Interview

PART THREE | Seamus Kirk became Ceann Comhairle and topped the Louth poll amid Fianna Fáil's near-demise

Interview

Caoimhín Reilly

Reporter:

Caoimhín Reilly

Email:

caoimhin.reilly@dundalkdemocrat.ie

PART THREE | Seamus Kirk became Ceann Comhairle and topped the Louth poll amid Fianna Fáil's near-demise

Former Ceann Comhairle and Fianna Fáil TD Seamus Kirk with long-time supporter and fellow St. Bride's clubman Paddy Farrell. (Pic: Arthur Kinahan)

CLICK HERE FOR PART ONE AND HERE FOR PART TWO

The year was 2010 and Ceann Comhairle Seamus Kirk lands in Washington for St. Patrick’s Day. It was his one and only foreign venture in the role, his aim being to cut down on travel expenses in order to aid a struggling economy.

Peter Fitzpatrick had taken over as Louth senior football team manager the previous winter and three days before March 17, had led The Reds to a comfortable National League victory over Fermanagh in Enniskillen.

Tyrone’s Martin Sludden refereed that encounter and while failing to enamour himself to the home support, the match was never a contest with Louth by far and away the superior of the sides. In claiming two points for the third time in the opening four rounds, Fitzpatrick’s men sat beneath only Antrim in the promotion places. The outlook was positive.

Not that Kirk was in a position to discuss the performances of Paddy Keenan or Mark Brennan’s role in the upsurge with any of those in which he was sharing a dinner table. On a particular evening, he was addressed by US President Barack Obama before tucking into a White House feast in the company of Stormont speaker Willie Hay, Sinn Féin heavyweight Martin McGuinness and a Massachusetts congressman, whose name escapes memory, with links, like himself, to County Monaghan.

He enjoyed his trip greatly, reckoning it to be a unique place to celebrate the memory of our patron saint, given the Irish heritage of so many American passport holders. It offered a distinct flavour of home on a day best spent among your own.
Home? Now that you say it...

“I came across a young man from Pearse Park in Dundalk who came over to me, from The White House, and asked: ‘How will Louth do in the championship?’”, Kirk recalls.

“He knew everything that was happening in Dundalk and Louth and had great interest in how the Leinster Championship would go that year. You can imagine March 17, it hadn’t started, but that was 2010 - we got to a Leinster final.”

Four months on and Kirk was at Croke Park. Unfortunately, so was Sludden.

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The M1 structure remains something Kirk is deeply proud of. Having travelled to Dublin at least once a week during his career as a TD, he appreciated its benefits to the nth degree. It’s ultimately a monument to Ireland’s physical development and for it to be the first of its kind in the country, and within Kirk’s constituency, is an achievement in itself.

But, then again, the Knockbridge man was embedded in several major instigations, the M1 corridor being just one. He remembers talking to the late Reverend Ian Paisley at a Ballymoney farm where the ardent Unionist was hugely impressed by the level of southern investment - from the north-east in particular - in a co-op structure benefitting the Antrim electorate under his care.

“He was really delighted that people from south of the border were coming up to invest in his constituency,” Kirk says. “I remember saying to Bertie Ahern subsequently that it must be possible to build on this.”

They did.

“The role of the British-Irish interparliamentary group is a tad underestimated in the entire process,” he contends. “It was vitally important and contributed enormously to the peace process build.

“It afforded public representatives from here the opportunity to engage in open debate with parliamentarians from Westminster, many of whom, certainly on the Conservatives’ side, had little understanding of the challenges here, on this island; the challenges in the North, the border area and the political sector generally, across the whole island.

“It brought about a huge sea-change in the understanding of the issues of the day and contributed quite significantly to the whole maturing of the process and convincing of the decision-makers in Westminster that there was a significant Irish dimension to this problem.

“It culminated in the work of Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, who did tremendous work in bringing the process to a conclusion. I couldn’t believe it, even when I look back, Bertie Ahern meeting Reverend Ian Paisley at the Battle of the Boyne site, a ceremony subsequent to the agreement.

“It was hard to believe that we had reached that point in time; a very proud moment for the political sectors of both north and south.”

That so many of the peace negotiations related to and involved Louth and its border with the North was humbling, especially for a man who was charged with representing the locality. The sense of pride was most acute when US President Bill Clinton visited Dundalk in December 2000.

“I remember sitting at the square when he came; it was an important occasion,” Kirk adds. “Bill Clinton had been a huge political figure in the peace process. What he did and the risks he took, it set the whole process underway.

“He always relished the process of coming to either Dublin, Dundalk or Belfast and I think there was always a huge appreciation on the whole island for what he did for us.”

Appreciation wasn’t reserved exclusively for Clinton, though. Even as cracks were beginning to show in the Fianna Fáil armoury, as the financial situation began to unfurl and Ahern’s leadership and, indeed, legacy was scrutinised, Kirk’s backing never wavered.

