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Politics: a young man's game

Thursday, 5th May, 2011 6:30pm

Story by Tom Kelly
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Politics: a young man's game

It was after 5am on the morning of Saturday, February 26 last, and Ballynacargy's Robert Troy, almost literally, was the last man standing.

His showdown with Fine Gael's Peter Burke was one of the most memorable electoral battles ever witnessed by followers of politics in Westmeath.

It came after a tough day for Fianna Fáil, not alone in Longford-Westmeath. The party lost had its Dáil representation slashed from 76 seats in 2007 to just 20. Two of the fallers, outgoing deputies Mary O'Rourke and Peter Kelly, did not survive in this constituency, and when Robert arrived at the count centre in Kenagh, there was talk of FG winning three seats.

But transfers were the trump card in lifting the siege of Troy, and today, at just 29 years of age, he occupies an opposition front bench role as Fianna Fáil's spokesperson on Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

Robert was born in 1982 on Main Street, Ballynacargy as the youngest of Paddy and Sarah Troy's twelve children. He still lives on Main Street, where his family have run the post office for generations.

After attending Emper National School, where his mother taught, he enrolled as a boarder at St. Finian's College, Mullingar. Robert admits that as the youngest of a large family, moving away from home was tough at that age.

"I wasn't at all over enthusiastic about it in the first year," he said. "But looking back, it gave me a great foundation.

"It gave you a great sense of independence, and the friendships I made there were very strong and lasting."

Fianna Fáil is etched into his DNA, and Robert was involved with the party from a very early age. But he was always keen to paddle his own canoe, and form his own opinions. St. Finian's offered him that opportunity, where he paid close attention to history, business and geography.

"When I went to St. Finian's it was run by the diocesan priest, and there were five priests there at the time," he explained. "I could honestly say, hand on heart, that they could be tough and strict men, but they were incredibly dedicated to their job, and went the extra mile to ensure that you were happy and secure in the environment you were in, and that you were pushed to your greatest potential."

One of the priests at St. Finian's, the college's current President, Fr. Paul Connell, encouraged Robert to run for school's Student Council during his Leaving Certificate year, and from there he went on to serve two years on the committee of the National Youth Council of Ireland.

"We had many political debates, and everyone was quite aware of my political affiliation at the time," he recalled. "But it was the first time I had a genuine sense that I wanted to spend my life helping other people, and effecting change if I could."

After his Leaving Cert, Robert went to Dublin to work in banking, completing a one year certificate in marketing at Dublin Business School, before pursuing saving, investment and mortgage advice qualifications with the Institute of Bankers in Ireland.

"I went on to be one of the youngest customer relationship managers with AIB, starting in Finglas, then going on to Blanchardstown and finishing with AIB in Lucan," said Robert.

Despite living and working in Dublin, he never lost touch with Ballynacargy, and returned home every second weekend. In 2004, when Tom Burke retired from his Mullingar West seat on Westmeath County Council, the opportunity arose for Robert to enter politics.

He took a career break from AIB, and accepted a nomination to contest the local elections on the FF ticket. Moving home, Robert took on the mantle as postmaster in Ballynacargy, and bought a share in a pub.

Robert successfully defended the second FF seat in Mullingar West. "If the people of Ballynacargy hadn't shown such faith in me, I probably wouldn't have made the Council at all," he reflected. His first five years on the local authority were rewarded in 2009, when he secured almost two and a half times his 2004 vote, breaking the dominance of the Penrose/Labour camp in Ballynacargy.

From 2005, while continuing work as a postmaster and councillor, Robert gained his first exposure to national politics when he became a PA to his political mentor and then TD Donie Cassidy. At home, he immersed himself in the process of local government.

"One of the things I regret most about being a TD is that I'm not on the Council anymore," he said. "When you're on the county council, you're making decisions that will directly help people in your own community, and putting in the necessary pieces of infrastructure.

"It was an extremely rewarding seven years, and I was lucky along the way to meet so many decent hard working people in various community groups, and to assist them in any way I could."

