Tuesday 24 April 2018

Alan Kelly interview - 'I was given the biggest hospital pass in modern politics'

In a hard-hitting interview, the Minister for the Environment tells Daniel McConnell why Phil Hogan was a failure, and why he wants to be Labour leader

Alan Kelly
Alan Kelly
Daniel McConnell

Daniel McConnell

Regarded as the most abrasive politician in Leinster House, Alan Kelly is something of an enigma. His reputation as a no-nonsense political bruiser has earned him the nickname 'AK-47'.

For the first time since becoming a Cabinet minister, Kelly agrees to a full, sit-down interview, in his picturesque home village of Portroe, Co Tipperary, overlooking Lough Derg.

He takes me to Larkin's bar and restaurant in Garrykennedy nearby, where he recently celebrated his 40th birthday, for the interview.

By any standard, Kelly has enjoyed a meteoric rise to the Cabinet table since his entry into national politics in 2007, and already his impact has been immense.

I ask him about his reputation, does he thinks it is fair?

"I like conflict," he says sharply. "I enjoy conflict because I think in life, if you want to achieve things, you've got to stop pulling away from things and you've got to actually make things happen.

"Sometimes that means conflict has to be sorted out in differences of opinion. I just think sometimes they take too long and I want them to happen quicker. One last thing I believe, in politics there are too many populist cowards," he says.

"From my own point of view, what do I bring as deputy leader of the Labour Party? I think I bring a bit of steeliness at Cabinet, hopefully. So you see, all this stuff in the media, I just laugh at half of it. It's incredible, some of the stuff, AK47 and all this stuff, it's just hilarious," he adds.

Hang on, I say, it is his own Labour colleagues who have given him the nickname. Are they making it up? Are they wrong?

"No, they're right. I am very direct, I am very blunt, I am very driven," he says.

"I expect results, I drive results, I'll work with anyone. I'll collaborate with anyone to deliver results but I expect and I want everyone to work at the pace and standard and with the drive and determination that I do," he says.

"I suppose you do get frustrated and a person wants everything done ship-shape in a very quick way. I always want things done as quickly as possible," he said.

Unlike some ministers who become the captured creatures of their officials, he declares he is his own man.

"Just to kill that question, when I deal with officials, I expect them to work in a certain fashion. I won't be led by officials. I'll take their advice but I won't be led by them. Similarly, in relation to politics, in relation to my party, in relation to the way I work with government," he says.

But in his local pub, chatting to the owner Maura, Kelly shows a different side to the bruiser image. Relaxed and friendly, in Portroe, Kelly is a different man.

Since becoming Minister for the Environment 15 months ago, Kelly has had to assume control of several major crises in his department, whether it be homelessness, the rental crisis or Irish Water.

Kelly squarely lays the blame for much of the mess in his department at the door of his predecessor Phil Hogan.

"Being frank, I was given the biggest hospital pass in the history of modern politics," he says.

"In terms of issues, I have said the man should have done more, I still stand by that. I think he should have done better," Kelly says.

"He could have done better. Across a range of issues, he could have done better. In terms of issues, I was getting them half-baked or mid-stream, and they should have been advanced a lot more. I had to pick up the ball in a number of areas.

"From a department point of view, I thought I was inheriting something different to what I did," he says.

Kelly hasn't shied away from controversy and most recently it has been reported that he had a major spat with finance minister Michael Noonan over his plans to bring rent certainty to the market.

He gives his side of the story, forcibly.

"I've never had a row with Michael Noonan in my life. He will verify the same thing. I've never had an angry word with the man in my life. So it's complete and utter rubbish," he says.

He says that the housing crisis is now the "number one" issue facing the country, but says the country is now experiencing the growing pains of an expanding economy.

"It's a 2015 problem. We didn't have that problem in 2011, so we're a victim of our success in many ways," he says.

He also lashes out at developers who are refusing to build because of what he sees as "bizarre" profit expectations.

"We've a construction industry that's dysfunctional. We've a sector that has never repaired itself.

"There are big problems, legacy issues, expectations of developers are in some cases bizarre, the profit levels that they think they'll meet," he says.

"So you've got a lot of people, a lot of organisations, a lot of funds sitting on land. And you know they won't move until they feel they can get the return," he says.

He says the housing crisis has become a "perfect storm".

Kelly takes aim at the Central Bank for the social cost impact its controversial 20pc deposit rule has had on the housing market, which in turn is having an impact on the rental sector.

"Given the Central Bank rules, it means pressure from the top and it means that people are being squeezed out, they can't afford it. Now, that's not acceptable," he says.

"What that means is we need to ensure that developers, builders, are going to be building houses in Dublin, that your generation, my generation and those younger than us can actually afford, in the €300,000 bracket, because the largest amount of development that's going on in Dublin is at a scale that's beyond that," he says.

He also reveals his own frustration with the civil service at the lack of understanding at how desperate the crisis now is, suggesting some officials are out of touch.

