O'Dea was just a head on a plate for the Greens in test of their virility
The former minister believes his punishment was disproportionate to the crime and he resents the role played by Dan Boyle and sections of the media, writes Aengus Fanning
Published 21/02/2010 | 05:00
Willie O'Dea will believe to his dying day that he was the Fianna Fail head on the Greens' plate, the person unlucky enough to be caught in the glare of the headlights when they needed an issue to prove their political virility.
While O'Dea admits he did wrong, he believes that the punishment was disproportionate to the crime. And he deeply resents the role played by the unelected Senator Dan Boyle -- "he footed the poll in the European elections" -- whose tweeting intervention forced the Greens to change their tune overnight after the vote of confidence last Wednesday.
At about 5.15pm last Thursday, O'Dea, in Limerick, got a call from the Taoiseach to say that John Gormley had been to see him and that the Greens unanimously wanted O'Dea to resign as the price for their staying in government. He reluctantly fell on his sword and the Greens pronounced themselves satisfied.
His resentment goes deep and, while he will not say so, it is clear that he believes the episode has shortened the life of the Government. He is also very bitter about the part played by the Irish Times and Fine Gael Senator Eugene Regan for what he regards as their obsessive pursuit of him.
O'Dea, 57, is a barrister and accountant who lectured in law and taxation at UCD and the University of Limerick, as well as working as a taxation expert in PricewaterhouseCoopers. He has been in the Dail for 28 years, pulling in a massive personal vote, and had been Minister for Defence for five-and-a-half years, having spent nine years as junior minister in education, justice and health.
His undoubted brilliance is often hidden from people who cannot see beyond his diminutive appearance. He is feisty, witty, an acute analyst, a consummate electioneer addicted to politics and a professional politician to his fingertips. There are not many his equal in that arcane art.
Aengus Fanning: First off, my commiserations. Not only are you one of the outstanding politicians in the country, and you are one of the best across the board in all the parties, but if I may say so you are a very fine journalist too.
Willie O'Dea: "I very much appreciate you saying things like that, you're in a much better position to judge such things than I am."
AF: Well the thing is, in my view, and correct me if that's wrong, there are two separate things here. There's the ethical issue which anyone can measure on their own personal Richter Scale between one and 10, depending on their ethical lodestar, and then there's the politics of the situation, and that's what was played out over the last couple of days; what would you say to that?
WO'D: "Well, I suppose it's a reasonable interpretation. It's politics, and politics is a tough business. One day you're up and one day you're down.
"I was the central character in this, as it were, I was the person who was there and now the person is not there, so from that point of view I have lost my job, the people who decided that are the only people who can answer that question as to what was going through their minds when they decided to support me on a Wednesday and withdraw their support on a Thursday -- because as far as I'm concerned nothing whatsoever had changed."
AF: Except the intervention of the Green Party chairman, Senator Dan Boyle, who seems to me to be a playmaker in situations like this, even though he's not elected, he's an appointee to the Seanad.
WO'D: "Well, I think what happened here -- as far as I can ascertain, maybe I'm wrong, this is the way it's been explained to me -- is that there were various rumours swirling around the people who had direct evidence of all these events, namely the Limerick Leader.
"The editor and the relevant journalist were writing a story for the weekend Limerick Leader that would further elucidate matters and would put me in a very bad light, as it were, and would contradict some of what I was saying.
"In fact, I told John Gormley that I was fairly confident that they would actually vindicate what I was saying, and they did vindicate what I was saying.
"Remember, the allegations were basically that I didn't know I was being taped and I was caught out by this secret tape. I made a point all the time that I knew I was being taped and the journalist confirmed that.
"The other rumour that was swept around Leinster House on Wednesday evening was that I asked the editor of the Limerick Leader to destroy the tape (he of course rubbished that) -- that didn't happen.
"The other question that arose was, when I was told that the original affidavit was false, whether I took immediate steps to correct it and again the Limerick Leader group were able to verify that I did, so I really don't understand what changed between Wednesday and Thursday because I would contend that everything that came out on Thursday vindicated my story."
AF: But the idea being put around is that the Greens were bounced in the Dail on Wednesday and that overnight with the intervention of Senator Dan Boyle, and presumably others, they had a change of mind.
WO'D: "I don't know how anybody was bounced. I'm not the whip, so I don't know. I wasn't involved in the procedure of bringing the motion of confidence forward and the Government and the whip, and I presume the Taoiseach, decided that. But from the time that the thing was announced there were a number of hours to go before the actual vote took place, time for people to reflect.
