John Kelly isn’t boasting – or being sarcastic or funny –when he says everyone likes him. He’s being a touch ironic, noting that while he seems to remain personally popular, the ‘love’ doesn’t translate into the number of votes required to elect him to Dail Eireann.
Well, not yet anyway.
Kelly is going for it again, despite, perhaps because of, the bruisings encountered in 2007, 2011 and in last year’s by-election.
Senator Kelly, a Ballintubber native, ran for the Dail as an Independent in 2007;in the Labour colours in 2011 (4,455 number ones) and for Labour again in the 2014 by-election.
On Monday night he was unopposed and selected once again to run for the party in the next General Election, which could be as little as three months away and is certain to happen by early next year at the latest.
A former poll-topper in local elections, he found rejection by the people in General Elections – even if it was almost apologetically delivered – a tough experience. But, conscious that many people believe he erred in joining Labour when he could have stayed Independent, Kelly defiantly defends his position.
“If I ran as an Independent (in recent national elections) I would have been elected to the Dail. But, as an Independent, I would be able to achieve nothing for the people who elected me. I don’t want to end up as frustrated as ‘Ming’ was or as Michael Fitzmaurice is now. At least I can boast of having about 70% of what I sought out to achieve being delivered upon.
“So I don’t believe in running Independent now. Yes, I ran Independent before, but when I did, people told me I’d have more impact with a party. Now, when I’ve joined a party, people tell me I’d have more impact as an Independent!”
Kelly knows the Labour brand traditionally hasn’t been strong in Roscommon, than his own personal popularity is offset by this historical reality. But, all things being equal, he’s happy to stay with Labour.
“I was ratified again as the Labour Party candidate on Monday night. I see no good reason at this moment in time to walk away from Labour. I have achieved a lot for people and there’s a lot more to come. The key is that as a party member I have access to ministers, access to government. Labour ministers in particular are very receptive to me. You just don’t get that as an Independent.
“Just today (Tuesday) I’ve had a meeting with Minister Ged Nash and a delegation from Toronto who want to set up a software company in Ireland. Next, we’ll meet with the IDA. I will be trying to encourage them to come this way (West of Ireland).”
Kelly says that, contrary to his experience, when Independents go to ministers, they rarely get anywhere. Often, he points out, Independents, including those in Roscommon/South Leitrim, have been slating ministers in the newspapers, then writing to them the following week looking for favours (for the constituency).
He admits he sometimes finds it frustrating that TDs like Michael Fitzmaurice and Denis Naughten are hailed while he and others are criticised.
“It can be frustrating to see that. I know from personal experience that’s it’s great to be an Independent! You can continually huff and puff and point out what’s wrong. But do they (Independents) ever praise ministers in the paper? They’re continuously pounding on the same old drum.”
Kelly’s profile has been raised by his work on setback distances for windfarms, and indeed he has some wind at his back just now, with the economy picking up and some positive developments in the constituency that he can claim some credit for.
But before we get to the improved economic climate of 2015, we need to talk about…Roscommon Hospital.
Enda Kenny and James Reilly were in the line of fire back in 2011 when they renegned on their pre-election assurances that Roscommon A&E would remain open once they were in Government. But Senator John Kelly’s then party leader, Eamonn Gilmore, had given similar assurances.
When the hospital controversy erupted in 2011, Kelly was strongly criticised for not resigning. Instead of taking the stance Denis Naughten took, Kelly, like Frank Feighan, remained supportive of the Government.
“People challenged my position at the time but remember I wasn’t elected by the people. I was elected (to the Seanad) by a different electorate. I was elected to the Seanad by councillors from throughout the country. My manifesto to them wasn’t concerning Roscommon Hospital.”
It was still Labour policy that was being reneged on by Gilmore, and Kelly was a national Labour figure. Should he not have resigned?
“If I had taken the same stance as Denis (Naughten), I’d be out the door; I’d have got the same treatment – I’d have been thrown on the scrapheap.”
