Monday 23 September 2019

'People say I've sold out but I've no problem, I sleep every night' - Finian McGrath on working with Fine Gael in Government

Ready to do a deal: Super Junior Minister Finian McGrath says he will work with ‘whoever delivers the most’ on his priorities. Photo: Mark Condren
Ready to do a deal: Super Junior Minister Finian McGrath says he will work with ‘whoever delivers the most’ on his priorities. Photo: Mark Condren
Hugh O'Connell

Hugh O'Connell

Finian McGrath is a self-described messer and maverick socialist who likes a pint, a cigarette and a sing-song with his guitar.

So it has puzzled some as to why he has thrown his lot in with Fine Gael, a centre-right party that repeatedly faces accusations of elitism and being out-of-touch.

Power helps, of course. For over three years, Mr McGrath has been the super junior minister for disabilities who sits at the Cabinet table alongside his Independent Alliance colleague Shane Ross.

Occasionally, he'll lash out at Fine Gael over the lack of progress on social and affordable housing or the failure to recognise Palestine, but by and large he has been a team player and never seriously come close to walking out of Government.

So, has the maverick become a mouse? "Of course people say: 'McGrath, you sold out' and all that sort of stuff, but if you go into politics, are you going in just to stand in the Opposition or are you going in to change things," McGrath told the Irish Independent in his office in Government Buildings last week. "So I made a decision and my own election team made a decision. The first time in the history of the State you have a minister for disabilities at the Cabinet table, was I just going to go over and sit on the pot in the Opposition or was I going to have a crack at this? It didn't take me more than 10 seconds to say I'll have a crack at this.

"I've no problem, I sleep every night. The only time I don't sleep is when I don't do enough."

McGrath argues that he has secured millions of euro in extra funding for disability services over the last three years and presents this newspaper with an impressive-looking list of achievements. They include some €167m extra on HSE disability services over two years, 1,000 new Special Needs Assistants, €10m extra for people in respite care, and the extension of the medical card to children in receipt of Domiciliary Care Allowance. There was also the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which he and disabilities campaigners had long sought.

But some in the sector argue that McGrath has not done enough on issues like respite care - a particularly problematic issue and frequently subject to complaints from Opposition TDs dealing with exceptionally hard cases.

McGrath has also come under fire for comments earlier this year in the 'Sunday Independent' when he said policing of new drink-driving laws had been "over the top" and called on gardaí to be "de-politicised". Amid pressure from Government colleagues, he withdrew the remarks.

Now McGrath likes to defend Fine Gael ministers and in particular Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy, who has been pilloried for his defence of the co-living concept.

Mr McGrath argued that co-living works for "a section of society that are very affluent and if they want to do that that's their business".

He added: "I think [Mr Murphy] was a bit misrepresented on that issue… I just think there are some people who make that decision, that's their choice. So what? There are certain people who are affluent and that's the choice they want to make, they want to do that, that's their business."

McGrath also hit back at Murphy's critics.

"I just think they portray him as the posh boy from the southside. So what if he comes from a posh background?" he said.

Mr McGrath is also backing the Taoiseach's recent call for the Central Bank to examine mortgage-lending rules for first-time buyers caught in the so-called rent trap. "I definitely think we have to look at it," he said.

"It is unacceptable that you've young couples on fairly average salaries that are saving a few bob, they're spending a fortune on rent and they cannot afford to buy a house. That to me is unacceptable, we have to fix that."

But whatever about Mr Murphy and the Taoiseach, McGrath reserves his most lavish praise for the leader of Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin. "I do admire Micheál Martin because of the way he's played the long game.

"He's been very calm and measured on Brexit and he's also been very supportive of our country when he was getting a lot of grief for propping up the Government. As far as I am concerned, that to me is leadership, that to me is statesmanship and I commend that."

This praise is not surprising. McGrath said he will work with "whoever delivers the most" on his priorities after the next election - assuming he is re-elected - and makes no apology for that. He has worked with Fianna Fáil Taoisigh in the past and is now setting himself up to potentially do so again.

"I've done a deal with four Taoisigh. I did a deal with Bertie [Ahern], Brian Cowen, Enda Kenny and now Leo. So the answer is, I've no problems about it."

Irish Independent

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