"If the Green Party and their members didn't want the motion of confidence to be taken straight away I'm sure they could have said so. But what concerns me is that, while their support for me changed between Wednesday and Thursday, no material facts, no new facts to my detriment, emerged in that time so I don't know what the basis of the change was."
AF: It could be said by some people -- and I tend to subscribe to this myself -- that the Greens after the Deirdre de Burca resignation and criticisms that they were just being pushed around by Fianna Fail wanted to, as it were, pass a virility test. And it seems to me that nowadays the virility test is to get someone's head on a plate.
WO'D: "Aengus, you know I couldn't possibly comment. All I'll say is if that is the case well I'm just unfortunate to be the guy in pole position at the time."
AF: Well, what would you say to the following description of the sequence: That Green activist and chairman Senator Dan Boyle put the gun to John Gormley who in turn put the gun to the Taoiseach's head, who in turn put the gun to your head and you stepped down in the interests of the Government?
WO'D: "Well, all I know is I wasn't privy to any meeting between the Taoiseach and John Gormley. I had a meeting myself with John Gormley in his own office on Wednesday, the day the motion of confidence was taken, and I told him that everything I was saying was correct and that the Limerick Leader, who were going to further elaborate on the matter, would show that and he seemed quite happy with that.
"All I know is that the Taoiseach contacted me late in the afternoon on Thursday and he said that John Gormley had conveyed to him that the unanimous decision of the Green Party was that they would withdraw from government if the problem relating to me continuing in the Cabinet wasn't resolved.
"So I said: 'Look, we can't have people withdrawing from government, we can't have the Government falling, the country is in a bad state economically, the Government is in the middle of the programme and it's in the national interest so I'm prepared to offer my resignation.'"
AF: Well, you've raised a good point. No matter how entertaining for the public it is as the political circus rolls on, we had the George Lee affair a couple of weeks ago and the economy goes into its third year of recession.
WO'D: "Yes indeed, that must be the focus of the Government. One of the things I was concerned about was even if the Greens had supported me, if things hadn't changed, certain elements of the media, who seem to have a dislike of me, were going to continue bringing this up and create a diversion for the Government.
"Everybody knows the Government has huge problems in relation to public finances which they've to keep focused on. They've a huge problem in relation to repairing the balance sheets of the banks and getting Nama off the ground and they've a huge problem in getting people back to work and that's where the focus should be, that's where the focus must remain."
AF: And can you say who you blame in the media?
WO'D: "Well, I couldn't help but notice that the Irish Times seems to have taken a particular line on this. I find it a bit ironic that this is the same Irish Times that accepted a leaked document from the Mahon tribunal and were accused by the Supreme Court of subverting the law when they destroyed that document with great haste -- but they seem to have gone on the high moral ground and decided that I did something wrong, that I knowingly did something wrong, that they could look into the recesses of my mind and know what I was thinking, and their journalists campaigned to get rid of me."
AF: And do you think that has anything to do with the fact that you're a columnist with the Sunday Independent?
WO'D: "You'll have to put that to the Irish Times. I've no idea."
AF: And who else do you think were among the agents who kept on at the issue?
WO'D: "Well, certain people in Fine Gael, the lower ranks of FG -- certainly not Enda Kenny, initially, or any of his front bench -- but certain people in the lower ranks of Fine Gael who were obviously people like Senator Eugene Regan who parasited on Bertie Ahern's difficulties towards the end of his career and decided that he saw me in difficulty now and would parasite on that all to presumably raise his own profile -- you know he may be raising his own profile but it's certainly not the type of profile that I would like to have."
AF: And what are your feelings, Willie, after all this?
WO'D: "Well, I feel shattered obviously. My ministerial career that I fought very hard to get, I've been many, many years as an apprentice, as it were, has come to a juddering halt. Okay, I'm not a saint, I wasn't right in everything I did. I passed on information to a journalist of which part of it was incorrect -- I asked the journalist to check his sources, he checked his sources and decided, rightly, not to publish the incorrect information.
"Nevertheless, despite the fact that the incorrect information was only communicated to one person, I paid very dearly financially and now I've paid the ultimate price politically as well; it seems a huge price to pay for one slip. You know we've had situations where ministers did worse in my opinion and weren't sacked. I feel I've paid a very heavy price and I'm disappointed. That's basically how I feel at the moment, the shock still hasn't worn off."
AF: So, you're saying you did wrong, you're putting it down to a mistake one way or another and you paid for it. But you're saying the penalty was disproportionate to the alleged offence.
WO'D: "Well, you know, I paid a penalty, I paid a heavy financial penalty -- and money is not my main interest, obviously -- and now I've had to pay the ultimate political penalty as well and I think that maybe the people will forgive me that the punishment has been somewhat disproportionate."