He argues that it is much better to knock on ministers’ doors from within Government and says that’s precisely what’s he doing with regard to the future of the Rosalie Unit in Castlerea.
He explains his rationale…
“We have lost Labour councillors and senators…the numbers are tight in the Seanad now. A vote either way could threaten the Government majority there. I have used that present-day scenario to achieve what I want to achieve regarding Rosalie Unit. I have made it clear. I was selected to run for Labour on Monday night but I will be telling Kathleen Lynch (Junior Minister for Health) that she can undo that (his selection). If Rosalie closes, I don’t run for Labour.”
But did he fight for Roscommon A&E? Did he go to Eamon Gilmore and demand its retention?
“I did go to Gilmore…I said ‘this wasn’t mean to happen’ and he told me that he had got assurances that Roscommon would get a superb ambulance and paramedic service. That hasn’t happened. What I suggested to Eamon Gilmore at the time was that both should be in place at the one time, the A&E and the ambulance service, so that people could be convinced. It didn’t happen.”
He concedes that what happened regarding Roscommon Hospital was wrong, and that the ambulance service here is inadequate. He says he will continue to lobby Health Minister Leo Varadkar, but there is frustration in his voice when he adds: “I got a commitment from Leo for fifty extra paramedics for the West of Ireland. What happened? They were given to the HSE, which then went about placing them all over the country.”
Midst the problems, there are positives, Senator Kelly insists. He points to the economic recovery that’s underway and also to the things he believes he has been achieving as a Labour Senator.
“The economy is recovering. I believe this Coalition Government has done a good job. Four years ago commentators said it could be 15 or 20 years before Ireland recovered, but it’s happening already. It still has to filter down to County Roscommon but there are positive signs. We had very good news recently with the creation of 50 jobs in Roscommon town.”
He expects Environment Minister Alan Kelly to make a big announcement in the coming weeks regarding setback distances between windfarms and private houses. It is acknowledged that John Kelly has done great work on this, bringing forward a Bill which will form the basis for his namesake’s announcement.
The Ballintubber man points to other projects which he says have happened because of his work. He references the Cloonakilla school project (“it could be to the tune of €4m”), the lifting of boil water notices, the breakthrough on preventing pylons going exclusively overhead, and the Labour-inspired reversal on cuts to the Roscommon Women’s Network budget.
He says he has received a commitment from Minister Alan Kelly that firemen will be trained up to first responder level so that they can respond and assist in cases of medical emergencies. Senator Kelly is excited about this initiative which he says will greatly help to address the deficit whereby there’s a lack of paramedics available in the health service currently.
Now aged 55, John Kelly plans to run again for Labour, and expects the next outing before the people to be in February of March of next year. He says he hasn’t sought any guarantees from Labour that, if unsuccessful in a General Election, a return to the Seanad for him will be facilitated. There has been no sweetheart deal with Joan Burton. On the contrary, he thinks some Labour ministers will lose seats and that this will make the next Seanad election an almighty scramble. He admits he sought guarantees on his Seanad future before running in last year’s by-election – but without success.
Married to Brid (they have three children: Amy, Darragh and Ronan) John Kelly is a fan of both Leeds United and Roscommon. He is hopeful that Roscommon can turn their championship season around when they play Cavan on Saturday evening; he is not so sure about the short-term prospects for Leeds.
As for his own short-term electoral prospects, he is ready for battle again. And he’s wearing the Labour jersey.
“It seems everyone likes me, but not everybody votes for me!” he says, a touch wistfully. “Well, they vote me for me, but it’s not always the number one vote. And to be at the races, I need as many number one votes as everyone else. So that’s where my concentration will be. I feel I’ve definitely delivered for the people, whereas at the time of the next election my rivals will have delivered nothing.”
As our telephone conversation on Tuesday came to a close, Senator Kelly was preparing to meet Minister Kathleen Lynch, along with other Oireachtas members from Roscommon and a delegation from Castlerea. The topic? The Rosalie Unit.
“My message to Kathleen Lynch will be very simple. One bottom line. If Rosalie closes, I’m gone.”