GOVERNMENT chief whip Regina Doherty is the most ambitious woman in the Dáil and sees herself as a future Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach. She comes across as intelligent, feisty and articulate on radio and TV but is accident prone and often too quick to shoot her mouth off. But Regina (46) is a political street fighter as illustrated by her local feud with Meath East party colleague, TD Helen McEntee (30). And if Leo Varadkar is FG’s next leader Regina has high hopes of a cabinet seat.
A measure of Regina’s high expectations was her genuinely felt complaint that she ought to have been made a junior minister in 2014, just three years after taking a Dáil seat for the first time in 2011. Chiming in with the growing gender imperative, she said she found it “”very disappointing and very disheartening” that no women were promoted to the junior ranks in the reshuffle. She also described the prevailing political culture as something that “takes you in, chews you up, spits you out and expects you to bounce back up tomorrow morning in a pink frock and look wonderful”. These soundbytes have been effective in putting Doherty out front in the media but her relentless self-promotion can rebound as when she proclaimed her business experience and acumen in the 2011 general election campaign. In fact, her business record is hardly stellar and she would have been better advised not to have drawn attention to it.
Regina, who hails from Finglas in Dublin, set up an IT company after graduating from DCU and mothering four children. She was a director (and sole shareholder) of Enhanced Solutions Ltd, where the other director was her husband, Declan Doherty. In 2011, the firm had a judgment of €10,000 registered against it by an English IT company. The Companies Registration Office later struck off Enhanced Solutions for not filing accounts. The Dohertys later applied to have the company restored and filed three sets of overdue accounts. These showed accumulated losses of more than €205,000 and also showed that the previous year, the firm had net liabilities of €109,000. The accounts also stated that Regina had taken out a director’s loan of €37,360 in breach of company law, as the loan was greater than 10% of the firm’s net assets (she later repaid the loan.) Meanwhile, the auditors reported that the company had not kept proper books and records for 2010, and the firm went into liquidation in 2013 (see The Phoenix, 9/8/13).
Regina was first elected to Meath County Council in 2009 and to the Dáil in 2011.The other FG Dáil member in the three-seat constituency was the late Shane McEntee who as a sitting TD for six years (and a close colleague of Enda Kenny) had been made junior agriculture minister in 2011. The feuding between Regina, first with Shane McEntee and then his daughter, TD Helen McEntee, began shortly after the 2011 election. Doherty wrote to the then constituency chairman, George O’Connor (a close ally of the McEntees), alleging that Shane had, unlike herself, not ploughed back the 2007 election rebate into party coffers. At the same time, Regina did not renew the contract of her parliamentary PA, Sarah Geraghty, daughter of party stalwart Gerry Geraghty, who had worked tirelessly to assist Doherty’s election. But Sarah is a close pal of Helen McEntee and a cousin of former TD John V Farrelly’s wife. Farrelly is an energetic member of the extended McEntee political family and as such hostile to Doherty. This is the background to one of the most intense political feuds in any constituency in the country, one that has escalated alarmingly in the last year or so.
On a national political level, Doherty first displayed her dexterity when it came to social issues on the vexed topic of abortion legislation. In July 2012, Lucinda Creighton told the parliamentary party an abortion bill would “tear the party apart”. Doherty joined the “irreconcilables” – along with interesting characters like John Deasy, James Bannon, current minister (but then rebel TD) Michael Creed, Billy Timmins and another now loyal junior minister, Patrick O’Donovan – in support of Lucinda in a show of open defiance. But three months later, after Savita Halappanavar’s death, Doherty let it be known she was reconsidering her position. By January 2013, she was fully onside. The Savita tragedy had an impact everywhere and as Doherty explained to the parliamentary party, she had gone on “a journey” with a parliamentary colleague that had changed her mind on the issue. Also affecting her was the need to put clear blue water between herself and Creighton’s parliamentary anti-leadership rump that formed the core of the abortion rebels group. Her fellow traveller on that political sojourn is believed to have been Frances Fitzgerald, one of Kenny’s most loyal cabinet allies. So less than a year after her initial outburst at the parliamentary party, Doherty became leader of a group of women who stood against the wall near Peter Mathews and heckled him as he spoke against government and party policy on abortion.
Doherty quickly showed that other issues of principle as they relate to women could be reframed as she continued her extensive political journey. She and party colleague Heather Humphreys were members of an Oireachtas all-party committee formed to lobby for compensation for victims of symphysiotomy. The aim was to move a bill lifting the statute of limitations allowing victims to pursue legal actions and both women, as well as then health minister James Reilly, supported this proposition. But pressure from the medical lobby and the government’s realisation that legal action would lead to serious compo for hundreds of women saw Reilly change his mind. Doherty and Humphreys followed suit and Regina took another detour, allowing the bill to be abandoned (see The Phoenix, 26/7/13).
If she was disappointed not to be made a junior minister in 2014, Kenny’s failure to make her a full cabinet member last May – she is government chief whip and attends cabinet meetings – seems to have unhinged her. Since then, Regina has made several provocative outbursts attracting much publicity but also earning her a lot of adverse political reaction within FG.