AF: On the ground in your own constituency was there much smearing of you at elections, things said about you that were false that you had to put up with?
WO'D: "Some of the stuff said about me wouldn't be repeatable in a family newspaper, and I would be seriously defaming and libelling myself if I was to repeat some of the things said about me and my family -- invariably false.
"You know the context to this particular affair was that late at night after a long day when I was very tired a journalist asked me to respond to claims by a Sinn Fein candidate who brought the case against me, the claims consisted of accusing me literally of abusing taxpayers' money and defrauding the Government.
"I never defrauded the taxpayers of this country. I take that very seriously, because if you look at the list of expenses claimed, I'm consistently at or near the bottom of the list, I don't abuse taxpayers' money and I don't claim excessively."
AF: And were you angered by some of this, was your indiscretion in the interview with the Limerick Leader prompted by some sense of anger in yourself about things that were being said about you?
WO'D: "It was said in the heat of the moment, it was said late at night. I was tired and my judgement wasn't at its best and of course it was prompted by some sense of anger but I should have kept it in check."
AF: So where do you go from here now?
WO'D: "I'm going to talk to my family. I've a lot of options. I'm going to take a few days off and think about the situation. I'm still a bit numb and haven't thought that far ahead but I will be reflecting in the next couple of weeks."
AF: Do you think the whole episode shortens the life of this Government?
WO'D: "I hope not. The Government has a specific programme to do to repair the economy. They've very specific plans for the public finances; it's all laid out there, very specific plans for the banks. I'm afraid that a lot of that vital work which is necessary to restore Ireland to economic health could unravel if the Government were to fall, so I hope it hasn't shortened the life of the Government."
AF: But is it possible to manage with a degree of pragmatism the affairs of the Government in coalition with a party like the Greens, who seem to have a different view of life to those who just want to get on with the job and adopt a commonsense approach?
WO'D: "I would argue that the Government has managed very well so far. I wish them the very best in getting it implemented. Brian Lenihan is an outstanding Minister for Finance and if his policies and the policies of the Taoiseach continue to command majority support in the Dail I think that in two years, when the election is due, that the economy will have been turned around."
AF: The behaviour of the Greens to me almost recalls times when the PDs were regarded as the moral custodians and the conscience of the government and every so often something blew up where they were taxed and tried and were trying to figure out the ethics of something. Is all this an echo of those days?
WO'D: "I don't know. This is the first instance in which this thing seems to have come to a head. All I'm saying is that what I did initially in passing on information which was partially incorrect was wrong, but whether the punishment fits the crime is something I would argue. I would argue that I paid for what I did wrong financially and now I've had to pay the ultimate price politically."
AF: Have you any idea of the feelings among the Fianna Fail parliamentary party about this?
WO'D: "A number of Fianna Fail party members have given me their best wishes and expressed their sympathy for me and I have taken a lot of phone calls in the last couple of days so I don't have time to engage in long conversations. But I know that there is a good deal of sympathy for me in the party -- whether that reflects any sort of a negative attitude towards the Greens I don't know. It's probably just a personal thing."
AF: What do you mean 'a personal thing'?
WO'D: "It's probably just a personal thing that I would have some very good friends in the parliamentary party who'd contact me and naturally sympathise."
AF: And how do you think the Taoiseach himself reacted during this episode?
WO'D: "The Taoiseach was very supportive of me and he praised me very much in his speech in the Dail, over and above what I deserved, I think, for which I'm deeply grateful. I'm also deeply grateful to Brian Lenihan for coming out and supporting me as he did and Batt O'Keeffe.
"The Taoiseach, I think, didn't have any choice -- he was presented with a situation where the country might have been plunged into political uncertainty right in the middle of a very difficult financial programme of reconstruction, therefore he did what he had to do and he spoke to me and I made the offer to him to resign in the circumstances. He explained what the circumstances were and I made the offer to him and he accepted the offer."
AF: Do you believe this will leave a legacy of bad feeling between the Government partners?
WO'D: "I hope not, because what my concern now is for the country and the economy and getting on with it and for that you must have a united Government and no bad feelings, so I hope there won't be for the sake of the country.
"That's why I resigned, for the sake of the country, and I hope the Government continues to work as a cohesive unit for the sake of the country."
AF: Would you have hopes of resuming your career as a minister at some future date?
WO'D: "I haven't even got around to thinking about the future, there's a number of practicalities when you go from being a minister to being an ordinary citizen or an ordinary TD. There are a certain amount of practicalities you have to deal with and my mind is occupied in dealing with them at the moment so when those are out of the way I'll consider the future then."