Saturday 10 December 2016

Simon Harris interview - 'Do we want the "terrorist" Gerry Adams in Cabinet? No, we don't'

Minister Simon Harris also gives Daniel McConnell his views on Irish Water, the Taoiseach's leadership style and the plight of the 'squeezed middle'

Published 16/08/2015 | 02:30

Daniel mcconnell and SimonHarris
Daniel mcconnell and SimonHarris

From being patronised on his first day in the Dail in 2011 about his age, what music he liked and whether he could iron his shirts to representing Ireland at emergency Eurogroup meetings during the Greek crisis, Simon Harris's rise to ministerial office has been swift.

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His unapologetic loyalty to his leader, Enda Kenny, of whom he says he is a "big supporter", has clearly been rewarded, but it has also led him to rub some of his colleagues up the wrong way.

"He's in too much of a hurry, and people like me are wary of people like him," says one of Harris's less-supportive colleagues.

Over a steak dinner and a glass of wine in Marco Pierre White's Dawson Street restaurant, I sit down with the ambitious yet capable young minister, who's in the mood for talking.

Amid all the speculation about election pacts and coalition options, Harris begins by setting out why Sinn Fein under Gerry Adams are not suitable for government.

I ask him if he believes Gerry Adams was a member of the IRA army council.

"I do - based on what I have heard and read from people who know an awful lot better than me," he says.

The Greystones-based minister says there was a moment when the country asked itself the question about whether Sinn Fein was ready to move on from its past.

"The minute the Mairia Cahill thing came out, they all just closed ranks and all of these people who painted themselves as respectable, middle-Ireland, new-generation politicians completely shattered that illusion," he says. But then he makes a most dramatic statement as to Adams's suitability for office.

"Are we ready for terrorist Gerry Adams to be in the Cabinet? Are we? I don't believe we are," he says. "And this is what I think will happen in the election, when the people look at what could replace the Government, but I am irritated by this attempt to separate Gerry Adams like 'he was in the past, he is still knocking around, but don't worry about him'."

Moving away from the election, Harris concedes that the Government has made some serious errors in relation to Irish Water, which he says "pissed off" thousands of people unnecessarily. He takes aim at the comments made by the utility's head, John Tierney, about the €180m spend on consultants, which ignited a huge political controversy.

"There is no disputing and doubting we got issues wrong in relation to Irish Water," he says. "There were mistakes made. People like the head of Irish Water going out and saying things like consultants' fees costing €85m when actually, when this was broken down, these were local contractors providing vital services," he says.

"Were mistakes made? Yes. Were communications mistakes made? Yes. Was there a lack of clarity which caused great concern? Yes.

"I take the point. I accept we caused unnecessary concern over charges. I met those people, I met people - busy people who didn't really have the time to be out protesting, but felt the need to be out protesting These are people who had never been to a protest or hadn't been to one in 30 years. They felt it was important to protest.

"Their issue wasn't the charge, they accepted the principle of paying for water.

"They were pissed off and probably now appreciate the measures we took to address their concern."

"Who's to blame?" I ask. He agrees that Phil Hogan, the former environment minister, needs to accept his share.

"This is a collective issue. Success has many parents, but failure is often orphaned," says Harris. "Everybody who was in government has to accept the responsibility, and last time I checked Phil Hogan was in government."

But before any election, the Budget has to happen. I ask the junior finance minister about clarity on the Government's plans to reduce the burden of the "penal" Uni- versal Social Charge (USC).

He confirms that in addition to the removal of another wave of low-paid workers from the reaches of the USC, middle-income workers are also to see some relief.

"I think it is really, really important that we focus also on people who are often described as the squeezed middle, the coping classes, middle Ireland," he says.

"These are people who some in the Opposition claim to be wealthy; a nurse married to a guard are determined as wealthy. Nonsense. I think it is really important that they see an improvement in their take-home pay, and the best way to do that is the USC.

"That is where I really want to see the focus - the group I am seeing in my own constituency, and I think we are all seeing: there is a group of people that need relief, and they are the squeezed middle. It is high time. We don't get involved in platitudes like 'the squeezed middle', it's time . . . we have to do something for them. I think the most tangible way of doing something for them is to reduce the 7pc rate, and that is what I expect to see happening."

I ask Harris about this paper's lead story last week which reported that the Government intends increasing the old-age pension by €5 a week.

"Supports for older people is something that needs to be looked at. You can't benefit those people like you can a PAYE worker. It is important that recovery is fair and inclusive. I'd like to see a pension increase considered, yes.

"I'd like to see it considered because there is a myth put out there that older people are very wealthy. That is not the experience, particularly those living on their own, who have had almost a decade of difficulty. We need to look at supports for them. There are different ways of supporting them, and the pension is one way.

I then ask him for clarity on the property tax, and he confirms that rates look set to be frozen for several years.

"I think that is very important that hard-pressed fam- ilies who are beginning to get back on their feet, beginning to get jobs, beginning to see their income tax reducing, are not whacked," he says.

"So I don't expect there to be any shocks by way of large increases in the property tax. We want this Budget to be about enabling hard-pressed families to see a personal recovery themselves. Obviously, if you were hit with a big bill for property tax, that would fly in the face of that."

We have heard rates will be frozen until 2019, I say.

"My own view is that certainty is important on these issues, and we will look at it in the round. We have to consider the Thornhill Report. I would like to see people given certainty for the next couple of years," he says.

Harris confirms there are moves afoot to court young emigrants who left Ireland because of the crash and attract them to return home.

"I think one thing people feel strongly about is how we are going to bring back all the people my age from abroad, those who had to leave, those who felt there was no future for them here," he says.

"How are we going to tell the mothers and fathers of Ireland that we are going to have a plan to bring them home?"

Are tax credits for emigrants likely to feature in the Budget?

"It is something that really does need to be looked at. Whether a tax credit is the best way to do it or not. I am not an expert," he says.

I approach the issue of Enda Kenny and his leadership style. I say some people in Fine Gael are of the opinion that there is a cult of paranoia that exists around the Taoiseach and around the leadership. Is that true?

"No . . . there isn't. Can we think of another Taoiseach who would have given somebody like me a chance with a ministry?" he says.

"He has never failed to amaze me. I have been at meetings with him where he very much builds a team around him. He allows that team to get on with it. People can say that is cow shit.

"He is pretty egoless, his work rate is unbelievable. He has never been obsessed with the 'me, me, me' that we have seen from many leaders, leaders who were lauded in the media. Guys who brought a presidential-style to politics. He just gets on with it."

But I direct him to a quote from Waterford TD John Deasy, who said, cuttingly, about the leadership: "If you grovel to the Taoiseach enough or you can read a script, then you get promoted to the Cabinet."

I ask Harris for his response. He does not hold back.

"That is just insulting. It is just John. I am one of those Fine Gael ministers and TDs who has an awful lot of time for John because he has ability, and on the Public Accounts Committee he does a great job. But those sorts of comments are just silly," he says.

"There are many people in the Cabinet who in past family disagreements within the party . . . voted a different way than the Taoiseach. He recognised that and appointed them. It is a grand sound bite and it makes for a lovely article and you might get a nice headline out of it and Twitter might think it's great, but it doesn't stand up to any scrutiny."

Dinner over, Harris gets his picture taken. A man in a hurry, no doubt.

Sunday Independent

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