Saturday 16 December 2017

'Ross is sound individual who gets a lot of unfair press and negativity' - Griffin

The junior minister talks road trips, UK royals, VAT, family strain and the Healy-Raes with Niall O'Connor

Brendan Griffin, a keen sportsman, at Aghadoe overlooking Killarney, Co Kerry. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Brendan Griffin, a keen sportsman, at Aghadoe overlooking Killarney, Co Kerry. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Niall O'Connor

Niall O'Connor

A road trip in the company of Shane Ross might not be everybody's cup of tea. But it's how Brendan Griffin chose to spend one sunny afternoon in April, as he showed the Transport Minister exactly why the road from Kerry to Cork is in dire need of an upgrade.

For over an hour, two politicians of completely different backgrounds and persuasions spoke about potholes, tourism and whether the Dáil's so-called 'new politics' would actually work.

Mr Griffin was well aware that the man sitting beside him in the car was deeply unpopular among certain quarters within Fine Gael.

He had heard the many stories knocking around Leinster House about how Mr Ross had shared a hostile relationship with Patrick O'Donovan, who has since moved to the Department of Finance.

But there was no hostility experienced during the 90-minute drive along the N22 from Killarney to Cork city.

"He gets a lot of unfair press, a lot of negativity," Mr Griffin says.

"We have a real open relationship. If he has something to say to me, or I have something to say to him, we say it. There is no misunderstanding. In Kerry language, I find him to be a sound individual."

From a Government perspective, the good relations bode well given that the pair will be working side by side in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport.

And both ministers are clear in their response to those who want to alter Ireland's 9pc VAT rate for the hospitality sector: Hands off.

"It's probably the most pro-rural policy of any government in the history of the State. It's a tax measure that has got into every community in the country, every parish in the country," Mr Griffin says.

"It's a vital lifeline for so many enterprises, particularly in peripheral areas. So I think it's pretty brainless for people to come out and say 'this can be done away with without there being adverse effect'.

"People say the 9pc VAT rate has done its job so we should do away with it. It is doing its job. We should keep it."

The minister admits, however, that hotels in Dublin need to be confronted over inflating prices during weekends of major concerts and other events.

He uses the term "gouging" - and says he has already discussed the matter with representatives from the hotel industry. He says the Government will keep watch on any moves that could damage the country's reputation in terms of tourism.

And he explains he has set himself several short-term objectives which, despite sounding modest, will go a long way to drumming up visitor numbers.

He wants to convince celebrities, particularly in the area of sport, to do more to promote Ireland Inc on social media.

It could be as small a gesture as retweeting a promotional video of our tourism attractions.

"We have a huge network of well-known sport personalities and other personalities operating in the UK," Mr Griffin says.

"With social media, these people have thousands and thousands of followers. They are major social influencers."

Although one of those celebrities, Conor McGregor, performs a sport that isn't particularly to the taste of the new minister.

Mr Griffin, an avid soccer and GAA fan, admits that mixed martial arts is not the sort of sport he would encourage his children to enrol in.

"It's not something I particularly like. That said, I fully acknowledge how popular it is and how many people follow it in Ireland. What Conor McGregor has done - his discipline is remarkable. He's a great character, a great entertainer, a showman...and a role model."

Aside from celebrities, Mr Griffin says the Government will also reach out to the British royal family, particularly Prince William and his wife Kate.

"It would be really good for Irish-Anglo relations. We have a new generation of leadership in Ireland. It would be great to see the new generation of leadership in the UK coming here to holiday.

"It would be good for Anglo-Irish relations and would also showcase Ireland as a place to holiday. William and Kate have a massive following in the UK as well and they are very popular," Mr Griffin says.

Living in rural county Kerry, at the foot of the Slieve Mish mountains, Mr Griffin has one of the longest commutes to work of any member of the 32nd Dáil.

Back at home are his two young sons, Micheál (4) and Brendáin (2), as well as his wife Róisín. Róisín also works as the minister's secretarial assistant and has, in his words, "sacrificed so much" for him since he was elected for the first time in 2011. They are both aged 35, were childhood sweethearts and got together the week the Leaving Cert finished.

"Without her, I could not be a public representative."

He is searingly honest when asked about the toll politics can have on a young family.

"It's by far the worst aspect of the job. When I ran for the Dáil first, myself and Róisín didn't have any children. I'm really feeling it now and feel I am missing an awful lot," he says.

Those emotions came to the fore when Leo Varadkar phoned Mr Griffin to offer him the new role. Micheál asked: "Does that mean you won't be my daddy anymore?" after being told his father was a minister.

"We spent the weekend reassuring him that I will always be his daddy and Brendáin's daddy. It pulled at the heart strings."

Mr Griffin acknowledges that he shares a constituency with arguably the most formidable political family in the country: the Healy-Raes.

He says he tries to do his "own thing" and points out that both Danny and Michael got in touch to congratulate him on his appointment.

But Mr Griffin insists he has no intention of becoming a more parochial-style politician.

"I don't believe in being at the opening of every envelope. I don't do the funeral circuit. I don't do some of the things the other guys do and then get bench marked against it," he says.

Irish Independent

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