'If I'm doing a job, I do it properly. I don't lose any sleep over politics'
Aengus Fanning talks to the Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern about the Willie O'Dea affair and his relationship with the Greens
WHEN the deluge subsides after the political convulsions of the past few weeks, one of the very few members of the Government who is likely to emerge with his reputation enhanced is Dermot Ahern.
Ahern is no longer Fianna Fail's boot boy (the insult often hurled at him from the Opposition benches). Instead, after 23 years in the Dail (13 of them at the Cabinet table), he has matured, grown wiser and, while it could be hardly said that he exudes benevolence towards his opponents, he shows a degree of tolerance for those he disagrees with, which was hardly a characteristic of the old Dermot Ahern.
Ahern, 55 this month, is now joint favourite with Paddy Power (he and Michael Martin are 7/4) to become the next leader of Fianna Fail, with Brian Lenihan 2/1 and Mary Harney 14/1.
"I'm not the rabid Fianna Failer that some people make me out to be," he says, "I'm prepared to see the other side of the argument."
He clearly has sympathy for Willie O'Dea, and though he was unable to speak in O'Dea's defence because of his responsibilities as Minister for Justice, he showed support by sitting beside the embattled Minister during the motion of confidence the day before he resigned.
"The barracking that Willie took from the Opposition that day was unbelievable. If there are those who feel he was too aggressive on the basis of what they saw on television, they might have a different opinion if they were in the House that day and experienced the bearpit atmosphere."
AENGUS FANNING: The last few weeks have been cataclysmic in politics. To me, it has an element of a circus about it which distracts from the real business of trying to get the economy growing again. Last Tuesday, listening to the radio, I believe there was a direct implication that you had some hand in the leaking of the letter written by Trevor Sargent. What would you say to that?
DERMOT AHERN: There is no doubt but there was a clear implication, but to agree on one point: what has happened in the last couple of weeks has taken away from the fact that if you fill Croke Park five times with people, that is the amount of people unemployed in this country -- 430,000. That is the real crisis we should be talking about in Leinster House on a much more regular basis than we do. Unfortunately there have been efforts to drive a wedge between the two Government parties and they won't succeed.
There were implications. I knew I had nothing to fear and that is why I came out yesterday saying that when this report comes on my desk, I will publish it.
I have broad shoulders, I don't lose sleep over politics. It was hurtful, to be honest, but I could see what was happening the minute Trevor Sargent said he was resigning. Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore raised it that the Minister for Justice had questions to answer and that is political speak for pointing the finger. I think there is egg on those people's faces right now, they know I have nothing to do with it.
AF: Unfortunately or otherwise this kind of distraction sells newspapers.
DA: The only document that is in the Department of Justice regarding this issue on the day in question was the Evening Herald.
AF: One couldn't help but notice the contrast between the treatment given to Willie O'Dea and that given to Trevor Sargent, both fine men in their own way but on the radio and television people were saying Trevor was a very honourable and principled man to have fallen on his sword expeditiously whereas Willie had to be dragged kicking and screaming.
DA: Back when this thing happened -- when Willie's court case was settled -- I saw it in the paper and I remember raising an eyebrow about it, saying: that's not good for him. Nothing happened for a long time and then it came up, in effect out of the blue, although Senator Regan was chipping away at it for the last couple of weeks and I don't think it is correct to say Willie O'Dea was dragged kicking and screaming. Willie was barracked an awful lot during his speech, in fact, the Ceann Comhairle had to stop the Opposition, trying to tell them to let the man speak. Willie firmly believed and still believes that he acted honourably: he made a mistake, he didn't intend to give false information in the affidavit and immediately it was brought to his attention he corrected the situation by going to his solicitors and I think that is accepted by the other side. He won the confidence vote and then obviously things happened immediately afterwards. The Twitter issue and in his own interview on the radio Willie did add to the issue by referring to the fact that he got it from guards and that opened a new avenue. It is the age-old thing when the minister goes in and answers a question: it raises more issues. That is what happened and he knew that the minute he gave that interview, that this wasn't going to go away.
