'TDs need to stop whingeing and forego pay hike'
Finian McGrath is the glue keeping the alliance together, writes Niall O'Connor
Published 17/10/2016 | 02:30
Among the items hanging on the wall of Finian McGrath's office is a copy of the 1916 Proclamation in Braille.
Alongside it are photographs of him meeting various disability campaigners and young people with special needs.
And perched just feet from the ministerial desk lie framed photographs of his two daughters, Caoimhe and Clíodhna, and of his late father Simon.
Clíodhna, the youngest of the two girls, was born with Down syndrome. Mr McGrath's father Simon was a postman from Tuam.
"He never saw me becoming a minister. That's the emotional side of it," Mr McGrath says of his late father.
"Ma saw me becoming a TD. She was at the gates of Leinster House in 2002 when I walked through the door," he adds.
These are the people Mr McGrath says have motivated him during the tougher moments over the past four months since he agreed to vote for Enda Kenny as Taoiseach.
He believes his parents, who often spoke to him about the importance of public service, would have been most pleased with his efforts to convince the Government to give medical cards to an additional 10,000 children.
The role of the Minister for Disabilities in that decision was influenced by conversations he had with parents of children who had been denied their medical card entitlements.
"When I meet their parents and talk to them on the phone, I get very angry and very sad. I'm a parent as well and I'd hate anyone to do that to my daughters."
As a member of the Independent Alliance, Mr McGrath was part of the negotiations leading up to Budget 2017.
He says that after Fianna Fáil's Willie O'Dea demanded a €5 increase in the old age pension, he and his colleagues decided that they would seek two "big ticket items".
These were a reduction in prescription charges and the full restoration of the Christmas Bonus.
"We wanted more support for senior citizens, as a start for rebuilding the country and as a start for helping people," he says.
But Mr McGrath adds that at one stage, there were doubts over whether the Alliance would support the Budget due to a stand-off with Fine Gael over the group's "red line" issues.
The minister says that up until 6.30pm on the eve of the Budget, Fine Gael ministers were insisting that the resources weren't available to slash prescription charges.
The Alliance, he says, refused to budge - knowing that the group had already announced its intentions to the media.
"It was a gamble," Mr McGrath says.
"We were prepared to take the risk, particularly on prescription charges."
There has been plenty of talk within political circles in recent weeks of strained relations among the Alliance's five TDs.
As reported by this newspaper, two of its ministers - Shane Ross and Seán Canney - had a bust-up over whether Mr Ross was doing enough at the Cabinet table.
In political circles, Mr McGrath has been described as the "glue" that keeps the Alliance together - a suggestion he laughs off.
He says the five are "personal friends" and recently went on a bonding session and enjoyed a few drinks in Athlone, close to the home of Kevin 'Boxer' Moran.
"Of course you have differences, of course you have rows," he says. "But I tell you this much, any row we've had they were over in 10 minutes and we are back down in the members bar for a cup of coffee and a chat.
"I have a load of differences with Shane on issues. Shane and Sean have differences, Boxer as well. I have to fight the guys to get my stuff on the table and keep them there."
But Mr McGrath says the rows are not on the scale of those experienced within meetings of the technical group during the previous Dáil term.
"We had Wallace and Clare Daly and Shane Ross in one room - that was rock and roll," he jokes.
Whether the fifth member of the Independent Alliance, John Halligan, will remain in government is another issue Mr McGrath is often asked about.
He says Mr Halligan will only secure a second cath lab for Waterford if he remains a minister.
"He is a great fighter for Waterford. He'd die, he'd go under a lorry for the people in Waterford."
In relation to Shane Ross, Mr McGrath says that he is subject to unfair treatment from sections of the media and Opposition TDs.
"He winds them up, number one. He challenged them in the past and now they are coming after him."
Mr McGrath insists that it was his colleague Mr Ross who first raised the issue of politicians' pay during pre- Budget talks.
He says he will forego the planned pay increase next year and that all TDs should follow suit.
"They (TDs) are probably going to go bananas but as far as I'm concerned, you take the hit," he says.
"We have just come out of a major eight years of austerity and an economic crash and I think these are exceptional times and I think TDs and ministers should take their hit and stop whingeing."
Mr McGrath accepts that his own demands during the government formation talks in relation to Beaumont Hospital are viewed by some people as being "parish pump". But he insists that improving facilities at the hospital will benefit the entire region.
Mr McGrath says one of his regrets relates to the media coverage generated by his reluctance to pay water charges despite being in Cabinet. He later paid his bill after consulting the Attorney General.
"There is no point in beating around the bush. It was a cock up. I handled it badly," adding that it posed a distraction from his own work as a minister.
Mr McGrath admits that any future referendum campaign on abortion is likely to prove divisive - but he said he strongly backs the Citizens' Assembly, which began its work on Saturday.
Mr McGrath says he tells people on the doorsteps that he is "pro-life, pro-children with disabilities, pro-families and pro-choice."
He adds: "I will not hand over the term (pro-life) to one section in this debate."