The first salvo Doherty fired off came last July when she demanded that Kenny clarify his intentions and deliver a timeline to his resignation, remarks she quickly retracted, later dismissing them as a “stupid boob”. But a day after the “stupid boob” was delivered, Irish Times journalist Sarah Bardon penned a most supportive and insightful article on Regina’s mentality and resentments. Bardon explained how Doherty thought she had been persistently overlooked for promotion by Kenny, beginning in 2011 when her Meath East constituency colleague, the late Shane McEntee, was made junior minister for agriculture. Party spin doctors and pedants might argue this was on foot of McEntee’s third successful election to the Dáil and his opposition role as deputy spokesperson for agriculture. But Doherty – elected for the first time to the Dáil – felt alienated from the Taoiseach because he had failed to recognise her worth by preferring the insignificant McEntee.
Worse was to come, though, as the breathless Bardon recounted, in 2014 by which time Regina had spent a whole three years in the Dáil. Despite such longevity, “even when Kenny announced the reshuffle in 2014 she never got the call”! The final insult came in May when, “despite her strong media performances, her ability and her political acuteness”, she had to settle for the role of chief whip (with a place at the cabinet table). This, as the sympathetic and well-informed Bardon explained, was anything but ideal given the minority status of the government. Bardon described how Kenny’s “persistent overlooking of Doherty has come back to haunt him”.
Regina’s startling intervention against Kenny made Doherty the first ever government chief whip to effectively demand a Taoiseach’s resignation.
Unfazed, she went on to proclaim support last January for a campaign of civil disobedience by local campaigners fighting Eirgrid’s north-south electricity interconnector involving nearly 300 pylons to be erected in counties Meath, Cavan and Monaghan. Again, she later resiled, arguing that the suggestion she would “encourage civil disobedience is something so far removed from, number one, my personality and number two, the position that I hold as chief whip”. Yet a week before this denial, she told the IT that the pylon issue was more important to her than her position at the cabinet table.
BUSY SIX MONTHS
Hardly pausing for breath, Doherty declared her support for coalition with Sinn Féin – “of course … yeah”, she said, adding that some “incredibly smart, articulate, thoughtful”, even “fabulous” people were in SF. So the government chief whip had in just six months made a statement that threatened Kenny as party leader; declared support for civil disobedience; and supported a government partnership with the Provos. Whew!
Her next target was Helen McEntee, wondering innocently in an interview why her constituency colleague would not talk to her. Doherty knows well what the problem with Helen is as the feud between the two families is the stuff of FG folklore. Regina is seen as a blow-in by the McEntees and by some traditionally minded Blueshirt activists in the Royal County such as George O’Connor and former TD, Farrelly.
Little wonder then that a frisson ran through the FG campaign team at the February 2016 election count in the GAA hall in Ashbourne when O’Connor and Farrelly arrived to manage the tallies as they had traditionally done.
Already assembled was the new election count team headed by Doherty ally and FG constituency chairman Alan Boyce (he now works full time as Doherty’s parliamentary assistant in the constituency). Boyce denied the duo access to the party’s tally room and a heated confrontation occurred, the upshot of which was a complaint to the gardaí from Boyce who alleged that Farrelly had assaulted him. A garda file was referred to the DPP who ruled that no prosecution was to be taken, something that Farrelly took pleasure in relaying to members at a constituency meeting in the Conyngham Arms, Slane, last November. In a most interesting ruling, the DPP decided that while there was a legal basis to begin criminal proceedings about the nature of the alleged assault, it was not in the public interest to commence a prosecution. Other spats have since broken out, including another at the same election count between Doherty’s’s mum, Maria Dalton, her campaign manager and the McEntees and at branch and constituency meetings as the families jockey for ascendancy in Meath East.
Both McEntee and Doherty did well to retain two seats out of three in Meath East and they ran neck and neck until the last count where McEntee was 346 votes ahead. McEntee has a strong, traditional and more rural base than relative newcomer Doherty who relies more on the growing commuter belt population closer to Dublin.
That Doherty might struggle to retain her seat is not in the script she has written for herself which, with oodles of self esteem, sees her moving ultimately to the top in FG. While Helen’s family is traditional FG and so more likely to support Coveney, Helen, being young, smart and more liberal than her family elders, is a fan of Leo’s.
Then again, a Varadkar leadership would have more appeal to Doherty’s base in the commuter belt and she has made it clear she supports Leo. She welcomed him to Dunshaughlin recently and emblazoned her local FG newsletter with four photos of her beaming self and Leo together. Varadkar would also be more likely to promote Doherty rather than McEntee into cabinet while Coveney would find it hard to promote either as his leadership campaign manager is Meath West junior minister Damien English who will have to be rewarded if Simon takes the prize.
The last six months or so have damaged Doherty, though. The prospect of losing out to McEntee in the battle to retain the one seat that is safe explains the ill judged outbursts about Kenny, SF and so on. But the latter topic damaged her among Blueshirt members and voters alike, locally and nationally. Until quite recently Doherty would have been among the top three party personalities in demand as guest speakers in constituencies around the country, but as one senior FG personality put it, she is now in the bottom 10.
But her self confidence is invincible and her energy levels are bottomless. The tension between her and McEntee can, as it often does, result in a maximisation of the party vote and it would not surprise if the two repeated their trick of bucking an anti-FG trend nationally at the next election. Doherty is a much stronger performer on the national stage than McEntee and if she can retain her Dáil seat it is unlikely she can be kept out of the cabinet proper in the future, regardless of who is leader.
But she will have to learn to put her political brain into gear before she opens her mouth.