Friday 24 November 2017

Regina Doherty: 'Politicians will step on their granny to get what they want'

Regina Doherty tells Philip Ryan why she doesn't trust politicians, and where she stands on the Eighth Amendment

Regina Doherty Photo: Gerry Mooney
Regina Doherty Photo: Gerry Mooney

Regina Doherty is nervous about doing interviews. Just before the Dail broke for the summer she got in a bit of bother with Taoiseach Enda Kenny when she went on her local radio station, LMFM, and said the Fine Gael boss should set out the timeline for his departure.

After realising the impact of her comments, the Government Chief Whip was straight on the phone to Mr Kenny.

"I answered a question probably without thinking, - not probably - definitely without thinking, within an hour of it happening I realised from social media how much of a stupid thing I had done and he was the first person I called," she says.

Despite what the comments might look like to a casual political observer, Ms Doherty claims there was "no ill intent" towards the Taoiseach and said the leader of Fine Gael for the last 14 years had forgotten his deputy's indiscretion within 24 hours.

Sitting down over a cup of tea in the Monica Hannigan's Broadway Cafe in Dunboyne, Co Meath, Ms Doherty says she can "guarantee" Mr Kenny's leadership will not be a key talking point at Fine Gael's forthcoming parliamentary party get-together, before the Dail is officially back in session.

Some of her colleagues have different ideas. Nonetheless, she says: "To be honest with you there's nobody coming to my office looking to have that conversation.

"I definitely don't want another election and I think the Cabinet needs to gel together and to get through the next couple of weeks and to provide the country with a decent budget for next year that we can all live with. And I definitely think the Taoiseach is the best person to do that," she adds.

But does she trust Fianna Fail to back October's Budget?

"Do I trust any politician? They'd step on their granny to get what they want," she says.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan took a hammering last week over his botched handling of the EU Commission's ruling that found US tech giant Apple owes the tax man €13bn.

Ms Doherty rallies to his defence and insists the 73-year-old minister still has the energy to steer the economy through the uncertainty of Brexit and 'new politics'.

"I have huge respect for Michael Noonan - he's one of the kindest fellows, the most rational and genuinely sincere people, and actually he's exceptionally generous in his dealings with people."

In hindsight, she says the Apple tax issue should have been raised during government negotiations with Independent TDs so as to avoid the indecision of the last week.

Ms Doherty was surprised to learn former Environment Minister and current EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan did not object to the damning judgement before it was published.

"I'm surprised that he would have signed off on that because it's not true, and actually I don't think there is anybody in the country who believes that the Revenue Commissioners acted illegally," she says.

She is eager to come across as conciliatory, especially towards her colleagues in the Independent Alliance.

Ms Doherty says there is an impression in Fine Gael that Transport Minister Shane Ross wants to "cause difficulty" for the Government, but she believes he is an "extremely sincere man".

She also has a lot of time for Junior Training and Skills Minister John Halligan, whose left-leaning political views would differ from Fine Gaels', to say the least.

"I actually think John is a lovely fellow. We've talked about different issues particularly around abortion, around some other issues with regard to sexual violence, he's a very interesting person."

She is known in Leinster House for her no-nonsense approach to politics, which at times can irk some of her colleagues, but generally she is admired for her work ethic.

"Ask the people who work with me; I don't have a lot of patience," she says

It doesn't help that the bureaucracy and red tape of the civil service means things move very slow in government.

"It's very different to the world I came from, which is the business world, where you made a decision on a Monday at the boardroom table and if it's not in by Friday you're asking for somebody's head," she says.

Since her elevation to Cabinet, she has encountered some very hard-working and dedicated civil servants, but insists it is time to change the impression that a public service job is a "permanent, pensionable position".

"Things are changing and I think that's a good idea. I don't think anybody in this country should have a job for life just because. I think it should be performance-related and that's equally relevant to my job as it is to your job," she says.

"Every single teacher we have in the country isn't absolutely superb no more than every single doctor in the country isn't superb, neither is every politician, neither is every journalist, but we never had a mechanism of actually dealing with performance," she adds.

A healthy work/life balance is important to the mother of four. She has a deal with her husband Declan that she looks after the kids every morning before school when he heads off to work at 7am. Most nights she's not home until late, so Declan takes up the slack in the evenings.

But has her career affected her relationship with her children?

"Do they know how to play the guilt card and get what they want because 'you're never home, mam'? Yeah they do, but no I don't think it has," she says.

As Chief Whip, she is responsible for ensuring TDs show up for increasingly tricky Dail votes and her heart goes out to politicians living at the opposite ends of the country travelling hundreds of miles to Leinster House.

She has discussed the idea of remote voting on legislation, which is common place in other countries, but it was decided it wasn't practical in an Irish context.

Over the summer Dail recess, she has had more time to spend with her family and also to consider one of the most divisive issues of conscience in Irish political life - abortion.

Before the break, she was adamant in her view that the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which protects the right of the unborn child, should be removed to allow for abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities. She was less sure about terminating pregnancies resulting from incidents of rape or incest.

"It just clicked in my head this year, this summer when I had time to think about stuff - both of them are acts of violence against women and I'm sorry you couldn't justify asking a woman to carry a baby to term arising from the act of violence and that is notwithstanding that the baby is still a baby.

"I don't think it is my place to tell anyone to stay pregnant for 40 weeks from rape or incest because I think it is the right thing to do."

She doesn't think Fine Gael should take a position on a future referendum given the disparate views on the issue in the party.

"I don't think it okay for me to tell you that you should freely campaign for abortion when you don't agree with it. I don't know what we will do as a party and maybe the best thing to do as a party is to allow the people to have their say and not for us to influence them one way or another," she says.

Ms Doherty doesn't like rating her female counterparts as the same isn't done for male politicians.

"We never talk about our male talent, because we just assume that male politicians are going to be fabulous, so we have to talk about women and their skill sets."

However, she does have her favourites. Firebrand left-wing TD Clare Daly is "effortless, natural and passionate", even though she agrees with nothing she says. Fianna Fail's Fiona O'Loughlin and Margaret Murphy O'Mahony win praise. She's "bored" of Mary Lou McDonald's antics.

And as for Fine Gael, she concludes there is "loads" of female talent.

Sunday Independent

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