Saturday 23 September 2017

Brendan Ogle: 'You'd have to be sociopathic to enjoy this - and I am not'

Brendan Ogle talks ego and political ambitions and tells Niamh Horan how he found love on the water campaign

Seasoned campaigner: The Apollo House stand-off may be over, but Brendan Ogle hasn't finished fighting. 'This is just the beginning for Home Sweet Home,' he says Photo: Mark Condren
Seasoned campaigner: The Apollo House stand-off may be over, but Brendan Ogle hasn't finished fighting. 'This is just the beginning for Home Sweet Home,' he says Photo: Mark Condren
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

It's midday on Thursday and Brendan Ogle has just left Apollo House where his latest stand-off with the Government - as part of the Home Sweet Home campaign- has ended .

The last time we met, he told me: "I am looking forward to not being talked about."

Yet three years - and two very high-profile campaigns later - here we both are.

The trade union boss constantly wonders if this is the right path for him: "Should I be doing this? Can I withstand this level of pressure? Can I withstand this level of scrutiny? Have I got the mental and the physical fortitude to take the abuse that comes with putting my head above the parapet? I question that all the time," he says.

In his own words: "You would have to be sociopathic to enjoy this. And I don't think I am."

I put it to him that some critics accuse of being an egomaniac.

He vehemently denies that. "Well, I wish it was ego," he says.

Depending on who you talk to, Ogle is either an 'agent of chaos' or 'master negotiator'.

In 2012, he led ESB workers in their fight for pensions - threatening to turn out the lights on Ireland. A year later, his attention turned to water, spearheading a movement that has now seen half the country refuse to pay their bills, and in recent weeks, his sense of justice has been with the homeless.

"This is just the beginning for Home Sweet Home," he says. "This isn't over."

He settles in for lunch and describes how his transition from workers' rights campaigner to national campaigner transpired. After the ESB, he jetted to Cuba for six weeks to get his head straight but eventually grew bored.

"You're there and you're thinking: 'Why am I here? I am on my own in an apartment with a bloody laptop in a country where people speak a different language. And I'm on my own for six weeks. What the bloody hell am I going to do?'"

Two members of the Unite trade union arrived and with them came the opportunity for a new political-style role in the organisation. His interest perked up.

When he returned home, he found "this water thing was pretty much under the radar but it was clear there was something simmering".

He joined forces with Mandate's David Gibney and they set about building websites, social media platforms and organising branding to take the campaign nationwide. Within six months, 100,000 people were marching on the capital. On another occasion, 106 small protests were organised simultaneously throughout the country.

He recalls listening to Marian Finucane while RTE had reporters at various locations. "It felt a bit like St Patrick's Day," he says.

Now three years later, he is arguably the biggest thorn in the Government's side. "The campaign is the biggest social movement per capita in the world," he says.

I ask him, in comparison to the influence that TDs have in the Dail, how does it feel to wield that kind of power?

He puts down his knife and fork. "It's a very good question. Where is power? Is it in the Dail? Is it in a chamber of 158 TDs?

"People ask us - are you going to run for Dail? But we just sit back and say we believe the Right2Water and Home Sweet Home are shaping public awareness around those issues in a way that goes far beyond anything you can do standing up and making a three-minute speech until somebody rings a bell."

Does he believe in democracy? "Of course I do. Do I live in one? That's a different thing."

He wants to see an Ireland where politicians who break their election promises can lose their seats.

"The excuse politicians that use is that they are in a coalition. Well, I do negotiations and I understand sometimes you win, sometimes you lose and sometimes you compromise. But I have never been in a negotiation where I have come out with the very opposite of what I was looking for," he laughs, referring to Labour's U-turn on water.

On the Apollo House negotiations, he says Housing Minister Simon Coveney never wanted to appear as though he was doing a deal with a group of protesters.

"There was a moment in the meeting where it looked as though we were making a breakthrough and someone had gone out for a cigarette break. To break that awkward silence, I kinda says: 'Do you know what, Simon? Who would've known you could be the minister to solve homelessness?' And he looked at me and says: 'What, with Brendan Ogle?'"

Ogle uses a derisive tone to portray the minister's feelings.

He adds that Coveney didn't "play it well" when he suggested that Home Sweet Home's actions had not secured any new homelessness services. His comments "almost scuppered" the deal.

I wonder why it would matter who secured the kudos as long as the job was done but Ogle says the disagreement was about trust - not who took the credit.

Still, he is keen to offer proof that the accommodation centres are a direct result of Home Sweet Home's campaigning.

"It is demonstrated by the fact that on November 30, Dublin City Council published a report saying there would be four new hostels, and these two new hostels are additional to that," he says. "Everybody at the meeting said it: 'Home Sweet Home can take credit for this.'"

Some people would say his work is from the bottom of his heart - others have a more cynical take.

Does he want to run for the Dail? "No."

Has he sought members for a new party? "No."

Has he sought fundraising? "No".

Is this all part of a big stunt for his political career in the long run? "Absolutely not."

Whatever his political ambitions, one thing he is happy to tell me is that he has found love.

"Her name is Mandy," he says, as he poses for photographs. "I met her through the water campaign. And that's all you're getting. But I am very happy."

In his social view of the world, everyone is entitled to a home, everyone is entitled to health services and everyone is entitled to water.

As to how we would fund it, he believes even the unemployed already pay for these amenities through their consumption tax - and the excess would come from increasing taxes on the top 1pc and multinational corporations.

I tell him it feels as though Middle Ireland is picking up the tab now but he dismisses the idea: "Middle Ireland doesn't exist any more. Middle Ireland has been destroyed by the top 1pc of Ireland."

With the rising noise on the Left, it remains to be seen if he really is being upfront about any ambitions.

But before going to print, I decide to give him one more try. I text: has he definitely ruled out ever running for the Dail?

And the reply comes back: "I don't have a crystal ball."

Sunday Independent

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