In the 2007 general election, the last one he would contest, he defied every opinion predicting his downfall to top the poll resoundingly. It was a truly remarkable pledge of support and, arguably, his greatest political endorsement.

“My political modus operandi was that you needed to deal with the individual problems in the constituency and try to solve them as best you could, within reason. I spent a lot of time at that and I suppose I did get support on that basis.

“The result was also down to a huge amount of work from people across the constituency.”

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At Fianna Fáil’s peak, in 2004, Kirk contested the European elections and while his bid at MEP status fell short, he remained highly thought of within the party. Perhaps there was a silver-lining to his EU shortfall in the form of his promotion to Ceann Comhairle five years later.

But, by that stage, times were tough and the tide was gushing outwards for a Fianna Fáil institute dicing with death.

“I’m so grateful and it’s a great honour to be the speaker of your national parliament. It was an honour to be nominated for the position and there was a degree of satisfaction being elected to office by fellow parliamentarians.

“But I remember I was Ceann Comhairle at the time when the late Brian Lenihan brought in the very severe budget of 2010. It was a dismal time around Leinster House. We got hit with the financial crisis worldwide and we weren’t in any way immune or exempt.

“Great expectations can be a problem insofar as the political decision-makers can be forced into circumstances that, on second thoughts, they’d do differently. If you fuel up the economy too much, and in an economy like Ireland, it can be problematic and it did have an impact and possibly precipitated the problems that we subsequently had.

“When the crisis did affect us, the attitude of the ECB (European Central Bank) frightened the wits out of political decision-makers. The bailout responsibility of the banks was loaded on the Irish taxpayer and it was grossly unfair of the ECB to allow that to happen.

“In many ways it has contributed to the political position that we have now. Had they taken responsibility for it, or at least some of the responsibility for it, we wouldn’t have had the difficult outcome that we had subsequently.

“Inevitably, if you have a very severe economic downturn, whoever the political decision-makers are at the time, they’ll get the blame for it; it’s how the system operates. No matter who it is, that’s the way it operates and how it operated. It has impacted negatively on the support for Fianna Fáil in the country.”

Kirk’s party suffered devastation in the 2011 election, returning their worst result since formation, an outcome which, he believes, has accelerated the fragmentation of the political block in Ireland.

The Louth people’s sway is personified evidence. There were two Fianna Fáil TDs elected in the county over the first 25 years of Kirk’s representation, but none - the Ceann Comhairle apart - in 2011, or 2020.

Nonetheless, despite the party’s undoubted mistakes which have led to sustained austerity, he remains a supporter and feels their input to the national finances will be key in the aftermath of Covid-19’s ripplings.

“I just take the view that if the basic philosophy of a party is the right one, whether in the short- or long-term, the electorate will look at it and weigh it up in the context of the political philosophies of other parties. They will take their decisions in the ballot boxes on that basis.

“When you’ve had such a severe economic downturn and have people who are so badly affected by it, they’re going to look for alternatives.

“We got caught up in the problem, but the significant thing was that the underlying strength of the economy was demonstrated by the subsequent recovery.

“The economy had recovered well from 2010 up until now; there’s been a huge growth and it has recovered exceptionally well in terms of the people in employment. But I’d certainly be concerned about the impact of the cost of coronavirus in Ireland. It’s going to have a fairly serious impact on the economy and it’s hard to quantify what eventually will happen.

“The public finances will deteriorate and that’s going to go hand-in-hand with something I’ve been reading in the paper, which is that some of the American technology companies in Ireland, they’re repatriating a lot of their dividends back to the US which is inevitably going to impact on the amount of corporation tax they will pay in Ireland which, in turn, will impact on exchequer revenue.

“Difficult decisions have to be made and I see some suggestions that we may need an emergency budget, but you can’t bring that in without a new government. What’s going to happen in those circumstances? That’s the big question.

“Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are basically in the middle-ground of the political arena and there has been a contraction in support for middleground parties, but if you look at the polls, there has been a significant increase in support for Fine Gael and that’s been as a result of their positive impact during the present crisis. How sustainable that is, it’s hard to know.”

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Kirk, throughout his life, has never been one to shy away from challenges, overcoming the majority of situations he’s faced with admirable courage. He emerged from modest beginnings to forge a promising football career, which ended cruelly, before concentrating his unique social generosity and inherent understanding of pertinent issues to the benefit of Louth’s public.

“For 12 months after I’d retired, in 2016, it took time to adjust because of the huge communication and contact you had with the public,” he says.

“It comes to a virtual stop and it’s a fairly dramatic change, particularly after 30-plus years on the Oireachtas.

“But, gradually, you adjust, life moves on and there has certainly been very dramatic change in politics since 2016.”

The main difference is that it’s a political landscape without one of its most genuine figures. That Seamus Kirk is a representative maestro is indisputable, that he is a gentleman is unquestionable, that he will go down as a great is a given.