Sunday 23 October 2016

McGrath stands by the whistleblowers

Disability minister waits to hear Commissioner's explanation in relation to the O'Higgins inquiry

Published 22/05/2016 | 02:30

United front: Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan has been given the full support of Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald Photo: Mark Condren
United front: Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan has been given the full support of Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald Photo: Mark Condren
Finian McGrath Photo: David Conachy

Finian McGrath has nothing against the Garda Commissioner. "I like Noirin," he says. "I was on the last Justice Committee. I found her to be very competent, very good." But the super junior minister for disability is also a "big supporter" of the garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe and has been friends with McCabe's fellow whistleblower, John Wilson, when he "was still a guard on the terraces at Shelbourne Rovers matches in Tolka Park".

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"There are issues out there, there are allegations out there. If there is any attempt to deliberately damage Maurice McCabe, I would have major concerns," he says.

The Garda Commissioner has come under pressure to clarify whether she instructed her legal team to question Sergeant McCabe's motivation in raising complaints about the force, while she was publicly praising him.

As the fallout from the O'Higgins report continues, McGrath is leaning towards the garda whistleblower while the Taoiseach has positioned himself 100pc behind the Commissioner.

The Independents holding up the fragile minority Government are already beginning to rock the boat.

McGrath's intervention comes a few days after his Independent Alliance colleague, John Halligan, declined to express confidence in the Commissioner.

McGrath is not going that far - yet. He says: "At the moment, she's okay" - but he wants to hear her explanation for the story that has dominated the news agenda for the past fortnight.

"If anybody is in a situation where something serious happens like that, you have to consider your position.

"I'm the same myself. If anything happened on my watch, I would have to consider my position."

So that's clear then. Finian McGrath - who declares himself a "maverick" and an "outsider" - has been expressing himself as an Independent TD for Dublin Bay North for 14 years, admiring Cuba, ranting against war, but best known for championing the cause of disabled rights.

Now he is a government minister, which means his opinions carry unprecedented clout, but so far he has shown little appetite - or skill - for biting his tongue.

Ten days into government, he has already put two controversies behind him. Week one, he said he hadn't paid his water charges and last week he stood up for smokers. He's since backed down on both.

McGrath landed the gig of super junior minister by including a disability cabinet post on his shopping list of demands for supporting the minority Government. The stability of the fragile Government now rests in part on his volatile shoulders.

Will he last the pace? McGrath is far too much of a pragmatist to the resign over water charges, smokers' rights and possibly the Garda Commissioner.

He says the only things he'd "die for" is the shopping list of five key demands he laid on the table during the government formation talks as the price of his support.

A cystic fibrosis unit and a new emergency department in Beaumont Hospital in his constituency; automatic medical cards for 10,000 children who are being cared for at home; increases in carers' benefit; a 25pc increase in the numbers of speech and language therapists; and ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.

"I would die for those issues," he says, thumping his fist to his heart.

"Maybe that's what happens when you lose a beautiful 53-year-old wife."

His wife was Anne Russell, a teacher in Darndale while he was a teacher in the north inner city; she was more sensible to his "maverick", but both were campaigners for social justice.

They married and had two daughters; their second, Cliodhna, was born with Down Syndrome.

"We didn't see that coming. It was absolutely devastating for us at the time. As you begin to move and live with it, you begin to adapt to it and then you begin to learn from it and then you change. It's an amazing process.

"There were times, out in shopping centres, and some old dear might come over and give Cliodhna five euro. We never took life too seriously, both Anne and I. We used to laugh at it. But if really you wanted to be hurt and offended by it, it was very offensive."

Anne was diagnosed with breast cancer when Cliodhna and Caoimhe were "going on teenagers. The family lived with the disease for 14 years. It was hard but Anne was just so good.

"The first thing Anne said to me was, 'Let's keep normal as much as possible.' Now it took me a while to adapt to that but we had to keep the show on the road.

"We lived with cancer and we reared them through cancer but we wouldn't have done it only for Anne herself. She was absolutely amazing.

"She always set herself short-term targets; when Caoimhe gets to Junior Cert, will Caoimhe get to Leaving Cert. She actually saw Caoimhe graduate from Trinity. She met Caoimhe's now husband, Niall, and she was delighted. She was thrilled to bits that Caoimhe got the right guy."

Anne died six years ago, before her eldest daughter's wedding day.

"Another tough day," said McGrath with understatement.

He lives with Cliodhna, who is now in her 20s, in the family home in Glasnevin.

"Cliona is in adult services now. She gets the 41C to Swords and rings me and says, 'Dad I'm here.'"

She is independent, has a bus pass, two carers who bring her to the Special Olympics basketball, dance, drama and hip-hop.

"But she'll always need someone to look after her," said McGrath.

He never in his wildest dreams thought he would be a government minister, especially as trailed in last in Dublin Bay North.

"When it dawned on me was within a week of being elected, we've an Independent Alliance here, we could hold the balance of power."

So he put it on the table. "We need to change the mindset among sections of the public around people with disabilities. We need to get away from the charity, feeling-sorry-for-you model," he said.

"That's why I wanted to be Minister for Disability."

He is unlikely to risk his portfolio for stuff that's not among his top five priorities.

He has already been rapped for apparently calling for a row-back of anti-smoking rules by Simon Harris, the health minister half his age.

"The private joke in here is that they call me granddad. I've no problem with that," he says.

McGrath isn't keen on revisiting his cigarette habit after all the rumpus last week, but "I accept that the public want to know".

"I smoke about 15 to 20 a day," he says. He has his first puff after he drops his daughter Cliona on the bus in the morning. He's most "vulnerable" to a cigarette when he is stressed and "loves a cigarette at weekends" when he's out with his friends and neighbours. "I love the pint and the fag and the chat," he says.

He swears he tries to give up.

"There are days when if I'm at home and on a quiet day I can knock it down to three or four a day. I have two beautiful daughters that regularly remind me, and I do try it for them," he says.

"We all have our weaknesses. We all are frail. And being honest with you, I wouldn't have been able to survive the last six years without being able to have a fag. It's my little crutch."

Sunday Independent

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