Wednesday 21 February 2018

A rare own goal by a decent and clever man

Joe O'Toole: resignation Picture: Gerry Mooney
Joe O'Toole: resignation Picture: Gerry Mooney
John Downing

John Downing

For much of his 24 years at Leinster House, Joe O'Toole appeared to epitomise the canny Kerryman from central casting.

An infectious laugh garnished a self-deprecating sense of humour, which majored in honesty. Time and again, people learned that his easy-going veneer belied a very shrewd take on his work as a union leader and politician.

A native of Dingle, he was a primary schoolteacher, a school principal and eventually secretary general of one of the country's biggest and most influential unions, the Irish National Teachers' Organisation. His 11 years at the helm progressed teachers' wages and conditions and also their input into educational policy development.

He went out of that job in 2001 on a high by moving on to be president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. In that position he is best remembered for his notorious comparison of public service benchmarking with a cash-dispensing ATM.

O'Toole's parallel job was as a senator, which ran from 1987 to 2011. He was liked and respected across all parties and played a leading role in many parliamentary initiatives.

There were overtures from a number of parties who wanted him to try for the Dáil. But he remained an Independent and stayed with the Seanad.

He took the work extremely seriously - but his impish humour was never far from deployment.

"Where did you get those rats your crowd were always finding in schoolyards?" former Education Minister Micheál Martin asked him, with mock indignation, one day on the Leinster House plinth.

"We had cages full of them next to my office. We used to breed them," O'Toole replied amid peals of laughter.

Many politicians deemed him a good choice to lead the review process on water charges, which came from a pre-coalition compromise between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Then he went on RTÉ's 'Today With Seán O'Rourke' and gave a number of other interviews.

"Leinster House is not prepared to grasp that nettle, so we have to find a solution that will have enough sugar on it to make the medicine go down easily," he said on Newstalk.

Many on the Government side feared he gave too many hostages to fortune - especially his comment about sugar-coating the process to make charges politically acceptable.

O'Toole countered that he was entirely above board and intended to run an independent and open review process. But the AAA-PBP dubbed him a "cheerleader for water charges" as he was left to counter that it was they who were damaging the process.

The AAA-PBP were predictably joined by Sinn Féin. But it was Fianna Fáil's decision to join the chorus which finished things.

"Joe O'Toole is one of the first victims of 'new politics'," one senior Fine Gael figure summed up - within minutes of news of the water commissioner's resignation dropping about 4.30pm yesterday. The comment typified the view that, in the days of a government majority, "O'Toole's Watergate" would have been ridden out.

Fianna Fáil donned their best "far more sorrow than anger" faces. Their environment spokesman, Barry Cowen, indicated they got no pleasure in the departure of "an honourable man".

It is clear that O'Toole's departure began with his badly-toned and ill-timed comments, before he even began leading a review process of a very sensitive political issue. But it is equally clear that Fianna Fáil pulled the trapdoor from under him.

Irish Independent

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