Wednesday 24 January 2018

'You're messing it up for the rest of us' - TDs round on Noel Rock in Dail pay fury

Fine Gael TD Noel Rock opens up about growing up in the Ballymun Flats after his father's tragic death

Rock solid: Dublin North-West TD, Noel Rock, reflects on Ireland's class discrimination problem Photo: David Conachy
Rock solid: Dublin North-West TD, Noel Rock, reflects on Ireland's class discrimination problem Photo: David Conachy
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

Noel Rock was at the Dail bar, eating a toasted sandwich, when a now former senator walked over.

"You're f**king it up for the rest of us," they spat.

At the time Noel was a Dublin City Councillor and had just declined €600 per month in tax-free unvouched expenses.

This week the 28-year-old was once again getting it in the neck, having refused the TD's pay rise.

One high-profile party Fine Gael colleague marched over and said: "It's easy for you, Noel. You don't have kids." (He says that his bank manager laughed at him when he enquired about buying a home. He was turned down because the Government is too unstable.)

But with a basic salary of €87,000 before expenses, the Dublin North-West TD is still grateful for his pay. When we meet in the Fallon & Byrne last Thursday afternoon and I baulk at the figure, I get a very honest response. "It's a mad amount of money," he replies. "The reason I didn't take the increase is because I am not driven or obsessed by money."

This can perhaps be traced back to a time when he had nothing.

The eldest son of a single mother he grew up in Ballymun flats - where he was raised with boisterous twin brothers. The four lived in one room with barred windows for 12 years.

When Noel was just six months old his father died, aged 23. For family reasons he chooses not to speak about it - only to say it was "tragic circumstances".

"At the time I was told it was an accident."

After the death, his paternal grandparents co-raised Noel.

For the "99pc of good people," Noel admits, Ballymun was a very tough environment. He points to a scar at the side of his eye: "I was seven years old when I was set upon on my way home from school. It was unprovoked. I think it could have been a rock. It took a chip out of my skull."

Drugs were a constant. His walk home from school was punctuated by dealers asking if he was interested.

By the age of 12, he said: "Schoolmates would show up for school and their head wouldn't be quite there." At 14, one classmate started using heroin and he died of an overdose a few years later.

I ask what made the difference between him and many of his peers. "A lot were smarter, more articulate, but the difference between achieving and failing is largely down to circumstance," he said.

His guardians were instrumental. His grandparents were teetotallers, "great savers" and funded a lot of his education. "My grandfather still works at 73 and gets up every day at 5am. He travels the country as a market trader."

Both he and his grandmother insisted Noel stayed in school and - with the help of his teachers - he was pushed into breakfast clubs and after school clubs. "I always wondered why I was being made to stay longer than everyone else and the reality was because they wanted to look after me."

He says it is one of the factors, which informed his decision not to take a pay increase, while teachers are fighting for equal pay. In his life, he says, teachers made "a huge difference". They introduced him to a world of books and encouraged him to go to university.

At 16 he worked at McDonald's and Domino's Pizza to earn money, adding to a small student grant to fund his third-level education. And in DCU he developed a deeper interest in politics, which had first took hold as a youngster growing up in Ballymun's notorious towers.

"I remember nobody called to our door. Nobody was interested in us. Nobody cared. Whether an election came or went. Nobody asked my mother for her vote. Up to the age of 16 I don't think we ever saw a politician." Within a year of his studies he was offered the chance to work on Hillary Clinton's Democratic nomination against Barack Obama in Washington. He returned home with a greater passion for politics, but at parties and gatherings in south Dublin, he was still made acutely conscious of his roots.

One evening at an embassy party fundraising event, a fellow guest asked where he was from. When told, she spun him around by the shoulders and loudly announced it to the others.

"You are conscious that you are wearing your only suit, your only tie, you are doing your best to be polite, and talk about things that - in a lot of cases you wouldn't really know about - like theatre," he says. "And then that happens and you just kind of want to get out. I left soon after."

But Noel became more determined. When he finished college he became the youngest Dublin city councillor, then the youngest Fine Gael TD, securing the first seat for the party in the Dublin North-West region. He also took it upon himself to invite every schoolkid in his constituency to visit him in the Dail.

"I am very conscious I am their TD and that I am there for them. I want them to know that. It's too easy to become this distant figure in Leinster House who pops up on Prime Time every now and again." Politics, he believes, is a tough game which has become "very negative and personalised".

Appearances on Vincent Browne have led to hurtful commentary on social media about his appearance.

"They say I have 'stupid red skin' but it's a skin condition called rosacea. I can't help that," he shrugs. "Bertie Ahern had the same, it's the reason he spent so much on make-up."

What's more pertinent, he explains, is that behind closed doors there is still an awful lot of class discrimination in Ireland. "There absolutely is," he says. "Every now and again [other TDs] forget where I have come from and let their guard down.

"And I know people who have to change the address on their CV because they come from certain areas." He is not phased by the ructions over his refusal to take the pay increase and has a clear vision on how he sees the political landscape shaping up: "I would be very proud to see Leo Varadkar become the next Taoiseach," he says. "I would say next year at some stage."

He is hopeful Enda will partake in a "peaceful transition." In the meantime he is travelling to Hillary Clinton's campaign headquarters next month to be with her team on election night.

I ask the best advice she has ever given him. "Never leave any stone unturned and always get back to people," he says.

Perhaps just not to emails on your home server.

Sunday Independent

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