Sunday 21 January 2018

'In 10 years' time I would like to be the Taoiseach'

From Cabinet colleagues to friends in Sinn Fein, Regina Doherty fires from the hip. She spoke to Cormac McQuinn

Candid: Government Chief Whip Regina Doherty outside Leinster House Photo: Tom Burke
Candid: Government Chief Whip Regina Doherty outside Leinster House Photo: Tom Burke

Regina Doherty said she has read coverage of her time as Government Chief Whip and wondered to herself: "Is there anybody that likes me?"

The thought occurred to her after a recent story outlining the challenges she faces in making sure ministers and Fine Gael TDs are in Leinster House to attend Dail votes.

She said the story had a number of different sources, and added: "I learnt that week about myself that I'm trying to change more people than I can change when in actual fact I should be changing me.

"It's up to me to make sure that I can facilitate their ability to do their job and that's an awful lot easier and an awful lot less stressful."

The Meath East TD has one of the toughest jobs in politics, but she also doesn't make it easy on herself and it's been a difficult couple of weeks.

First came the An Bord Pleanala decision to allow the north-south inter-connector electricity pylons to be routed through her constituency. She's against the plans and said publicly that the issue is more important than keeping her job in the Cabinet.

Then came her criticism of her Fine Gael constituency colleague Helen McEntee.

They don't have a working relationship, Doherty said, in an interview with the Irish Times that appeared last week. Doherty added: "She would walk past me in the corridor and wouldn't even blink her eyes."

McEntee called the comments "utterly inappropriate" and said she'd address the matter internally in Fine Gael.

It was hot water that Doherty prepared for herself.

Perhaps understandably she didn't want to return to either issue when contacted ahead of the publication of her interview with the Sunday Independent.

Doherty was engaging, enthusiastic, and open to offering views on a wide range of issues, some of which would send other TDs running for the hills. Her remarks that she could work with Sinn Fein in a future coalition, while accepting that others in her party may not share that view, is one example. It's an openness that - while admirable - can land her in difficulty.

As Government Chief Whip, Doherty is arguably one of the key figures in the "new politics" brought about by the minority Government arrangement.

She was not impressed with how it's sometimes discussed, and said: "What we talk about new politics now is bullshit. I don't actually know where that phrase came from or who coined it but it's thrown around like confetti around here and most of it in a kind of jocular way: 'Oh, all right, that's new politics', or, 'I want to go back to old politics'."

She later clarified that the "flippant" way new politics is referred to, particularly by commentators, doesn't reflect the "genuine and positive changes" that have occurred in the Oireachtas.

She said there had been a shift in power from Government to parliament and insisted "it is working" - but that's not to say she did not see room for improvement.

She admitted she can get "annoyed" by Labour leader Brendan Howlin's branding of the current set-up as "the do-nothing Dail", and said it was "very unfair". She added: "Nobody really knew what we were going into on May 6.

"Particularly given that I only have five hours a week to pass legislation - as opposed to as much as I would have liked in the old Dail."

She said a priority once the new term starts will be to increase the length of time to pass Government legislation.

However, despite this limitation, the Government has exceeded its target in terms of the number of Bills it has passed - though she admitted it had been a "much slimmed-down programme of legislation".

Despite the difficulties, Doherty said being Chief Whip was "probably the most interesting job I've ever had".

To allow ministers to travel to engagements at home and abroad, she has to arrange pairings with opposition TDs during Dail votes.

She said she had built up relationships with politicians that she had little contact with in her previous five years in Leinster House.

One surprising example is AAA-PBP TD Paul Murphy, who Doherty said she had encountered only when "fighting with him on the radio" about water charges.

"I would have had a view in my head that he was X, Y and Z type of a politician - and he's not. He's intelligent and articulate," she said.

She mentioned Fianna Fail's Eamon O Cuiv, who told her "you'll find your closest friends in the most unusual places".

Sinn Fein's whip Aengus O Snodaigh has never said No when she has asked for a favour, Doherty added.

"The same is true of the Labour Party, of the Green Party, and of Stephen Donnelly," she said. "People are very understanding that Government needs to run its business.

"In the beginning everybody had the impression that we were going to be losing votes week in, week out. It'd become such a common occurrence. It hasn't happened. I think we've lost two votes."

