Alan Kelly: 'People want straight talk from Labour'
Alan Kelly says he won't be popular just for the sake of it, writes John Downing
Three people are now doing his old job as Environment Minister, Labour firebrand Alan Kelly muses. In the departmental re-jig done last May, Heather Humphreys has taken on community affairs; Denis Naughten is responsible for climate change; and Simon Coveney retains housing and local government.
The 41-year-old Tipperary TD is still less than a decade in elected politics. Yet he has been a Senator, MEP, TD, and junior and senior government minister. His two years as Environment Minister were extremely tough as he fought a losing battle on water charges and grappled with a housing crisis.
Last May, as Labour deputy leader, he went on the 'Late Late Show' to announce his bid to lead his party which had suffered an electoral meltdown and was reduced from 37 to seven TDs. But none of his colleagues would second his bid to trigger a ballot of members and the veteran Brendan Howlin was appointed leader.
It was a very tough time, but he wants to move on and make his mark, as spokesman on social welfare, health and housing. Six months ago he was in Cabinet alongside many of the ministers he is now attacking - but he says he is unabashed.
"No, I don't just tear into them. I take a more considered approach. But where I see hypocrisy and incompetence, I speak my mind," he says.
But on water charges, Mr Kelly insists he will be proven right very soon once a special commission reports to the Oireachtas. Given the "outrageous situation" of raw sewage running into our lakes, rivers and shorelines at 44 different locations, reasonable water charges were the only funding option for an ageing, deficient system, he says.
Other demands will always trump long-term spending on water, so a new revenue source was required. "But Paul Murphy won a by-election which Sinn Féin felt they should have won. That made Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald change their mind on water charges. And that led Fianna Fáil, the party most committed to charges, to follow suit," says Kelly.
Fianna Fáil committed to water charges three times. When they put in the EU water basin submission, they gave away a derogation. In October 2009, they agreed charges with the Green Party and conceded this to the Troika in November 2010.
The EU "polluter pays" law means we must have charges and the special commission will have to recognise this.
"We will have to bring back charges. It's just a question of what charges," he says.
Labour is struggling in the opinion polls and having difficulty getting its message heard. But Mr Kelly insists, that in the medium to longer term, the AAA-PBP, which he calls the "alphabet party", and Sinn Féin will not retain people's confidence.
"There is room for a straight-talking party which supports working people. I won't be popular for the sake of being popular. In fact, it infuriates me. People know you cannot have everything for nothing and there is no future in telling them they can," he adds.
Mr Kelly argues that people need straight and realistic talk. The tax base must be widened with things like local property tax and water charges, and everything cannot be funded out of tax on work.
He argues passionately about the need to prioritise work and ensure working people are paid to a standard where they can afford a modest family meal and pay for school books and other necessaries without fear or stress.
These are arguments many will support - but the danger is that right now few are listening to the Labour Party.
Quotes from Alan Kelly's political world
On constituency rival Michael Lowry:
"In fairness, the only thing we have in common is a love of Tipperary GAA. I have very little to do with him and I don't intend ever having much to do with him."
On his predecessor as environment minister, and now EU Commissioner, Phil Hogan:
"I inherited the environment post from Mr Phil Hogan, which left me with a lot of legacy issues - and not just water.
"There were community grants, water and, of course, housing, which took up more time than anything else."
On his dislike of AAA-PBP (which he calls "the alphabet party") and Sinn Féin:
"The 'alphabet party' have no credibility. They are the most populist of all, along with Sinn Féin.
"They are telling people they can have everything for nothing - but it all means working people are paying for everything out of taxes on their work."
On Labour joining future coalitions:
"I believe in government because it is the only way to implement your policies. I have an open mind, but I wouldn't like Sinn Féin and the left-wing lunatics. It could be with Fine Gael or with Fianna Fáil. But it doesn't have to be them. God knows where politics is going to be in the next 20 years. But I intend to be around."
On failing to get a seconder to put his leadership bid to a ballot of Labour members:
"I wouldn't have felt great about that. Of course I was disappointed. I believe the membership would have supported me. Will I stand again? I definitely will."
On the need to prioritise work over welfare:
"I support welfare, especially for pensioners and disabled people. But welfare for able-bodied people should not be a lifestyle choice. There must be a premium on work and working people must get a decent rate of pay."