Over on twitter I was kindly reminded that on this day 22 years ago the 1992 General election and abortion referendums took place. They hold many memories for me both good and bad. It got me thinking though. I got involved in politics very young and have often asked myself if this was a good or bad thing? Those of you who have read my 2006 autobiography ‘Party Time’ will know most of this story. Since that though much has changed and my own life has taken many twists that put a new perspective on things. I am still trying to evaluate if the whole thing was positive or negative on balance.
I grew up in a household embedded in politics. Albert Reynolds was a regular visitor and from my youngest days I remember sitting up late as the conversations went on, especially during the GUBU period. I fell in love with politics. When I was 10 I officially joined the cumann and started going to meetings. Cumann, Comhairle Ceanntair, Comhairle Dail Ceanntair, where there was a meeting I wanted to go. I didn’t care how long it dragged on for, I wanted to be there in the middle of everything. I quickly became a fixture at all political meetings.
At school I was only popular on Budget day when I would help everyone with their homework. One year we were all asked to come in and speak to our class mates about the budget rather than write an essay. We were all about 11. Now most had a quick point or two and spoke for 30 seconds to a minute. I, being in my element, regaled the class with Budget details for a full 10 minutes. When I was 12 I was youth officer in my cumann. By 14 I was on Comhairle Ceanntair Committees, by 16 I was on Comhairle Dail Ceanntair committees and doing ‘ward boss’ tasks.
The cumann was small and everything was a team effort but I was thrilled to be given the task of organising the final rally for Albert Reynolds in 1992. Now it wasn’t hard. Book the band, get on the phones, and decorate the hall. Make sure everyone had a job and it was done. It fairly much organised itself and people just showed up but it was a great feeling. I was rewarded by then Cumann Chair Joe Farrell suggesting I be installed as cumann Chair the next year in recognition of my service. That would be when I was 17. The chair of the Comhairle Dail Ceanntair, Ned ‘the county’ Reilly, thought it a great idea and said all would ‘be in good hands’. Heady stuff for a teenager. It was the impromptu and informal meetings that gave me the biggest thrill though. The off the record discussions after a meeting. The insights only the select few might be privy to. An inner circle and I was accepted into it. That same year the school principal Fr. Garvey took me aside and asked for my assistance in getting a new school wing to replace the ageing prefabs. I sat down with him and reviewed the plans. It took a while, but the building is there today.
Going to College wasn’t easy because it took me away from my political base. It took me away from people I thought of as friends. I quickly got involved in the Dundalk political scene though. Set up a cumann and got on my bike visiting every senior cumann secretary in Dundalk, drinking tea and eating sandwiches to convince them a college cumann was no threat and could be well run.
Life is funny though. When Albert resigned I was so jealous of many of those I soldiered with. They talked about having had a good time, having done their bit and letting someone else take over. I would have liked to finish on that high but I couldn’t. I still had a whole life ahead of me. Instead of taking over I found myself often bundled in with the ‘Reynolds rump’ A country n Western relic if you will. Despite having a good relationship with so many I was always going to be seen as a Reynolds loyalist. Which I was. Therefore acceptance into new inner circles was always a problem. One could get so far but never quite be fully trusted.
By the time I was 20 I was working in Dublin and travelling up and down to Longford several nights a week for meetings. I was also on a campaign trail. I decided to attempt to get election to the Fianna Fail National Executive through the Committee of 15. A national election at the Ard Fheis. To give you an idea of the task, it was not something a 20 odd year old was normally running for. In my Longford base I had 66 votes. Some counties had 400. I needed about 1300 to be elected. Luckily I wasn’t on my own. My Director of Elections was former Senator Mickey Doherty, ably assisted by Bennie Reid and Tom Donlon. This was a core of the old Reynolds Election machine. These men had a lifetime of experience and contacts behind them. However, I still had to campaign and tour the country in my car. Despite the fallings out and animosity that grew between the Haughey and Reynolds factions I always remained friendly with PJ Mara. Whatever about our leaders we overcame any issues to stay friends. While on the campaign trail one night in the Gresham Hotel PJ sat down beside me and said ‘Johnny I know why I’m here, but what the hell are you doing? You should be out on the town chasing young wans with big boobs, instead you’re stuck in here’ To be fair the man had a point.
Life changes fast though. I met my wife and bought a house in Dublin. Frequenting meetings just wasn’t as easy anymore. I was no longer anybody’s right hand man. The scene moves on quickly. I still entertained some thoughts of getting back into the game when I moved back to Longford. However, I attended one meeting and a very well meaning lady came over to me and quite understandably asked ‘And who are you? Are you thinking of joining us?’ Some of the old crew then informed her but it made me realise that I was going to have to start all over again. 20 years of meetings, chicken and chips, late nights, pints, skulduggery, scheming, planning, pointless talk, smiling and rowing…I wasn’t sure I had it in me to start again. We had our first child and after that I realised that I was not going to be out at night unless I had to be.
Things are a bit different in the country. Age is not that big a barrier. Young and old crowd into the same pub and chat about the same things. If I went to my local, the Peer Inn in Lisnacusha, I would be looking out for Joe Farrell at the counter for a chat more than anyone else. When I was 16 some of the people I was closest to and experienced the most with were 40 years older than me. Joe Farrell is gone, John Coyle is gone, Yvonne Sheridan is gone, Mickey Doherty is gone, Tony Farrell is gone, Ned Reilly is gone, Larry and Josie McKenna are gone, Albert is gone…..many more are with them. Others are ill and one or two are still going strong. It’s been a long goodbye for many years and sometimes I think a teenager is not meant to consider people as friends and allies that are so much older. I even avoided going to funerals because I’m never quite sure what I am supposed to feel. Many people only get into politics around the age I was getting out. Perhaps they are right; maybe it helps stave off some of the scepticism.
I have taken to writing about politics. That is no easy task either. I have to call a situation as I see it and try predicting outcomes. When I know the people involved or understand how much any party means to its supporters it’s not easy. I know some of the things I say hurt and annoy. I only hope that when people read it they know I always write out of respect and any criticism is there as much as a warning as anything else. I am too tired to ever be bothered with malice anymore. I have learned the game and can see when it’s being played and see it as my role now to point it out and comment upon the player. So, in a way I received a tremendous education from politics. I’d be nothing without it. Hell or high water would not have stopped that teenager from going to meetings and getting stuck in. It was perhaps something like learning a trade. It has helped me see situations in a different light and particularly when writing books on politics I like to try bring that bottom up insight to what I write.
All that said there were no marks in the junior cert for knowing anything about the Maastricht treaty, there were no leaving cert points for being able to recite the Downing Street declaration. So maybe I should have stuck to school, had more girlfriends, and got myself a good education. But sure what is it they say in politics? ……’We are where we are.’