Wednesday 20 September 2017

'The lowest point came when my family and staff were threatened'

Labour TD Alan Kelly is not one of those politicians who is afraid to say what he really believes, writes Niamh Horan

Second time around: The Sunday Independent’s Niamh Horan and Labour TD Alan Kelly meet again Photo: Tony Gavin
Second time around: The Sunday Independent’s Niamh Horan and Labour TD Alan Kelly meet again Photo: Tony Gavin
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

Of all the people with whom I thought I would feel at ease sharing a couch by the year's end - it was not Alan Kelly.

It's been a year since our interview in Tipperary and the Labour TD has proven himself to pack the nether regions of a National Hunt jockey by agreeing to meet again.

Our last encounter made unexpected waves. For Kelly it was more like a tsunami.

In the months that followed, I learned two things about the politician.

He possesses what former Crystal Palace manager Iain Dowie famously called "bouncebackability" - his Rocky-style celebration at the triumphant end of the most difficult election of his career proved that.

Somewhat more surprisingly - he is an incredibly good sport who looks forward rather than back.

The Sunday Independent interview went viral, spawning internet memes of Kelly depicted as everyone from a Mafia godfather to Frank Underwood in The House of Cards. There was even an image of him occupying Abraham Lincoln's chair at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

In short, the interview and its content was perceived as being a bad move by Kelly.

Ultimately, the piece was nominated for the Political Story of the Year at the National Media Awards.

Who was the first to pick up the phone to wish me good luck? Kelly. And, after the award, he was first on the phone to send his congratulations. It was refreshing and slightly humbling.

Most politicians sidestep in-depth interviews.

I heard of one who advised his party colleagues to drop their mobiles and run away if my name ever popped up.

You can't help but admire his authenticity. With Kelly, what you see is what you get.

As he settles back into the couch beside the twinkling Christmas tree in Dublin's Dylan Hotel, he has his own views on politicians' tendency towards coyness: "I think the fact that so many run away from you is probably a reflection of the fact that they feel, if you got to know them, if you got to know their real thoughts, that possibly would damage them electorally."

The only ambition of many Irish politicians, he says, is to live "election to election".

"Politics, in my view, is failing. It's not representing the people, we are not bringing in many laws. It is being functional, but the Dail isn't working, there is no legislation being put in place and somebody has to shout stop."

He says politicians "are afraid to say what they really believe".

"They just conform to a populist agenda because they don't want to go to the electorate with issues they perceive will be very difficult to sell and therefore, electorally damaging to them."

For his own part, as former Minister for Environment, Kelly has proven he is willing to make unpopular calls for what he believes is ultimately for the greater good.

It's the reason he calls his time as minister "the hardest two years of my life - by a country mile".

From deputy leader of the struggling Labour Party to his responsibility for water, flooding, homelessness and housing, he oversaw "the perfect storm of issues".

At the time, his former adviser Jim McGrath would quip: "Alan when you come to the Customs House, there should be a big bag of balls inside that you open up and you pick out the crisis of the day."

Arguably his toughest issue was Irish Water, and he is under no illusions about the sheer level of anger he attracted due to his decisions.

"One of the funniest moments [was when] I was in the middle of a whole range of stuff and there were 20,000 or 30,000 people out on the streets on the water marches and Glen Hansard and Damien Dempsey were playing - and I am actually a big fan of both - and I said to the lads in the office 'I think I'll go out and listen to them' and they said 'No, Alan!!'"

He laughs at the thought.

It's clear being 'liked' or 'popular' doesn't exactly bother Kelly. But when the threats get physical or encroach on his staff or family, he draws the line.

"When the people who work for me and my family were being threatened, that was the lowest moment," he says.

"On a couple of occasions, I would have had to walk off the street into a public area just to make sure I was safe."

He talks of one particular occasion: "There was a difficult moment where I was walking down the street with my kids and someone started roaring abuse at me and my two kids were holding me by the hands... my daughter is older and she said 'why is that man shouting at us?' They are six and four years of age."

We go through the catalogue of abuse he has endured: death threats, sinister calls to his home, the bomb squad at his office, the riot squad in Bluebell, but he keeps interjecting with a self-awareness of how his experiences might be viewed.

"Look, I don't go around emphasising or talking about this because I know exactly what certain people will say which is that 'he is going to look for a sorrow story'. Trust me, I am a strong individual.

"People will say 'if you are out there, you are part of public life, you are out there to be criticised'."

"Yes, I am out there to be challenged. But I am not out there to take abuse, I am not out there to be subjected to threats.

"My family are off limits and so are my staff. I had incredible staff who put up with so much stuff they wouldn't even tell me half of it because it became almost normal."

How does he explain to his wife that politics is worth it when it gets to that level?

"It's very difficult. I have a brilliant wife."

Despite it all, he is still sticking to his guns on water.

He becomes impassioned. He blames populism and the weakness of political leaders who appeased a minority to the detriment of the country as a whole. "We need €6.6bn to fix the water and waste in this country," he says. "€6.6bn," he repeats.

"So where are we going to get it? Do you know where we are going to get it now? From the working man and woman. They are going to pay for it through their general taxation.

"And the guy with the swimming pool can fill his pool every night and no one will care, another guy can water his garden, wash his cars and so on, and no one will care and yet the business people still have to pay their water charges and, here's the best one of all, 400,000 families in rural Ireland who have wells and group schemes, they will have to pay anyway.

"They'll have to go out and work and they'll pay in their general taxation for everyone else."

He goes on to cite families in Lahinch, Co Clare, who have "raw sewage running into their rivers and on to the beach. For the people who will be reading this - raw sewage is what it says on the tin.

"It is better known by a four letter word. And do you know people get sick because of this? And not alone do people get sick, but environmentally - for the health and image of Ireland - it's a disaster.

"I am demonstrating the issue in relation to water just to show you where populism ends. We need €6.6bn and now the working man and woman is going to have to pay for everything and that is wrong. The working man and woman has had enough. I am sick and tired of workers paying over the odds and that is where I am going to focus all my political energies for the foreseeable future. It is where I am going to focus in on because the Labour Party represents working people. We need to keep our eye on that into the future."

Kelly's mission is to take a stand against the politicians "who are so far on the left" they believe money to pay for services such as water "should appear from nowhere".

Rebuilding and refocusing the Labour Party's strengths is another constant.

Kelly believes the party will come back once it addresses "the disconnect that came about through the last election... with blue collar workers, middle income workers, public servants - the people who are our core support".

"Bread on the table is the most important thing, supporting workers," he says.

On the Labour leadership, he believes "it will always be wrong" that he wasn't given a shot at the title: "I didn't agree with what happened but I will move on because the Labour Party is more than any one individual."

He adds that his leader, Brendan Howlin, is "an incredible parliamentarian" who was the most significant politician of the last five years in holding the previous government together.

I ask if he is a different man after the last year.

"Oh yes."

How?

"Stronger. More focused." He says his experiences has motivated him "to progress in life and progress my career even more".

As I leave I ask what he's most looking forward to about the holidays: "Spending time with my kids and my wife, getting out for a few pints with my dad."

Then he adds with a cheeky grin: "Who knows? I might get into a new box set."

Sunday Independent

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