. Deasy rejected the offer.

He made his mark primarily on the Public Account Committee which was suited to his style.

When Kenny stepped down, he was an early backer of Leo Varadkar. However, he had never held a ministerial portfolio. Varadkar had also promised most outgoing ministers they would be retained.

The upshot was that Deasy was not offered a senior or junior ministerial position. While there were reports that he was inconsolable, Deasy himself has said that what was offered to him was exactly suitable for him.

He was appointed as a special Government envoy to the US with a free hand to represent Irish interests in his old stomping ground of Capitol Hill, with a specific mandate to lobby for access to E3 visas for Irish emigrants living illegally in the US.

“It has been very interesting. It connected me back with my background and I was able to renew my contacts,” he said.

“I had no regrets [about a ministerial position]. I have a great relationship with Leo. We tailored a job that suited my background and where I could provide value. It has worked very well.”

Deasy argues that having an elected representative doing the Government’s bidding on Capitol Hill has given more traction.

There has been some progress but the Bill has been stalled because of the opposition of one senator – Tom Cotton of Arkansas.

Deasy remains confident it will pass both houses of government there.

He has said he made up his mind a long time ago to leave politics and informed Varadkar in March. He had not made his mind up yet on his future but has said he has had a few offers, and could be US-based for some of the time.

Asked would he miss politics, he said: “If I had left 10 years ago I would have missed it. I won’t miss it now. It has become a very strange animal. It has become chronically uncertain for people who have become elected.

“If somebody has a stable job with a young family I would not recommend it. The instability will continue after the next election as politics continues to fracture and people’s lives will be put on hold for years.”

Those comments typify his style – which is to call it as he sees it, regardless of if it rubs people up the wrong way.

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