JIM Daly believes he would have been in with a shot of being made a senior minister – West Cork’s first since 2004 – after the next election.
But instead he’s decided his five children are his priority and he’s looking forward to full-time parenting for at least a few months when he retires from public life next May.
After that, the 46-year-old former school principal insists he has genuinely no idea what’s next for him. But, having mulled over making the decision – which shocked many, not least the Taoiseach – for over six months, he’s 100% certain that resigning the €130,000-a-year job that he loved is the right one for his family.
He said he also feels enormous personal relief having made the announcement.
‘I met someone before I’d gone public with my decision, and she said I looked like “the old Jim Daly we knew in Rosscarbery years ago”. I just feel so much lighter in myself,’ he said.
He admits many were hoping he’d be West Cork’s first senior minister since Joe Walsh stepped down 15 years ago.
‘But I told the Taoiseach last Wednesday night that if he gave me a commitment in writing that I’d be Tánaiste after the next government, it still wouldn’t change my thinking, because this is about five children down in West Cork,’ he said.
He declined to comment any further on his private life, but did say: ‘I believe in public life. My private life is really of no bearing whatsoever on that.’
He made no bones about how difficult it was to reconcile a well-paid job he loved, and which he believed he was good at, with being away from his family.
He feels there’s a lot of emphasis on gender in politics, but not on geography, which is something he’s brought to the fore.
‘It was four hours at least door-to-door. You’re a long way from home and you’re missing an awful lot and I’ve done it for almost 10 years,’ he said.
‘I have five children, aged 16 to six. Last week I spent just one night in my own bed at home. I was in a hotel for the other six nights, so it’s not sustainable and that’s what I just realised.
‘Year-on-year it gets harder, when you miss the Christmas play again, when you’re ringing saying “Happy Birthday” from a hotel room, I’ve done that just too many times. You just take stock and reflect and say “is this really what I want to do?” That’s what started the conversation within me. Maybe I did it better before to not let it get to me when I missed things. But as they’re growing older, I’m really valuing that time with them and appreciating it.’
After his household was so accustomed to his busy routine, he wondered how his children would react to the news he’d now be around full-time, but he said they were all genuinely delighted.
‘I increasingly found they didn’t want to go anywhere with me anymore, because I was stopped every few yards along the way, which is part of being a public representative, but that’s hard for them,’ he said.
But he admits that not alone was it hard to step away from a job he felt he had more to give to, it was also difficult to leave behind the financial security.
‘I’m leaving a salary of €130,000 behind me and I’m going back to zero and taking a gamble, and my family have to take that gamble with me, living standards may change and all of that, so it’s a big call to make.’
And despite some criticism online of him being able to head off with a ‘big pension’ he won’t be eligible for his minister’s pension until he’s 66 – in 20 years’ time.
‘I don’t get anything until then. I’ve about 10 years’ service, and it will be based on that. I haven’t worked it out. I’ve no problem about people speculating about money, but I never went into politics for the money. I was a very wealthy individual in my own independent right before I ever went into politics. I had a pub at 22 years of age, and I was a teacher as well. I took a big drop going into politics. I went into politics to genuinely make a difference.’
Whatever the future holds, the junior minister is certain that he won’t be returning to teaching. ‘I’ve done that before, so I imagine it will be a new career, but what it will be, or what shape it will take, or where it will be, I don’t know. I’m in the position I’m in now probably until next May or June, so that gives me six to eight months to look.
‘In the first instance, I’ll take a few months off to do the school runs and the things I’ve missed so desperately, and then obviously I have to make ends meet so I will be looking for some job – I’m open to offers.’
He’s says he’s always had an interest in business. ‘I’ve always been my own boss mostly. I had a pub, a B&B, I imagine I could take on a venture, but maybe I’m getting too old for those kinds of risks? I don’t know that either, but I’ll have to see.’
From now until next May, he says it’s a case of head down to get as much work done for West Cork as possible, including securing funding for Schull Harbour’s marina.
Before he leaves the Dáil he also wants to see Bantry Hospital’s theatre operating four days a week.
He’ll also be fully on board supporting the party’s candidate to run instead of him.
‘The constituency AGM is next Friday night, where it will be put out there that we’re looking for a candidate. There’s plenty of talent there, but it’s not for me to anoint a successor ... I’ll wait and see who presents and I’ll certainly help them. I’m not retiring until after the election, and I’ll be on the road campaigning to make sure we get our second seat.’
