Kings of Kerry: An Irish political dynasty

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BALLYLONGFORD, Ireland — In the Irish county of Kerry, a rolling green farming and tourism heartland on the Atlantic coast, the Healy-Raes are the stuff of local legend.

Locals like to tell stories of members of the colorful political dynasty materializing with sandbags when a housing estate floods in the middle of the night, committing faces and phone numbers to memory with a single glance, or somehow attending simultaneous funerals at the same time.

Dismissed by many in the capital as crass, rural populists, the Healy-Raes are happy to play to the stereotype — if it’ll win them a few votes. Campaigning in traditional flat caps, blasting country music from trucks emblazoned with their family name, the Healy-Raes are standouts among Ireland’s staid political class.

They’re also a vivid — if extreme — illustration of how politics is conducted in a country in which the ground game is king, office holding is often a family affair, and in which even general elections can hang on hyperlocal issues like potholes, bureaucratic struggles or individual medical complaints.

When Ireland goes to the polls on February 8, voters in Kerry are expected to send two Healy-Raes — Michael and Danny, the sons of the dynasty’s late founder Jackie — back to parliament for a third and second term, respectively.

“I’ve learned everything that I know about politics from my father” — Jackie Healy-Rae Jr., local Kerry councillor 

It’ll be the sixth time in 23 years that Kerry county voters have sent a Healy-Rae to represent them in Dublin. It’s unlikely to be the last.

“I’ve learned everything that I know about politics from my father,” said 24-year-old local councillor Jackie junior, as he hit the campaign trail for his father Michael. “My father learned everything he knows about politics from his father. There’s no political party that can rival us.”

It runs in the family

The dynasty began with the family patriarch, the late Jackie Healy-Rae, a stocky farmer, pub owner and local contractor usually photographed in a flat cap. He was an organizer for the once-dominant Fianna Fáil party, before he broke away and was elected to parliament as an independent in 1997.

Independent politicians not affiliated with any party are unusually successful in Ireland, making up 12 percent of the outgoing parliament and frequently propping up governments with their votes. (Six independents went into Fine Gael’s minority government in 2016; three won ministerial roles.)

Michael Healy-Rae prepares to record a video for Instagram on the campaign trail in rural Kerry, Ireland | Naomi O’Leary for POLITICO

The Healy-Rae moniker, signature flat cap and formidable network of allies and organizers passed down to Jackie’s son Michael, who was elected to parliament in 2011. In the following election, the family ambitiously ran two candidates: The bearded Danny Healy-Rae joined his younger brother, and the two were propelled into parliament on a wave of support. Michael was reelected with the highest personal vote in Ireland.

The Healy-Raes brought their children with them as parliamentary assistants, and the next generation are making strides in politics, too. In local elections in 2019, Jackie junior and Danny’s children, Maura and Johnny, were all elected onto Kerry County Council for different local constituencies. In each one, the Healy-Rae candidate came first.

The Healy-Raes aren’t the only family dynasty in politics, even locally.

In the Kerry constituency, the family is rivaled by two candidates for Fianna Fáil who are children of parliamentarians. Saturday’s election will also be the first in 77 years in which no candidate from the Spring family, another long-running political dynasty, has run for the Labour Party.

What differentiates the Healy-Raes is their omnipresence and availability — and their fearsome ground game.

An awed Fianna Fáil operator told POLITICO there was talk the Healy-Raes had appeared at a housing estate with an unheard-of 72 canvassers, who spoke to hundreds of people within minutes.

Ground game

The Healy-Raes are vigilant to modern trends in politics. They’ve secured a social media team to ensure a steady stream of viral content heavy on flat caps, traditional Irish cottages and hooley music.

A video circulating on WhatsApp days before the election showed Danny Healy-Rae appearing at a children’s birthday party and agreeing to perform an accordion piece. He was said to have slipped the birthday boy €20 as he left.

But on the campaign trail, the family’s goal is nothing less than to shake the hand of every possible voter.

On a recent afternoon Michael, accompanied by activists and sometimes by trucks that blast out country music songs praising the Healy-Rae political acumen, jogged in his suit from house to house, trying back doors and windows when the front door is unanswered, sometimes sliding open porch doors to find the voters within.

“The most effective way of getting votes is by meeting somebody, calling into their home and looking into their eye, and saying: ‘will you please vote for me,’” Michael said.

Voters sometimes raised national issues with him — pensions are prominent in the current campaign — but the defining issue was a perceived decline in rural Ireland, with struggling village main streets, and the closure of local post offices and police stations.

“They know what we stand for, they know what we’re about, they’ve been with us since day one and we’ve given them no reason to leave us” — Jackie Healy-Rae Jr.

Constituents were urged to call with any complaint no matter how small or personal — a pothole, trouble with documents, access to medical treatment.

One elderly lady told POLITICO her top priority in the election was the widening of a nearby road, and that she had appealed to Michael for help.

“I’ve no comfort. I’m all worrying getting out on that road. I’ve a crick in my neck looking one side and then the other. I have to be all the time alert,” she complained. “I was asking Michael to help me … He said he’d do his best. I’ll look after him, and he looks after me.”

In recent years the family has gone into health services, coordinating transport for constituents to Belfast for treatments to circumvent long waiting lists in the republic. (The cost can be claimed back from the Irish health service under the Cross Border Directive.)

“We have the resources that we can sort the logistics side of things. Book the bus, book the hotel, make sure they have all their paperwork in order, and just help them,” Jackie junior said. “Cataract operations, hip operations, tonsils being taken out.”