Planning reform was Robert's chief platform during the 2004 elections, and he is happy that in 2011, it is easier for young people native to rural Westmeath to get planning permission to build a home.

When first elected, he proposed an all-party review to tackle planning issues.

"Not only is it the right of a person to get planning permission in a place where they were bred, born and reared, but it's also extremely important for the future sustainability of rural Ireland," he said.

"It's important for the sustainability of services, pubs, shops and schools, which is a very topical issue at the moment. If you don't have people living in rural areas and coming to live there, then rural Ireland would cease to survive."

Robert's seniority on Westmeath County Council was cemented by his re-election in 2009, with over 1,500 first preference votes. At that point, inevitable rumours about a bid for the Dáil began to circulate.

"My intention was always to get re-elected to the Council in June 2009, but after I got the highest party vote in the whole of the constituency, people started to approach me and asked me if I had any ambitions," Robert recalled.

"According as things went on, I began to think I might give it a go, and people were very supportive of me."

Early this year, Robert contested and won a nomination for the general election at FF's constituency convention, defeating Mullingar's Cllr. Aidan Davitt.

"The easiest thing in the world would have been to turn around and say no, and hope that Fianna Fáil's fortunes would turn within five years," he continued.

"But I'm not a coward. I always believed I could win."

His election puts him at the centre of a Fianna Fáil party at its lowest ebb since 1926, but with youth and fresh ideas to the fore, Robert is confident that FF has a future.

He has called on the party to "reawaken the core principles" set down by its founders in the wake of the civil war.

"I don't think any one party has a God-given right to have the support of the people," he said. "We won the support of people in the past because of what we achieved over the years. There needs to be a strong opposition.

"I'm not trying to diminish the policy mistakes which were made, and there were many, nor am I trying to divest Fianna Fáil's responsibility for them.

"But the opposition has to take some of the blame. Not once during the period in question did they ask for spending to be curtailed."

FF's future, Robert contends, is to act as a responsible opposition to prevent any further mistakes being made.

"We have paid the price for mistakes made, and we have to rebuild. We have a weaker party in terms of numbers, but a very young front bench, led by high calibre people like Micheál Martin and Éamon Ó Cuív, who have the experience and integrity to assist us.

"Fianna Fáil needs to get back to its core principles. We became far too removed from people on the ground, and if you want to see what Fianna Fáil is, all you have to do is go to cumann meetings and see the ordinary, decent people involved in their own communities for no personal gain.

"They're the people I represent, and from a party point of view, it's a pity they didn't have a greater say over the years."

At the moment, in his new role as FF's Arts spokesperson, Robert liaises with organisations such as Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, the Arts Council, the Irish Film Board, and the Heritage Council and other bodies on how to put Ireland's best cultural foot forward amidst the ongoing recession.

He enjoys jousting with his opposite number, the Fine Gael Minister for Arts and Heritage Jimmy Deenihan, whom he describes as "very non-partisan".

Robert also regularly keeps in touch with captains of industry to come up with new ideas and job-making initiatives.

Outside of politics, Robert is an ardent supporter of GAA in Ballynacargy and Westmeath. He is a nephew of the former chairman of Westmeath County Board, Fr. Ulick Troy.

Robert likes to maintain an active social life, and describes recent comments by the Transport Minister, Leo Varadkar, as "appalling".

"I can't imagine what it's like to be given the honour and the privilege to be called to serve as a minister, and then to turn around and say it's a drag on your social life," he said. "It's an arrogant statement."

He has paid tribute to his mentor and friend, Donie Cassidy, who recently lost his seat in Seanad Éireann. "It's been a difficult month for Donie," he continued. "I can't imagine how hard it must be for him. "In 2004 he encouraged me to run for the Council, and gave me an opportunity to work for him when he was a TD, enabling me to build a profile within the party.

"He is someone who has always genuinely supported any young person getting involved in politics, and that's a great quality, when in so many parties you have older people who tend to keep younger politicians down."

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