Reilly: 'I wondered if there was any point in staying in politics'
The minister tells Niall O'Connor of his demotion despair and his desire to hold an abortion referendum
Published 22/11/2015 | 02:30
Just over 16 months ago, James Reilly was a broken man.
His confidence was shattered, his reputation in tatters, his political future thrown into serious doubt.
Like many of his predecessors, and some argue too his successor Leo Varadkar, Reilly struggled to reform a health system that for too long has been unfit for purpose.
So when the Taoiseach's office phoned just after 10am on July 11, 2014, Reilly knew his time as Minister for Health was up.
Less than two-and-a-half years into the job - the only job he ever wanted in politics - the Fine Gael deputy leader was being sacked by the only individual his senior within the party.
As we sit down over coffee in the Grand Hotel in Malahide - situated in the heart of the newly formed Dublin Fingal constituency - it becomes apparent that the experience of being demoted by Enda Kenny remains firmly etched in his mind.
"When I left, that was a pretty dark moment for me," Reilly admits. "I suppose I felt I was in the dark and, I suppose, walking the desert by way of a metaphor.
"I wondered if there was any point in staying in politics at that time. I couldn't do what I wanted to do in health and what I wanted to do in health, when I reflected upon it, I wanted to end the unjust two-tier system - that's what Universal Health Insurance was all about. That everybody be treated the same."
The 'desert' that Reilly refers to is in fact the sandy beach in the seaside town of Rush in north county Dublin.
It's the first time he has ever spoken in depth about his initial despair after being moved to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.
But, as our interview continues, the 60-year-old admits that his darkest days in politics came before the Taoiseach's mid-term Cabinet reshuffle.
Around the time of the Coalition's third budget in late 2013, Reilly again returned to his safe haven in Rush, resigned to the fact that he had lost the most difficult battle of his career.
Reilly signed off on a measure that saw a staggering €113m taken out of the medical card system.
It was a move that caused political uproar and led to some of the country's most vulnerable people, including disabled children, being stripped of their discretionary medical cards.
Reilly describes Budget 2014 as a "death knell" that brought about the medical card chaos.
This is the man who says his passion was trying to address "unfairnesses in the system" and "giving kids a fair start in life".
This is the man who has been so open in the past about his experience of being a father to an autistic son.
Then why did he allow such a savage budget cut to take place, given the pain it would inevitably cause? And why did it take so long for the decision to be reversed?
"I was challenged at the time as to why we didn't do it (reverse the cut) earlier and the political will wasn't there. It wasn't and that's a fact," Reilly says.
"Nonetheless, I'm a Cabinet minister and it was collective Cabinet responsibility. I'm the line minister and I take responsibility for it. But it is the biggest regret I have," he adds.
Despite his honesty, it becomes clear to me that Reilly is holding back.
"Did you fight hard enough when you were Health Minister to stop these budget cuts coming?" I ask him.
"I did. I fought as hard as I could and there were a number of meetings late into the night where maybe, well, I don't know how far I should go," he says before trailing off.
"Either I wasn't strong enough or. . . but I mean it's very hard to take on everybody," he adds.
Reilly says he knew his "future was written" following the budget and that he considered his position at that time, too.
I ask him why?
"Because I could see where it was going to lead. . . when you didn't have the money to do the job, how could you do the job?"
It's the furthest point Reilly has ever reached in terms of discussing publicly his struggles to achieve heath reform? But my next question relates to his Cabinet colleagues. Did he feel he had their full support? Did he feel Labour Party ministers in particular had his back, I ask him?
"They had my back alright," and laughed.
Without doubt, Reilly is part of the so-called 'liberal brigade' that has manoeuvred itself to the top of the Fine Gael party, and, in turn, the Government.
On the prospect of a referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment, Reilly's position is clear: the status quo has to change.
"I can't countenance, either as a doctor or a human being, the situation that women find themselves in relation to fatal foetal abnormalities and the nightmare they have to live on a daily basis.
"People asking: 'When is the baby due? Is it a boy or girl? Have you got the cot yet? Is the room ready?' Knowing that this baby has no chance of survival.
"But most repugnant of all to me is that they have to leave this country for a termination and then sneak back in like criminals to bring their babies remains back. That's patently wrong and it has to be addressed."
Reilly says he wants the see the Eighth Amendment repealed early in the next term - but insists the process needs to be carefully managed so that something concrete is put in its place. There cannot be a scenario of abortion on demand, he insists.
Reilly says he does not believe his views differ significantly from those held by the Taoiseach, who has been criticised in the past for his refusal to commit to a referendum.
Others in the party will say that Reilly's views now represent those held by a sizeable number of TDs, who believe Fine Gael has shown itself to be a progressive and idealistic party on social issues.
But when pressed on terminations in case of rapes, Reilly is willing to go a step further than many others within Fine Gael.
"I think it's far too complex a question to just answer at this distance out, but clearly it's going to be very difficult to ask a woman who has been raped and violated to continue to carry a child that perhaps she doesn't want, but then not everybody feels that way."
Within political circles, Reilly is sometimes described as the 'comeback kid'.
Similar to Finance Minister Michael Noonan, Reilly's political career, and indeed reputation, has undergone a remarkable revival.
In the 18 months since his demotion, Reilly has delivered a childcare package that was met with widespread praise, led the Government's war against the tobacco industry and played an instrumental role in the Marriage Equality Campaign.
Reilly made a number of key interventions throughout the referendum aimed at persuading undecided voters of the importance of a 'yes' vote for gay children, people he says felt "shunned" by society.
"I think the marriage referendum cracked that nut. It changed forever something that was subliminal in our culture," he says.
"It's so difficult for a young person going through that transition of adolescence and teenage years struggling with finding out who they are.
"But to have the additional struggle of knowing who they are and feeling different because of their sexual preferences and their gender orientation - that had to be highlighted and aired and I didn't feel it was."
Unlike in relation to his time in health, Reilly has a spring in his step when it comes to discussing children.
He knows well that his future as a TD is in no means certain and admits that Fine Gael is unlikely to take two seats in the election in Dublin Fingal. His running mate is deputy Alan Farrell.
His admission may explain why this minister has chosen to put his reputation, and indeed legacy, on the line through his fight against smoking.
Reilly's plain packaging legislation is facing a challenge in the courts by one of the world's most powerful tobacco companies.
It's a challenge he isn't prepared to lose.
Having previously described elements of the tobacco industry as evil, Reilly says he stands by this view today. He says he struggles "to find a better term to describe an industry that seeks to addict children to a killer product that will cause them to die early, and in one or two cases directly, because of using this product".
If Reilly gets his way, plain cigarette packs will be on the shelves by 2017.
But the question remains: will the minister himself even be in politics to see these measures through?
"It's always a fight to hold on to your seat," he says. "We'll be fighting to try and retain the two seats and if it ends up as one seat, well then who knows who'll be the Fine Gael person."
In relation to the choice facing voters in the spring, Reilly admits that people may feel reluctant to support the Government again because of the austerity they endured.
"I hope when the time comes they'll perhaps think about why that is and why they had to endure it - because of the mess that was left behind by the previous government.
"After 14 years of unrivalled money in the country, they left us not just with the cupboards bare but with IOUs all over the place. Nonetheless, we can't predict what will happen. A week is a long time in politics - a number of months is an eternity."