The constituency of Longford-Westmeath celebrated its first seat in Cabinet in almost nine years this week when Deputy Willie Penrose received his seal of office from President Mary McAleese on Wednesday night (March 9 ) in Áras an Úchtaráin.
Deputy Penrose was named junior minister at the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government with special responsibility for housing and planning under Fine Gael’s Phil Hogan, but this portfolio was deemed sufficiently important to warrant a Cabinet seat as a “super junior”.
Yesterday [Thursday March 10], in a snatched conversation with the Advertiser, Minister Penrose explained how important this position was to him.
“I came out of a local authority home, so I know what I’m on about. This is very important to me. From my first days on the council I worked on improving this. People deserve the best roof possible over their heads,” he stated.
“There are huge issues with ghost estates and the provision of social housing. There’s the tenancy deposit protection scheme, and homeless strategies. It’s a very diverse and wide area of responsibility,” he explained.
Despite “hitting the ground running” at two Cabinet meetings before lunchtime on Thursday, where a reduction in Ministerial pay and severances was agreed, and Ministerial transport arrangements discussed, the Minister felt he wouldn’t get a full feel for his portfolio until today (Friday ) when he had his first full series of meetings with his Department mandarins and principals.
“You want to know what you’re at. I’ll know exactly where I’m going after meeting officials,” he pointed out.
The Minister confirmed he did seek clarification from his party before accepting the position in the new Cabinet, but denied it was this that led to Enda Kenny’s half-hour delay in naming his Cabinet,
“Oh, no. I was only a few minutes getting clarification [on the post]. Fortunately Pat Rabbitte was near at hand and he was the first ever ‘Ssper junior’,” said the new Minister, after being sufficiently reassured.
“Look. I’m a barrister and I just wanted to make sure it was proper and gave me a voice. There’s no point sitting at the table if your just going to be a note taker,” he added.
“I wanted to have unrestricted input, but I’ll listen and learn before shouting off.”
Formerly the Labour Party’s spokesperson on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Willie started his career in politics at 13, as the branch secretary in his home town of Ballynacargy.
He was first elected to the Dáil in November 1992, he was re-elected in the 1997, 2002, 2007, and 2011 General Elections.
He was first elected to Westmeath County Council, and served there from 1984 until the ending of the dual mandate in 2003
Since being elected for Labour in the Spring tide of 1992, Penrose has continued to be a poll-topper for his party, and prior to his election, the party had not had a seat in Westmeath since 1927.
He has been described as “a star electoral performer” that defied national trends in 1997 when he topped the poll with 8,037 votes - just 160 short of the quota, and his popularity throughout his constituency has been strong since then.
In the 1999 local elections, he won more than 42 per cent of the votes in Mullingar West, and in 2002 he topped the poll with 8,967 first preferences. In the 2007 election, Willie once again topped the poll by securing over 12 per cent (9,692 ) of all first preferences.
Two weeks ago in Keenagh he improved his vote again, and ended the first count just 100 votes short of a quota with 11,406.
In 2002, Penrose was a candidate for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party. Although he was part of a joint ticket with Pat Rabbitte, who won the leadership comfortably, he was narrowly defeated for the deputy leadership by Liz McManus, polling 1,636 votes to McManus’ 1,728.