Monday 9 December 2019

Lapgate TD: 'I did something stupid, I deserved to be fired'

Taoiseach refused to accept Barry's resignation

Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

It was 5am the morning after the infamous lapgate incident when Fine Gael TD Tom Barry finally emerged from the Dail.

Walking through the empty streets in the dim light of the morning, he knew he was in trouble.

He had earlier been captured on Oireachtas TV pulling party colleague Aine Collins on to his lap. Within an hour, the incident had gone viral on the internet.

The words of Shakespeare came to mind: "Heading back to the hotel I knew when I got up in the morning the world would be a different place. I thought of Julius Caesar: 'Between the acting of a dreadful thing, and the first motion, all the interim is like a phantasma or a hideous dream.' I knew the world was going to attack me the following day. And it did," he laughs. "Spectacularly."

Time has afforded Barry the ability to view the backlash after the story went international with some humour. But - in the beginning - he says it "shattered" him.

"It brought me to a point I had never been to. It almost de-constructed me. I'm naturally confident and good-humoured, but it just took me apart."

Tom Barry pulled Aine Collins towards his lap on a night when the Dail bar stayed open until 5.30am
Tom Barry pulled Aine Collins towards his lap on a night when the Dail bar stayed open until 5.30am

He lists the people who offered support: James Reilly, Alan Shatter and the party's chief whip Paul Kehoe among them. He offered his resignation to the Taoiseach, but Enda Kenny refused to accept it.

"I did something stupid and I deserved to be fired. I was not the victim."

The rumour-mill went into overdrive. There was talk he had downed Jagerbombs in The Gingerman pub beforehand, but he denies this - "I don't even drink spirits."

On the fateful night he said he only had two pints of Guinness. Of his sudden decision to put his female colleague on his lap, he said: "I've never even been to any of those clubs."

Fast forward a year and he is now very good friends with Collins. Hindsight has also afforded him the chance to view how other politicians dealt with his debacle.

"I smile every now and again when I see female politicians trying to make a name for themselves saying, 'look how hard it is in our job and look what happens to us'. Make your reputation on your ability, don't try to make it on someone else's misfortune."

His critics accused him of sexism, a charge he vehemently rejects. "I'm sorry but half my staff are women. I came from a family where the farm went to the women for the last four generations."

Does he think sexism exists in the Dail? "I can only speak for myself, but I don't think there is."

Is there a boys' club mentality? "The girls are included. I have never seen them excluded. I don't know what you mean by that."

What about those who were overlooked for promotion?

"That's above my pay scale. I have no control over that. Everyone can be ambitious but you may not reach it for a number of reasons."

For a politician who has been slapped with the 'sexist' label, Barry is the first to come out and predict that the next Taoiseach of the country will be a woman.

"Frances Fitzgerald would make a fantastic leader, a brilliant Taoiseach. She is an extremely capable person. One to watch. She has the blend of competency and likeability."

The 'Lapgate' incident in the Dáil
The 'Lapgate' incident in the Dáil

But he is far less effusive when it comes to the favourite to replace Kenny, Health Minister Leo Varadkar.

"Leo is Leo. I think most people know him. He comes across as a straight-talker and what you see and read about him is who he is. Would he make a good Taoiseach? I wouldn't know that at all."

The straight-talking Cork East TD hit out at the antics of the newly elected socialist TD Paul Murphy at the recent anti-water charges protests in Jobstown.

Murphy, he says, "doesn't represent the country that I live in. I should be able to walk around Jobstown tomorrow morning and do my job".

But, he admits, he's "not sure" if he could. "I'm not so sure. Creating ghettos is wrong. Creating areas of no-go. Isn't that what he [Murphy] is creating? 'Don't come back here again'."

He cites a case where his constituency office was targeted by Sinn Fein sympathisers who stormed his office and took photos of an elderly lady as she filled out a form to receive a medical card. He wrestled the camera from them. "Things deteriorated rapidly after that. That usual oul' rubbish accusing me of assault. I told them the judge would be under no doubt what happened."

Barry claims to be a rare breed of politician, in that he is not afraid to lose his seat, and that he refuses to get involved in spin or empty promises to win voters over.

However, he has the luxury of a big farm to fall back on. He claims there is no financial benefit for him working in politics, and that his Dail salary goes towards someone covering for him on his farm. It's a salary most farmers could only dream of.

Barry's businesses are worth a total of €4m. He dries 45,000 tonnes of grain a year on the 350-acre farm (200 his own) mainly for Irish distillers. "Politics is small change in the business world really," he says. He insists he is in the business of politics purely to make a difference.

He describes the loneliness of his first year in office where "you could go a whole day without talking to people", which led him to undergo a daily 470km, six-hour round trip home.

Since then he has settled in, and says his entire focus is now on the removal of the hated USC. "I firmly believe it will be removed. It's a lazy tax that takes in almost €4bn. If we remove it over seven years we could announce to Ireland that the recession is officially over and we could also buy social cohesion. It would buy stability with a little more money for disposable income."

In the meantime, after sensing his children "moving a bit away" from him due to his daily work load, he resolved to dedicate his weekends to spending time with them and his wife Kathy, a fellow bio-chemist he chased for 18 months before she finally agreed to go out on a date. "She had no aspirations to be married to a politician."

His favourite pastime is walking with his children on the land he works overlooking the Blackwater river. "It's idyllic. You probably appreciate it more now having been away in the city."

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