Alan Kelly is, by any definition, a driven man. During our 35-minute conversation on Thursday last, the 33-year-old Senator, for June’s European election, more than lived up to that assertion. Many a topic was raised and discussed when speaking to The Munster Express. And when I say many, I mean many.
Among them were: Waterford Crystal, Saint Patrick’s Hospital, WIT, dispelling some myths about Brussels-based red tape and why his career to date and geographical base work in his vote-gaining favour.
There was very little negative talk from Labour’s Seanad Finance spokesman, a welcome respite from the daily diet of gloom that much ‘political speak’ has provided us with these past few months.
And when he did sound a less than sunny note, it was reserved for largely measured, as opposed to ranting-on-a-soapbox criticism of the Government and its handling of the economy (or lack thereof in his view).
The biography issued to the media refers to Senator Kelly’s aim “to revive the Labour vote in the Munster area after a few lean years for the party”. He added: “I can only call it Munster, South just doesn’t sit well with me.”
As a former freelance journalist, who also spent nine years working with Fáilte Ireland, dealing with people – and lots of them – has long been part of Alan Kelly’s territory. These qualities should serve him well on the campaign trail.
“I’ve been getting a fantastic reaction,” he said, during a day which would see him traversing the byroads of South Tipperary. By the time the weekend was out, visits to Dungarvan, Limerick, Douglas and Dingle would also be marked off his ‘to do’ list.
It’s a busy time, but clearly one he is relishing. “It’s a logistical challenge to say the least and you really need to plan your days well and make the most of the time you spend in each area, but things have been going very well so far,” he continued.
“It’s a six day a week operation at the moment, with the odd Sunday function thrown in along the way, but I try to keep Sundays free to spend time with my wife Regina.
“Now I’ve been involved in politics since I was 15 so I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting myself into when it came to seeking the nomination.”
And that nomination was won “after a controversial and hard fought battle” (reads his bio) with Arthur Spring, nephew of former Labour leader and Tánaiste Dick Spring.
The bio also states that Senator Kelly won the nomination “hands down and had the vote of most Waterford delegates”.
“As the opinion polls have suggested over the past few weeks, people are warming to the Labour message and that has certainly been helpful to my campaign,” he added.
“Eamon Gilmore has been out campaigning with me on several occasions and there’s clearly tremendous support for his brand of leadership.”
As he pointed out himself, Senator Kelly is the only candidate in the South constituency who is not from either Cork or Kerry. When I suggest that the ‘battle for Brussels’ is a case of who will finish behind Brian Crowley, he offered polite disagreement.
“I don’t think anyone is a shoo-in in the current climate,” he said. “And to be honest, I don’t think Brian would consider himself a shoo-in either.
“I’m young; I’m a people person, I’m upbeat about where Ireland should be going and I firmly believe that our future direction must be at the heart of decision making in Europe. And by speaking on these issues in a clear, transparent way, I believe I will provide a strong voice for Munster.”
Referencing decision making and Europe’s heart brings the Lisbon Treaty into the discourse at the Senator’s behest.
“The main issue, in fact the only issue for most of the people I’ve met and spoken with has been jobs,” said. “Being perfectly straight with you, Lisbon has come up two or three times over the past six months. That’s a fact.”
And what of geography? In a piece a few weeks ago, something which a member of his team humorously told me off on, I suggested that his being based in Nenagh put him at somewhat of a disadvantage. Not so, he assured me.
“We’ve got three MEPs in Munster all living within 14 miles of each other in Cork. That means you’ve got Waterford, Tipperary, Limerick and Kerry combined without any elected representative in Brussels.
“That’s why I believe my location, along with my knowledge and experience of these counties strengthens my case for election.
“And if the reaction I’ve been receiving in these areas, as well as in Cork too I should also point out offers any indication, then there’s grounds aplenty for optimism. I feel I have a very good chance of winning a seat”
He added: “While I live in North Tipperary, I’m only 12 miles from Limerick, worked for eight years in Cork and I have several links to Waterford through my work with Fáilte Ireland. My wife is a native of South Kerry and that’s a place I’ve come to know very well.”
In fact, it was through hearing much of this background detail on Senator Kelly (a member of the Oireacthas European Scrutiny Committee) that Eamon Gilmore first saw the potential in the Nenagh man’s candidacy.
Turning to Waterford, where many a palm has been pressed in recent weeks, Alan Kelly was in Saint Patrick’s Hospital when news broke of Waterford Crystal’s manufacturing halt.
“The workers have been treated terribly, there’s no getting away from that,” he said, following the company’s acquisition by KPS Capital.
“The idea that manufacturing could be carried on somewhere else while the visitor centre remains open in Waterford is, in my view, not a just solution.
“The thought of a brand like this, from a manufacturing perspective being completely lost to Ireland is, to me, unpalatable. It is the workers, after all, who made Waterford Crystal what it is and I don’t understand why the Government didn’t move quickly and decisively to safeguard the company.”
He also failed to conceal his criticism of the Health Service Executive (HSE) when it came to its closing Saint Bridget’s Ward at Saint Patrick’s Hospital.
“When the HSE announced its intention to close the ward, work was just being finished on it. Televisions had just been put in for the patients. And then the HSE says it’s going to shut it. Now where is the sense in that?
“I’ve been in most of Munster’s hospitals – I’m the PRO of the Nenagh Hospital Action Group – and I’ve little faith in any of the HSE’s plans for the new unit at Saint Patrick’s or any of its other proposals for one simple reason. They just do not have the money to do the things they say that they’re going to do.
“To do what they did in Saint Patrick’s, to announce the closure of the ward without planning permission being in place for the replacement unit, never mind funding, and to close it when work had just been completed in Saint Bridget’s Ward – it’s insane.”
Investing in future areas of economic growth is also high on Senator Kelly’s agenda.
“About 75 per cent of today’s primary school children will go on to work on products that will never be actually packaged – they’ll be working on online systems.
“And that’s why I cannot understand the Government’s piecemeal approach to the provision of Broadband which is, in my view, as important now to Ireland as electrification was in the 1930s.
“Broadband is the single most important piece of infrastructure in our country bar none and it is essential for our future economic prosperity. We need to plan for years ahead and not just a few weeks like the Government has been doing over the past few months. And Broadband is the essential component of that strategy.”
And in driving forward the ‘knowledge economy’, education is set to play a pivotal role, which is why WIT’s push for university status cannot be ignored, he added.
“I’m 100 per cent behind WIT’s submission,” said Senator Kelly. “There’s a range of exciting, cutting edge output being produced by the Institute, the sort of work which we will need on a larger scale in the coming years.
“And to think that with just one stroke of a pen, the entire picture for Waterford and much of the province could be changed for the better. It would enhance the area and act as a greater contributor to the local economy.
“On this side of Munster, it’s the only academic show in town on such a large scale and it’s in all our interests to see WIT upgraded to university level.”
So why vote for Alan Kelly?
“I’m someone who is completely committed to serving the people of Munster and, if elected, would act as an advocate for the five counties in the parliament every day.
“I consider myself an innovator, a communicator, a person who seeks to identify solutions as opposed to dwelling on problems. I would ensure we get the greatest possible bang for our buck from Europe and that’s something we need to be acutely sensitive to as we move forward.
“It’s critical that we have someone who can provide a strong voice for Munster and a clear voice from Brussels, someone deeply passionate about the relevance of Europe to Ireland and the importance of Ireland having a strong role in Europe. If elected, I will provide that voice.”