AF: My view is the sequence of events that led to the minister having to tender his resignation started with Deirdre de Burca who more or less said that the Greens were being pushed around by Fianna Fail. The Greens needed to show they weren't a pushover and Willie just happened to be the issue that presented itself. The going was made by Senator Dan Boyle, and Deirdre de Burca and Dan Boyle have one thing in common -- neither of them has been elected to this Senate. Have you anything to say on that?
DA: They're in a distinct political party, they're part of a government, we do work well. People are saying that I'm the bete noire of the Greens. I've a very good relationship with the Greens. I said to them privately I feel sorry for them that people like myself and others have been in government before and we know what governments are like; they've been a party of opposition for 25 years, of protest, and now they've found themselves in government. They know you have to make decisions, not with your eye only on what your parliamentary party are saying, you have to make it in the interests of the country first and obviously you have to bring your parliamentary party with you. I think that's a sort of a learning process that the Greens are working through.
AF: Do you think the recent events will shorten the life of this Government?
DA: I don't think they will, because we are working. I've been in government with the PDs and with due respect to the PDs and I'm a very good personal friend of Mary Harney, the PDs, when we were in government with them, caused crises every second week; the Greens don't. Yes, of course, events occur and you know they have to give a reaction but they see a long term, they think long term. This Government will go to its natural term because of that fact.
AF: Have you anything to say about the role of the Opposition, the leader of Fine Gael Enda Kenny and the leader of Labour Eamon Gilmore in this saga?
DA: They recognise that the country is in difficulty, but apart from the Lisbon Treaty, they haven't helped the Government in any shape or form. They haven't gone with any proposals that we have made, whether it is in banking or anything else on the economy; and one of the reasons why I suppose that they're high up in the polls is because they are opposing everything. In the interests of country, I don't believe that it's the way to go. All credit to somebody like Alan Dukes who previously saw the merit when the country was in a difficult economic position. With the Tallaght Strategy, he saw the bigger picture. These other issues tended to distract attention in the last two weeks or so when we should have been talking about the real issues and I fully accept that, but these issues weren't really of my making or the making of the Government.
AF: To underline the idea that this thing, however entertaining, [is a distraction]: you were in Dundalk yesterday announcing a couple of hundred jobs.
DA: They are 200 pharmaceutical jobs, excellent jobs, and they've taken quite a few years to come. People think that people like myself are in an ivory tower and we're not aware of what's going on in the real world. But members of our own families are losing their jobs, we know our own friends. It's a huge burden on us and a huge responsibility to try and turn that around. We're trying our best under the circumstances but we're not really getting huge help from the Opposition.
AF: My deepest concern is that we might actually have two parallel economies, the
export-led economy which would be some of these cutting edge, high-tech areas if it all goes well. But the local economy is in the doldrums: consumers aren't spending, businesses are under pressure. Even this Sunday, we feature two women in varying degrees of distress because of the pressure on their business.
DA: We have this all the time, it's raised everywhere I go. When I go out socially, when I go to Fianna Fail meetings, people raise the fact that the banks aren't lending. How can we ensure that the banks ease up on credit? Obviously it's a total reaction to what has happened and we are working with the banks to try and ensure that there's enough credit in society to keep those people in jobs, those small Irish indigenous companies in business. And it has to be said, there are banks in our country who are putting the squeeze on long-term small businesses, squeezing them of credit and potentially putting them out of business and that's, I think, the job of government -- to put pressure on them."
AF: I have a theory that in the Department of Finance there's an idea that these terrible things that are happening in the local economy -- no credit, business closing, people losing their jobs, short-time working, the resumption of emigration, property collapse -- that somehow they're inclined to allow it to happen in order to drive down wages and make us more competitive.
DA: Well, I don't think anyone is doing it on purpose.