"The level of seriousness of this issue is certainly at a political level, but I think some people at certain officialdoms need to wake up to the scale of this. They need to understand it because it doesn't affect them in their daily lives," he says.

He also says that while he is the Minister for the Environment, he does not control the levers to properly effect change.

"I'm dealing with it on a daily basis... you know, I'm not one of these people who isn't open to ideas or other ideas. I'm very open to them, but along with Paudie Coffey [his junior minister], we are the only people who are putting forward ideas in relation to this.

"But we don't control the levers, we are not the ones who control the levers that actually make them happen," he says.

"I'm not the person who can actually help (people) and prevent them getting in to a difficult situation because I'm not over taxation, I'm not over social protection and I'm not over expenditure.

"So it's collectively a cross-government issue, which is beyond just my role."

But he warns that such is the perfect storm, the country runs the risk of over-building homes in counties surrounding Dublin rather than building in Dublin itself.

"The other thing is from a development side. We are now building more houses in Kildare than in Dublin. That means infrastructure has to be built. We're just basically going to end up repeating the same problems as we had before," he says.

Given that since 2007 he has already been a Senator, an MEP, a TD, a junior minister, a senior minister and deputy leader of the Labour Party, the next question is obvious.

"Do you want to be the leader of the Labour Party," I ask him.

"Of course I want to be the leader of the Labour Party," he declares boldly, despite not being a "bastion of the left", as he said himself.

"So when are you going to kick her out?" I ask in relation to his party leader Joan Burton.

"I don't expect to be ever kicking Joan Burton out of the leadership of the Labour Party.

"Look, you ask a straight question, I'm a very direct, straight person. Of course I want to be leader of the Labour Party; I've wanted to be the leader of the Labour Party all my life," he says.

"I wanted to be a TD since I was seven. I said it in school.

"Of course I want to be the leader of the Labour Party, you know, if that happens, whenever it happens, so be it," he adds.

But, then he goes on to say he doesn't plan to be in politics for too long, meaning his move would have to happen sooner rather than later.

"I'd love to lead the Labour Party someday and if it happens great but, you know, it's not something I lie awake at night thinking about," he insists.

"I don't plan on being in politics my whole life. No, not all my life, no. I'm 40," he says.

I retort by asking is he copying Leo Varadkar in saying he'll be out of politics by the time he is 51?

"No, it was Leo who copied me. I intend staying in politics if I'm re-elected in Tipperary, which I hope I am.

"I believe I should probably, hopefully, stay in it for another 10-15 years...up to my mid-50s. I'd probably want to do something else. I think also I'd be better off doing something else. But that's 10 or 15 years away," Kelly reveals.

As Director of Elections for Labour, Kelly is bullish about the party's chances, saying it could come back with as many as 25 seats, despite poor opinion polls which would suggest a far lower figure.

"I believe that we're going to have a very good election and I absolutely believe the best bet in town is this Government getting elected," he says.

I put it to him that conventional wisdom says the Labour Party will get 10-12pc, somewhere around 18-20 seats.

"I expect we'll do much better than that," he says.

Look me in the eye and say that you genuinely think the Labour Party can come near 25-plus seats, I say to him.

"Of course I do. Do you want to see my constituency opinion polls? The first 12 constituency opinion polls I commissioned as Director of Elections, we were winning seats in 11 of them," he insists.

"I believe that we've a very good chance of winning seats everywhere we hold seats at the moment."

He says he will "never sit around a Cabinet table" with Gerry Adams or Sinn Fein. Responding to last week's reports into the status of the IRA, Kelly pulls no punches when it comes to Sinn Fein.

"I can't see myself ever sitting at a Cabinet table with Sinn Fein, full stop. I believe you need to adhere to a certain moral code. I believe you certainly have to have reached a certain moral standard and I don't believe that Sinn Fein have reached that," he says.

"Sinn Fein are a populist movement with a Northern command whose decision-making process, as we have seen, came through a military regime," he says.

I ask him does he accept the findings of the report that the IRA believes it controls some functions in Sinn Fein. "I do absolutely but it will never surprise me one bit. For me, the line between Sinn Fein and the IRA, it's obvious it's very narrow. It shows how dangerous it would be for this country ever to have an organisation like that," he says.

"I'll never, ever see myself in government sitting at a table with Sinn Fein nor do I ever want to or am I willing to," he blasts.

Turning to probably the most contentious political issue of his tenure, Irish Water, Kelly says he thinks Irish Water will be able to go off the Government's balance sheet within a "couple of years".

"I believe it can go off the balance sheet in the future. I fundamentally think that the Eurostat decision probably didn't respect totally the decision-making that had been put in place and the arguments have been put forward but that's an independent process.

"I can't argue with the fact that it's independent but I can say I disagreed so I'm very hopeful that in the future coming years, it'll go off the balance sheet," he says.

Sunday Independent

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