She said the Government hadn't failed to pass one of its own Bills and she did not anticipate that happening.

Doherty added "you'd obviously seriously have to reflect on the position of that Government" if it did begin losing votes on its own legislation.

She branded occasions when opposition groups had tabled motions on divisive issues such as abortion or water charges as "populism" and "wedge politics".

The water charges issue "needs to be addressed", she said, and she will go along with the will of the Dail when a vote is finally held on the issue in March.

Doherty said that if water charges are kept in some form, those who didn't pay should be pursued.

She suggested: "The only way that would conceivably work is that if you didn't pay your bill and you want to go and sell your house in 10 years' time, well then we will get the money off you in 10 years' time because it was the law of the land. I think everybody should be treated fairly."

But asked if she was in favour of refunds for those who paid if the charges are scrapped outright, she replied: "Give the money back."

But she didn't think tricky issues such as water charges, pay-by-weight bins, or even Brexit will trip up the Government, as they're all issues that can be dealt with.

In relation to Brexit, she said: "You fear the worst. There are obviously huge opportunities with regard to Brexit too."

Doherty was even optimistic about Donald Trump's imminent arrival in the White House. She said: "There are opportunities for us from Trump that people maybe don't see and recognise yet, with regard to the reductions of corporation tax in America." However, she did not outline how this could benefit Ireland.

On the domestic front, she said: "The Eighth Amendment, pay-by-weight... all of those things are stuff that can be dealt with.

"I'm a democrat and I'm a republican. I will accept the will of the parliament."

Doherty didn't sound like some in Fine Gael who fear Fianna Fail will pull the plug on the Government at the moment that's most advantageous to it.

"I think we'll get plenty of notice," she said of the prospect of an election.

"The opinion polls will tell you that, if there was an election in the morning, the likelihood is that the goalposts wouldn't change that drastically. I mean, we might lose one or two seats. Fianna Fail might gain one or two seats. It doesn't change the dynamic of what you would end up back here with."

She said she didn't think there was an appetite from anyone in Leinster House for an election but added that Fianna Fail was in a "difficult position" when it came to opposition groups such as Sinn Fein and AAA-PBP.

She explained: "They're trying to facilitate a Government - and that means supporting us, but also trying to find spaces where they disagree with us."

Doherty thinks Fine Gael must talk about issues that are important to people - which she identified as healthcare and housing - to have a chance of remaining the largest party after the next election. Perhaps in reference to Fine Gael's disastrous "Keep the recovery going" slogan from the last election, she said there should be an assumption that the public wants a good economy.

Fine Gael needs to learn from "the stupid things that we did" to secure the return of the councillors and TDs it lost in the local elections of 2014 and in last year's general election, she claimed.

Her party's poor election led to backbench rumblings last summer about Taoiseach Enda Kenny's leadership.

Doherty poured fuel on the fire when she said on local radio that Kenny should set out a timeline for his departure. Within hours, she had realised her error and was publicly expressing her full support for him.

He has since said that he hopes to be in office to welcome Pope Francis to Ireland next year, and Doherty thinks that will happen.

"The dynamic has changed," she said. "First of all - and I'm so pleased for him personally - his opinion ratings are improving and I think that's lovely for him, for us as a team."

She said that she could not see a better person to chair Cabinet meetings.

"I genuinely have huge respect when I watch him," Doherty said. "I never got to watch him in action so closely as I have in the last six months, so probably my admiration is even bigger now.

"That's not to say that there still aren't certain people in Fine Gael that have difficulties with him. That's their issue."

Has she got a preference for either Leo Varadkar or Simon Coveney - most frequently named as Kenny's successors?

"Not at the moment," she replied, adding that both would make "fabulous leaders" and pointed out that it isn't a closed race. She regards Frances Fitzgerald and Paschal Donohoe equally highly.

Meanwhile, Doherty was not shy about her own ambitions. Someday she would like to lead her party and serve as Taoiseach. "I can say this because there's not a snot's chance in hell that I'm in the running for anything," she joked.

"I have so much more to learn and I love the learning bit," adding that she would need to serve as a senior minister before any tilt at the top.

"So roll on 10 years," she said. "If you asked me would I like to be the Taoiseach. I'd bite your left leg off, of course, just to be able to do it."

Sunday Independent

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