Among his most proud achievements as junior minister, he says, is the upgrading of Clonakilty hospital.
‘It is unrecognisable compared to what it was a few years ago, thanks to the management team, but I’ve played my part. Opening the transitional care unit there is probably my biggest achievement that I drove fully and completely.’
He dismissed a weekend newspaper column that said politicians spend too much time attending funerals as a vote-gaining exercise.
‘As a politician, as a person, I know an incredible amount of people in West Cork and if somebody has a bereavement and if I know a family member you go to that, that’s human nature.
‘The idea that I’d be running around to compete with another TD is bizarre. It’s sick, that I would use someone’s loss for my political gain. Some politicians overdo it, but most of my colleagues know an awful lot of people.’
The Drinagh man said he’d taken risks all his life, including backing Leo Varadkar over fellow Cork man Simon Coveney for Taoiseach, and supporting the Repeal the Eighth campaign, and he hoped this risk would prove to be another winner.
‘Sometimes you stand out from the crowd and do your own thing and I’d like to think that was the hallmark of me in politics, and thankfully they all worked out. Maybe this one is one too far, but only time will tell.’
Blown away by the tsunami of goodwill shown to him, he said a random gentleman he met in the supermarket last weekend summed it up best when he came up to him and said: ‘They’ll be all mad to vote for you now!’
Chatter across the pub counter gave Daly a thirst for political life
The Drinagh teacher got his taste for politics while running a pub in Rosscarbery. Jackie Keogh takes a look back at his varied career
JIM Daly first came to the public’s attention when, together with his sister Orla, they bought a pub, the Courthouse Bar, in Rosscarbery in 1995.
The Drinagh native was just 22 at the time and went on to run the pub for six years.
It was a career that allowed him to dabble in music promotion, and bring household names like Mary Black, Don Baker, the Wolfe Tones and Stockton’s Wing to play open air concerts in West Cork.
Jim did that in tandem with teaching fifth and sixth classes in the local primary school in the nearby village of Leap.
He said: ‘It was the pub that sparked my interest in politics. The inspiration came from listening to conversations at the bar counter.’
They sold the bar in 2001, and Jim took up the position as principal of Gaelscoil Dr Uí Shúilleabháin in Skibbereen.
It wasn’t until October 2003 that he had his first political contest, which came in the form of the Fine Gael selection convention.
He got the nod and in June the following year, he became a public representative in the Skibbereen Electoral Area.
That September, Jim returned to the gaelscoil to tender his resignation so he could devote himself full-time to politics.
The move, at the time, was considered brave and a lot of people expressed surprise. Jim admits it was something of a gamble but it paid off because he went on to top the poll at the next local election.
That poll-topping performance meant he was being spoken about seriously as a possible successor to the long-serving Fine Gael TDs Jim O’Keeffe from Bandon and PJ Sheehan from Goleen.
Jim’s luck held out because his term as mayor of Cork County Council in 2010 gave him a high profile in the lead-in to the 2011 general election.
On that occasion – his first attempt at taking a Dáil seat – he topped the poll, with 8,878 first preferences, or 19.4% of the votes, and also brought his running mate Noel Harrington in with him.
Jim served as a backbench TD from 2011 to 2016 and he was re-elected to the Dáil in February 2016, taking the third of three seats in the Cork South West constituency – behind Fianna Fáil’s Margaret Murphy O’Mahony and Independent TD Michael Collins – with 7,370 first preference votes.
When, in May 2011, he invited the then Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar to open his constituency office in Skibbereen, some eyebrows were raised.
It was an early indication that Jim Daly would go on to back Dublin’s Leo Varadkar over Cork’s Simon Coveney in the contest for leadership of the party.
It was his second professional gamble and that, too, paid off because in June 2017, shortly after Leo Varadkar was appointed Taoiseach, Jim Daly was made Minister of State in the Department of Health with special responsibility for Mental Health and Older People.
Daly is likely to hold the position until after the next election, which he believes will most likely take place in May 2020.
Jim said he is hoping that his third big professional gamble will be ‘a hat trick’.
As for what the future holds, he told The Southern Star: ‘I don’t know. It will be May or June before I am free. It’s all in the roll of a dice.’