Thursday 23 November 2017

Naughten: I wouldn't have a pint with Enda

The Independent Minister has 'no plans', to rejoin Fine Gael

Denis Naughten, the Minister for Communications, Climate Change and Natural Resources, at Leinster House Photo: Tom Burke
Denis Naughten, the Minister for Communications, Climate Change and Natural Resources, at Leinster House Photo: Tom Burke
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

It is five years since Denis Naughten was expelled from Fine Gael for voting against the last government on cuts to hospital services in his native Roscommon. He previously backed the wrong horse in the ill-fated heave against party leader Enda Kenny.

So now, as a newly appointed Communications Minister, how does he get on with the Taoiseach? "Well, look, my relationship with Enda Kenny is workman-like," he says, adding: "I've no difficulty rolling up my sleeves and getting on with it."

Mr Kenny, we learned in these pages on Saturday, insists they get on "very well".

Mr Naughten's description of their relationship doesn't exactly make it sound like they'll be going to the pub together.

"Ah no, I wouldn't be going off for pints with Enda Kenny. No. But look, we're both professionals. We've a job of work to do and we'll do it," he says.

He's still disappointed at the downgrading of the Emergency Department in Roscommon, which came on the back of a Hiqa report outlining concerns about smaller hospitals.

It was also a U-turn on a pre-election 2011 promise by Mr Kenny to maintain the services in Roscommon, though the Taoiseach's spokesman later said any pledge came before the Hiqa report.

"I think that what was done was wrong," Mr Naughten says - adding that there is a mechanism in the new Programme for Government for reviewing medical assessment units in Roscommon and elsewhere that could see services increased.

Now that he's in Cabinet with several former party colleagues, is there any prospect of returning to the Fine Gael fold?

"No, look, I gave a commitment to the people of Roscommon-Galway that if I was elected as an Independent TD I would serve as an Independent TD and I'm quite happy with that. I have absolutely no intention of going back on my word."

Asked if he'd rule it out, he says he has "no plans whatsoever to join any party".

But he acknowledges that "in politics you can't rule anything in or out. You don't know what can happen in 10, 15 years' time".

"But is it on my radar? No it's not on my radar... but no one knows what comes down the road."

As one of the so-called 'Rural Five' group of Independent TDs, Mr Naughten was a key participant in the talks with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil about forming a minority Government.

He found himself at the centre of controversy within days of the Programme for Government being published over his suggestion that child benefit payments be linked to school attendance.

As the proposal made headlines, Fine Gael ministers distanced themselves from the plan. Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar later said he had discussed the idea with the Education and Children ministers - and that officials who monitor truancy don't believe the measure would be useful.


Mr Naughten still stands by the idea and wants to see it implemented to help end the "crazy situation" that sees more than a hundred families a year being pursued through the courts over poor school attendance. He gave the example of one case that cost the State €25,000.

He says there is the potential to save €75m if computer databases at the Departments of Social Protection, Education and Children are linked.

"All I'm looking for is to enforce the existing law. The existing law is that in order to avail of child benefit, your child must be receiving an appropriate education.

"And that is enforced from the age of 16 on, but it's not being enforced under the age of 16 and I think that's wrong."

He said Mr Varadkar wasn't present at the negotiations where the plan was discussed. "I think when there is a proper understanding of what exactly we're trying to do here, we will get it implemented."

He adds: "I've had quite a number of Fine Gael TDs coming forward saying they're very supportive of what I'm trying to do and a huge number of teachers saying the same thing."

In terms of his own brief, Mr Naughten, a former scientist, says his priorities at the new Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment are bringing broadband to rural communities and delivering on Ireland's climate change targets.

He has already spoken of his pledge to negotiate the "most aggressive" timeline possible for the roll-out of high-speed internet for the million Irish people who don't have it.

In relation to the climate change agenda, he's surprisingly grateful to Danny Healy-Rae's infamous Dáil remarks that mankind has had no part in global warming and "God above is in charge of the weather".

"I didn't agree with him," Mr Naughten says when asked about the Kerry TD's comments.

"However, I think that Danny Healy-Rae's intervention was useful from the point of view of bringing the debate into the mainstream."

He says that people do need to be more aware of the dangers of climate change. And Mr Naughten himself is putting his money where his mouth is.

He uses Dublin Bikes to get around the city and he plans to buy his own hybrid car. As a rural TD, he is conscious of unrest over wind turbines, but he concedes that they are the quickest way for Ireland to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. On the row over how far turbines should be from homes due to noise issues, he quotes Fr Ted, saying: "that's an ecumenical matter".

He's discussing it with his officials and other ministers, and stresses that he's aware there is a lot of public concern.

"Where we can address these concerns in a practical, sensible manner, I intend to try and do that."

He said wind power will be one of a suite of renewable power options he wants brought in so that Ireland lives up to climate commitments by 2020.

The minority Government suffered its first Dáil defeat last week. Mr Naughten says he's surprised it took that long. But he still thinks it's a "positive omen" that it did take that amount of time. He acknowledges that the new Government will have to listen to the Opposition far more, and sees that as a positive thing.

He's optimistic about the Government's chances. "I think it could last, believe it or not, for five years.

"I know that everyone thinks I'm off the rails thinking that," he adds.

Naughten on . . .

"I wouldn't be going off for pints with Enda Kenny" - On his 'workman-like' relationship with the Taoiseach.

"I have absolutely no plans to join any party Fine Gael or otherwise but no one knows what comes down the road" - On staying as an Independent.

"There's no point in me lecturing people about energy efficiency and me driving down the road in a fuel guzzler" - On his plan to buy a hybrid car - funded from his own pocket.

"I didn't agree with him anyway" - On Danny Healy-Rae's infamous Climate Change remarks.

"That's an ecumenical matter" - On the thorny issue of set-back distances for wind turbines from homes.

"There are risks in relation to it and the public are opposed to nuclear" - On the one carbon-neutral power source he definitely won't be considering to tackle climate change.

"We have to live in the real world. It is not going to be possible to bring legislation along those lines through in the current Dáil" - On the scrapping of the last government's plans for a broadcasting charge to replace the TV licence fee.

"What surprised me was the fact that it's taken three weeks for the government to lose its first vote" - On the minority's government's defeat last week.

"I think this government will last at least three years and I think it could last, believe it or not, for five years. I know everyone thinks I'm off the rails thinking that" - On the government's projects of long-term survival.

Irish Independent

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