Jackie Healy-Rae canvassing in a potato factory | Naomi O’Leary for POLITICO

The family divides up territory strategically to maximize their votes under Ireland’s proportional representation, single transferable vote system, which allows voters to rank candidates according to their preference.

It’s a system in which local strength trumps national popularity, and a few hundred votes — and a candidates’ ranking among those preferences — can oftentimes decide the results.

The constituency of Kerry, population 150,000, has five seats: In the last general election in 2016, 13,213 votes were needed to secure one.

According to the family’s election map, advertised in local newspapers, supporters in Killarney and nearby areas in southwest County Kerry are asked to rank Danny as their first choice and Michael as their second. Outside this area, the order is reversed, and the roads are blanketed with campaign posters accordingly.

By January 30 — just two weeks after the election was called — Jackie junior estimated the family had already canvassed 85 percent of County Kerry.

“The only thing stopping us from canvassing every house in Kerry is ourselves, if we give up on it,” he said, as he drove from farm to farm as night closed in on a stretch of road outside Tralee. “But we nearly have it done. You can do anything once you have people.”

Hyperlocal

Jackie junior is director of elections for his father Michael, and left a leaflet with his personal phone number at every house. As he drove, he fielded calls from constituents.

Jackie was accompanied by Paddy, a law student and childhood friend who had traveled from college in Dublin to help out the campaign. A network of such loyal activists — many of whom have been campaigning with them since the dynasty was founded — form the logistical backbone of the Healy-Rae campaign machine.

Activists know the political preferences of individual households in their locality and are commonly greeted by first name when they appear to canvass. On one campaign stop, an activist breezily reeled off how many number ones Michael had won in 2016 in Ballylongford, population 391.

“They know what we stand for, they know what we’re about, they’ve been with us since day one and we’ve given them no reason to leave us,” Jackie said.

“The only thing that I will ever do is work for the betterment of the people of Kerry” — Michael Healy-Rae, Irish MP

“[Michael’s] looking after the people of rural Ireland and he’s doing his best with roads, all different issues,” Healy-Rae campaigner Joseph O’Connor said. “He’s local and he knows all the local issues. He’s in touch with people and will always get back to people … If he can’t help them out, he’ll still get back to them and let them know.”

For independent politicians like the Healy-Raes, survival means getting national attention for local concerns. The typical political strategy is to offer support to a government in exchange for spending on their local area or signature issue — and for the Healy-Raes, that means investment in Kerry.

The elder Jackie Healy-Rae loaned his vote to Fianna Fáil in one such deal, and his son Michael said he is also open to such an arrangement if the results of the election allow.

“I’d evaluate the situation that would be going on around me, I’d see what was being proposed,” he said.

Personal fortunes

Critics deride this approach as a brand of clientelism that sacrifices the broader national interest for tawdry favor-peddling.

It’s a label that sticks to the Healy-Raes, who have a folksy disregard for day-to-day rules such as buckling seat belts or car passenger limits, which can stray into larger matters.

Last month, Michael drew queries from media and the police after launching a fundraising election raffle without a permit. In December, his sons Jackie and Kevin received suspended prison sentences for beating up a visitor to the town of Kenmare who complained Kevin had skipped a queue for chips. The 20-year-old declared “This is my town, this is my chip van,” the court was told.

Many locals are unperturbed by the incident. On one doorstep, an older female voter fondly chided Jackie for his misbehavior. During his successful campaign for election to Kerry County Council last May, Jackie is said to have told people “vote for me, and I’ll fight for you too.”

Others are more concerned to see that the Healy-Raes’ personal fortunes have thrived alongside their political ascent, undermining their common man image.

Michael Healy-Rae is said to have a huge portfolio of real estate | Naomi O’Leary for POLITICO

In an investigation by the Sunday Independent, Michael was estimated to be worth €5.4 million, and to be the biggest landlord in the Irish parliament with a portfolio of land, business properties and rentals.

Before his election to parliament, Danny — who is less popular than Michael and will likely have to rely on transfers from his brother Michael to secure reelection, polls show — was a long-time councilor on Kerry County Council, alongside his farming and business interests. His children, Maura and Johnny, were appointed to the council in 2011 and 2016.

In 2018, his construction and equipment hire company Healy Rae Plant Hire Ltd saw its profits rise 85 percent, boosted by €196,514 in contracts awarded by Kerry County Council.

Danny, who is a pub owner, has also advocated for drink driving limits to be relaxed to prevent rural isolation.

Sometime this draws the ire of the voters the Healy Raes are courting.

A campaign truck urges voters to send Michael Healy-Rae back to the Irish parliament | Naomi O’Leary for POLITICO

One young woman holding a baby on her hip castigated Michael when he appeared to ask for her vote, accusing him of behaving like a county councilor and beseeching him to focus on bigger concerns such as employment, so she wouldn’t have to rear her children “for export.”

But the Healy-Raes are good at making much scorn and criticism work in their favor, casting it as a form of contempt for the ordinary Kerryman, or condescension from out-of-touch Dubliners who don’t understand the struggles of rural voters.

To their base, they’ve been successful in making a vote for the Healy-Raes a way to stick it to the “smart alecs above in Dublin,” as Michael said following his brother’s election in 2016.

“Villages and towns like this have been left go into decline,” Michael said as he paced through Ballylongford.

“I want to see life being brought into our villages, I want to see lights on in these houses, I want to see them renovated and families put living in them,” he added.

“The only thing that I will ever do is work for the betterment of the people of Kerry.”

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