Still going strong
Published 28/04/2015 | 00:00
Among the hundreds of delegates at the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis in the RDS at the weekend was a man from close to Wellingtonbridge who has literally lost count of just how many of them he has been at.
Rich Howlin, now pushing close to 80 years of age, is a lifelong party stalwart who joined the Cleariestown cumann while still a teenager back in De Valera's days, and who went to serve as Chairman of the Wexford Comhairle Ceanntair for many years.
He may never have been tempted to run for office himself - 'I never had the time, and maybe I never had the courage either,' he says - but such is his stature in the party nationally that he was invited in 1990 by the then Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, to become a trustee of Fianna Fáil.
It's a position he still holds today and one he is immensely proud of, as its lineage can be traced all the way back to Margaret Pearse, mother of 1916 rebels Pádraig and Willie Pearse, who was the very first trustee of Fianna Fáil after she was among the co-founders of the party back in 1926.
Rich says his first Ard Fheis was 'somewhere around the mid-1970s', and that 'I wouldn't have missed any more than one or two since, and only when there a good reason to keep me away!'.
That means he's closing in on roughly forty of them, but still, in the lead-up to this year's gathering, he saw it as one of the most crucial for the party in recent years.
A large part of the reason why was the continued and growing questioning of the leadership of Michéal Martin. Rich says questions are only natural at such a time for the party, which remains at by far its lowest ebb ever in terms of numbers of TDs.
'Questions of leadership are to be expected, and in my view, are largely well-intended. It would be more worrying if members of the party were not concerned,' he says - before quickly adding that he is firmly in the Martin camp himself.
He points out that he has personally known all eight leaders of the party since its foundation (De Valera, Lemass, Lynch, Haughey, Reynolds, Ahern, Cowen and Martin) and has worked with the last four of them as a trustee.
'I'm often asked to compare them, and in my view, Michéal Martin is as good as we've had,' he says. 'We need a leader who is articulate, well respected, confident, hard-working and experienced, and not a populist. We have such a leader in Michéal Martin, and despite questions and what others are saying about wanting to lead the party, he will lead us into the next election.'
Rich goes on to say that when Martin took the party reins four years ago, it was a time of dramatic change for economies worldwide.
'He became leader just as Fianna Fáil were about to lose more seats than ever before in the history of the party, at one of the most difficult times for any of our leaders ever. Nonetheless, and against all the odds, he led us back to win 25 per cent of the vote in the Local Elections last year, and Fianna Fáil is now the largest party in local government, with 267 seats altogether.'
Rich also points to several other initiatives that Martin's leadership has instigated as Fianna Fáil rebrands and restructures itself in this time of flux. Chief among them is the new 'one member, one vote' policy, which replaces the old system whereby each cumann had the same voting power on issues such as General Election candidates, whether they had just ten members or more than one hundred. 'About 20,000 members have signed up to this new system, and it will mean big changes in how decisions are made in the years ahead,' he says.
As he prepared for the Ard Fheis, Rich had another important engagement first - eighteen holes at Rosslare Golf Club on the day before the party convention started.
He's a past president and captain of the club, and still earmarks each Thursday as golfing day - and perhaps no wonder, for a man who has always been active and busy in various fields outside of Fianna Fáil and politics.
His working life was spent in the construction industry, after he first went to work more than sixty years ago for Mattie Wallace in Wellingtonbridge in what was to become the large M&J Wallace firm. He graduated through the ranks there to the position of Managing Director, and oversaw countless large building projects that included work on more than 100 churches nationwide (among them the new churches at both Rosslare Harbour and Rosslare Strand in the 1970s, as well as seven others in the Dublin Archdiocese) and schools in Ballycanew, Clonroche, and Wexford.
His construction knowledge and political connections saw him invited by Albert Reynolds to become Chairman of the National Building Agency (NBA) in 1990 - a position he held until 1995, before being re-appointed in 1998, and one he still holds today as the Agency is still technically in existence despite being superceded by the establishment of the Housing & Sustainable Communities Agency in 2010.
'There are still some technicalities and other matters to be sorted out before it comes to a close altogether,' he explains, revealing that he was due to be at a NBA board meeting on Friday morning, ahead of the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis. He then points out proudly that the last three major jobs undertaken by the NBA were all in County Wexford - the new library at Mallin Street and the re-vamped swimming pool at Ferrybank in Wexford town, and the spectacular quayside boardwalk in New Ross.
Rich also served as a board member with Irish Life for some twelve years, and with Coillte for another ten - but the thing he looks back upon most fondly is in a different sphere altogether.
'The biggest thrill of all was playing football for Ballymitty!' he smiles. 'We won a County Junior Championship when we beat Cloughbawn in 1956. Then we got to two senior finals after that, but we lost them both. It would have been great to win one.'
It's one of the few regrets he has.
Rich Howlin - Wellingtonbridge.
Age 79 (will be 80 in July).
Lifelong Fianna Fail stalwart. Former Chairman of Wexford Comhairle Ceanntair. Party trustee since 1990.
Former Managing Director of M&J Wallace Construction Ltd.
Chairman of National Building Agency since 1990.
Former board member of Irish Life and Coillte.
Past President and Captain of Rosslare Golf Club.
President of Bannow Historical Society.
Considering he has such an interest in and passion for our history and heritage, it's no surprise to learn that Rich Howlin has strong views on how we would like to see the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising commemorated next year.
Some time ago, he was asked to make a submission to Eamon O Cuiv on the matter, and he plumped for the building of a new Abbey Theatre. He says it would be a fitting way to mark the memory of the men of 1916, and specifically the literary and artistic talents that were sacrificed.
'I believe the cetenary should be appropriately marked, and that all living relatives of those who died should be consulted and recognised,' he says. 'A suitable commemoration should then include an acknowledgement not just of the great sacrifice of those who gave their lives, but of the significant loss to a new nation of the writers and poets involved.
'So, I look for a suitable national artistic and long-lasting memorial, and I remember that the Abbey, the national theatre, was closely associated with the foundation of the State and the independence movement. There is a long-standing but unrealised plan to build a new theatre on the current site. The property between the existing theatre and the Quays is in State ownership for that purpose.
'It would be a worthy project to commemorate 1916 to hold an international architectural competiton for an iconic new national theatre fronting onto the River Liffey, to take its place alongside the Four Courts, the Customs House, and the International Conference Centre,' he says.
He is particularly passionate about the matter because of his position as trustee of Fianna Fail and the direct link that brings to the Pearse family.
'It has been my good fortune to remain for so long a member of Fianna Fail, the party founded by the men and women of 1916 who survived,' he says. 'Eventually, I was to become a trustee of this party and I have always been humbled to know that the mother of the Pearse brothers was one of the first trustees. There could scarcely be a more immediate connection with the man who stood on the steps of the GPO 99 years ago.'