By Dermot Crean
IT’S hard to imagine being a political veteran at the age of 34, but looking at her record, it’s a description that could be applied to Toireasa Ferris.
A county councillor since 2003, the daughter of the Sinn Fein Deputy, Martin Ferris, has been a mainstay there since and has served as Mayor of Kerry during her stint in the local authority.
I met her at the Sinn Fein offices in Tralee where she was busy answering calls from constituents and preparing to head out on the canvass.
Educated in Ardfert National School and the Gaelcholaiste in Tralee, she went on to UL to study Law and European Studies. She then went to Queens University, Belfast where she did a Masters in Human Rights and Criminal Justice and next week she will be enrolling in UL again to do her Phd. (“I either do it now while my children are young or wait until they finish their education in about 15 years time”).
Was a political career always on the cards for Toireasa?
“Well there’s six of us in the family and I’m the only one involved in politics. So it’s not so much that it was inevitable, it’s just that I have an obvious interest in politics and having grown up in a Republican household, I was drawn to a Republican party. Obviously when my father got out of jail I became involved in electoral politics. I helped out in the 1997 campaign where we came very close, before success in 2002. Once I turned 16, myself and Conor Foley started a branch of Ogra Sinn Fein in Kerry and that’s when my real activism started.”
Then in 2003, with the dual mandate abolished and her father having to give up his local seat, the party came knocking.
“I was co-opted on to Kerry County Council in September 2003. It wasn’t something I envisaged or desired as it was the night before my second last final exam in UL and I got a call saying the party decided I was the best person to put forward to the council. It was a huge shock for me. I spent the night thinking ‘how am I going to tell my father that I do not want to do this’.”
But she relented and gave a year’s commitment.
“I said I’d go into the council and contest the local elections and then I’d get my life back but it’s now 11 years later and I’m still involved in electoral politics.”
Still there and facing into another election. So what does she feel are the major issues facing the Tralee electoral area (see video)
She has been surprised at the reaction on some doorsteps during the canvass.
“I have been stunned at some doors we have been gone to. The welcome we’re getting at some traditional Fianna Fail and Fine Gael households has been surprising. A number of households have told us they’ve chased other candidates from their doors. While it’s heartening, it doesn’t mean we’re going to be getting number ones from all these houses. We’ll certainly get preferences but it’s the extra ones which will determine whether we get the extra seat or hold onto what we have.”
While national issues are out of the hands of councillors, Toireasa said she is determined to try to reduce the property tax by 15%.
“We [Sinn Fein] have given a commitment that we’ll reduce it by 15%. I know another party has said they will do this also but I want people to judge them by their actions. Months ago I put forward a motion saying the Council should commit to reducing the property tax by the maximum of 15% and not one single member of the other parties supported it.”
She sees huge tourism potential for north Kerry which is untapped at the moment.
“The Wild Atlantic Way, if it’s done right, will give a huge opportunity to sell a countywide product. I’m involved with a group that is working with the St Brendan story where we can attract visitors interested in the religious aspect or the celtic angle and the Brendan The Voyager story. There’s huge potential inland too in Ratoo Tower and many medieval sites dotted around north Kerry.”
Politics is of course a time-consuming career, especially for someone with young children.
“It’s not a career conducive to a good quality family life regardless of whether you’re a mother or a father. There are other parents in Kerry County Council with young families, both male and female, and it is as hard for me as it is for any of them. But definitely for family life, entering into politics would not be the best idea. The time that’s involved, the exposure and lack of privacy for elected representatives.”
On the whole women in politics issue, she doesn’t support gender quotas.
“I support equal opportunity for all to get involved in electoral politics. I personally do not support gender quotas, I do not support discrimination of any kind when it comes to any position in life. It has to be based on ability rather than gender or anything else.”
When it comes to hobbies she says she has “a very dull and boring life”.
“I’m exceptionally lazy when it comes to sport or physical activity, I’ve tried the gym but no…I’ll eventually find my niche. Were it not for becoming involved in ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ for Austin Stacks last year, I probably wouldn’t have much of a social life. Children, work, children, work,” she said referring to Liadain and Seadhna, her children with husband, Pa Kelly.
Being a councillor, Toireasa’s phone is always on and she gets calls into the night. Sometimes though it’s better to turn it off once in a while…
“I remember when I was having my first child and I had the phone with me to inform family of any developments. I got a phone call, that I stupidly answered, so I was having contractions and listening to somebody ranting about an issue she was having with the housing department.She was quite taken aback when I said ‘can I ring you back in a few days, I’m going into the labour ward shortly’. That was my own fault though, I shouldn’t have answered the phone.”