AF: I didn't say that, I said letting it happen.
DA: The biggest problem we have is the ever-increasing number of unemployed and that is obviously a result of the contraction in the economy. I would go back to the meeting of Christmas the year before last where we determined that we had to embark on a course whereby if there was €55bn going out to run this country and we were only taking in €32bn, that over time we had to take money out of the economy. It's the same in any household, it just can't go on. I think some of the more experienced ministers said "we are not going to make the mistakes that we made in previous years, by borrowing x (obviously we have to borrow) but we also have to take measures on the other side". What we did do by taking €4bn out of the system is in effect making us more competitive.
We have to drive down costs, all costs, and that includes wages, in order to become competitive. We have not become competitive and it's not rocket science because if you go across the border, go to Newry and buy pharmaceuticals (I don't want to be publicising this) but why is it so much cheaper in Newry? When I went on continental holidays in the Eighties, it used to give me a pain in my heart when I went to buy a coke or a coffee. Today it's cheaper than it is in Ireland, it's because we became uncompetitive. Let's be honest about it, we paid ourselves too much as a nation and everyone was happy with that because we were creating a wealth, mainly through a property bubble. Now we have to turn back and become competitive in order to compete in the world market and if we don't do that, we won't have a future.
AF: We had a telephone poll a couple of weeks ago where more than 60 per cent like the idea of some form of national government for the period of the crisis, we should have an all-party temporary arrangement. Is there any merit in that idea"
DA: I don't think it's a good idea, you have to have an opposition -- if you had a national government, there'd be no one to criticise you in the democratically elected parliament and too much of a cosy consensus. You need somebody to hold government to account, and not just the media or the public or the Joe Duffys of this world.
AF: The Omagh verdict, Colm Murphy -- have you any comment to make on that?
DA: I think it is an absolute shame what has happened in the intervening period for the people. I feel very sorry for people like Michael Gallagher and others. It must be very difficult for them to go through all these years, having been totally innocent in this event and having the trauma of losing loved ones and then to find that the system isn't responding. I don't think that anyone deliberately went out and made mistakes in the investigation but clearly mistakes were made and we have to learn from that. It was such an horrific event that in the immediate aftermath, obviously things weren't done that should have been done. I don't say that as any criticism, it was just a horrendous event and it totally convulsed everyone.
AF: There will be people in the House like Pat Rabbitte and others who've labelled you as a Fianna Fail boot boy.
DA: They obviously don't know me personally. I'm not a boot boy -- you're going to use that as a headline, 'Dermot Ahern is not a boot boy' -- please don't use that as a headline."
AF: OK, we'll put it in the second paragraph.
DA: You know I'm not a rabid politician like some people in Fine Gael and Labour think I am. I'm prepared to see the other side of the argument. Sometimes people are caricatured. I don't know whether it's this particular department but it is a pretty in-your-face department because you're dealing with fairly tough issues and I believe if I'm doing a job, I have to do it properly. So if people caricature me and make me into something I am not, well, that's their business. As I said earlier, I don't lose any sleep over politics.
AF: But after a long career in politics, do you think your tolerance for hypocrisy is weakening?
DA: If you look at the last two weeks, people portrayed me as something I'm not. Some of my reactions were based on the fact that I just can't put up with hypocrisy and some of the things I hear from the other side, particularly some of the Sinn Fein members, I just can't put up with it and that's why you get a reaction from me sometimes. When you hear somebody talking about high morals and high standards and what is meted out to our country, and these people were apologists for them and that's why to a certain extent sometimes I react the way I react.
AF: What would you say about the media in general?
DA: I never, ever publicly criticised the media. Even in my own party, people might say, 'oh the media are always against us'. They have a job to do and I recognise that. I think the best thing politicians can do is just work with the media and try and get on with it. Obviously if people make mistakes, you make the point but you move on. I don't hold any grudges.
AF: OK, Minister, thank you very much indeed.