Tuesday 16 July 2019

'You lose friends when you become a minister' - Shane Ross on the price of power

Transport Minister Shane Ross opens up about politics, drinking and friendships that have faded, writes Philip Ryan

REFLECTIVE: Minister Shane Ross in Dundrum Village. Photo: Steve Humphreys
REFLECTIVE: Minister Shane Ross in Dundrum Village. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Ministerial office can be a lonely place. TDs work day and night to become ministers but when they get there, the job consumes them. It's not a nine-to-five job. Work doesn't end when they get home. Friendships and personal relationships can suffer.

Sitting in a coffee shop in Ballinteer in South Dublin, Shane Ross is in a reflective mood about his three years serving as Transport Minister. "When people come into this, it is very difficult to retain all your personal friendships," the minister says.

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

"You have to do what you have to do as minister and people feel passionate and they have expectations of you which are unrealistic.

"They believe you'll do things which they feel passionate about… and all of a sudden you can't do things and you can't fulfil their ambitions for you and so you do lose friends," he adds.

Ross's friendship with his old drinking buddy Eamon Dunphy is one that has faded since he came into office.

Ross stopped drinking 30 years ago but up until the mid-1980s, he could be regularly found in Scruffy Murphy's bar near Merrion Square with Dunphy, Fianna Fail adviser PJ Mara and former Sunday Independent editor Michael Hand. Ross describes his former drinking buddies as a "really wild group of people".

More recently, Dunphy campaigned for the Independent Alliance during the 2016 General Election. But since then, Dunphy has described Ross in Government as an "embarrassment" and a "fool".

"I don't read his columns but he seems to be currently kind of annoyed at my political stance," Ross says. "Eamon's a volatile individual and I am very fond of him, yes, but he can be fiery from time to time," he adds.

"I haven't talked to him for a long time but he is very passionate about politics, and if he gets quite fired up about things from time to time that is fine, that's up to him," he adds.

Ross gave up drinking because he was "waking up with hangovers and doing all sorts" which was affecting his work. He didn't get help or see a therapist. Instead, he made a bet with PJ Mara that he could stay off the drink longer than him. "I have never had a drink since, and he - I came into the bar in Leinster House the next day and he, there he was, he was drinking," he says.

The introduction of stricter drink-driving laws, Ross believes, is one of his greatest achievements in office. He plans to follow up these with a range of new anti-speeding laws which he hopes will save lives. However, the new legislation has already put him on a collision course with his rural Fine Gael Cabinet colleagues.

"Speeding kills as many people as drunk driving, it's an absolute curse and if you'd seen some of the victims of speeding - they're going through exactly the same grief as those who have been victims of drunk driving," he says.

Among those who may have issue with the speeding laws is Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan.

Ross and Flanagan regularly work with each other on legislation from driving laws to judicial appointments and their meetings are said to be robust affairs to say the least.

"I've a great affection for him and he has quite a short fuse, but so have I, and if those two short fuses explode at the same time you have a temporary somewhat entertaining explosion but it would be only temporary," he says.

"We're good friends actually but we do have differences about things from time to time but we've never had a row that's lasted more than two minutes," he adds.

He may have taken a bit of convincing but Flanagan has come around to Ross's judicial appointment reforms and the Justice Minister is now more determined than anyone in Government to see the legislation passed.

The reforms will see the establishment of a new judicial appointment body overseen by a non-legal chairperson. There will also be a lay majority on the board of the organisation.

However, the law is moving at a snail's pace through the Houses of the Oireachtas due to an orchestrated campaign by TDs and senators to delay the legislation.

"By delaying the judicial bill in the Seanad, they're perpetuating political patronage, they're perpetuating political favours. That is what they are doing. So, if that's what they want to do, let them say so," Ross says. "They're not dictating policy because they are not introducing new policies. They're quite destructive, that's all."

Ross says those behind delaying of the legislation are "horribly powerful" before adding: "We beat the vintners and we're going to beat the judges and barristers."

He also takes aim at The Irish Times newspaper which he says has been "ranting and raving in a kind of almost fervent zealotry" about his judicial reforms.

"They're very keen to stop it and they expressed that editorial opinion in the last year and that's their point of view, I don't think it's the case with rest of the media," he adds.

He says the arithmetic of the Dail in the era of ''New Politics'' is a good thing as it means the Government doesn't dictate its will on the Houses of the Oireachtas.

But he adds: "Unfortunately, a kind of rag-bag of people, with vested interests, like Danny Healy-Rae and Mattie McGrath, you know, and a few lawyers in the Seanad, have exploited that fact.

"Not to make constructed suggestions about what's going on, not to get legislation amended in a constructed way, but simply to wreck it and delay it."

Ross famously called Mattie McGrath a "bo***cks" after one round of particularly long debates in the Dail.

"I stand 100pc behind it," he says. "That was in a show of absolute exasperation when the drink-driving bill had been postponed and late, day after day after day, week after week after week. I met him in the Dail bar and I did use the 'B' word. And no, I don't think it's the first time he's ever heard it," he adds.

He says his opposite number in Fianna Fail, the party's transport spokesperson Robert Troy, "amuses" him.

"I mean I really like Robert Troy. Troy is somewhat shallow in his approach to politics because he personalises every debate. I think maybe he should be in a county council rather than the Dail, because that's the sort of standard we get," he adds.

Ross says Micheal Martin's decision to extend the confidence and supply agreement is a "do or die" move for the Fianna Fail leader who he adds will be "toast" if he is not Taoiseach after the next election. He also brands the review of the deal an "anti climax".

"You know you negotiate for weeks and then you negotiate nothing.

"So, you wonder what Fianna Fail were actually looking for, or if they were just looking for some sort of cover," he adds.

"They've got plenty of cover, they were saying they won't do it because of Brexit, and so it certainly appears like a very responsible decision, but it also coincides with what's political convenience," he adds.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section