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Dan Boyle: It's not easy being Green

Dan Boyle is trying hard to convince me that politics isn't all that glamorous. He's doing a good job. It's hard to disagree as he drives me around his Cork constituency in a 10-year-old bright blue Suzuki Swift littered with old election leaflets and Supermacs bags. I ask him about this non-Green diet he seems to have. "I'm a carnivore, and I think I only bought my first pair of sandals when I was 35!"

I'm spending a few days with the Green Party's best-known senator to find out what makes him tick, or tweet. After all, his Twitter outbursts spelt the end for Willie O'Dea's ministerial career earlier this year.

The tweeting senator has a public office in Douglas Street in Cork city, and every Saturday he hosts an open-door clinic between 11am and 1pm. He is hopeful that the clinic will be busy, so I join him there on a sunny August Saturday and wait . . . and wait.

The only eventual sign of life outside the office is the arrival of the city council's clamping vehicle at the adjacent car park. Several people with yoga mats returning from a class suddenly lose their Zen-like calm as they discover their cars have been clamped. They look like perfect Green Party supporters, but they're more worried about liberating their gas guzzlers than talking to Dan.

Boyle's office fits right in on this right-on Cork street. As well as the yoga centre, Douglas Street is home to the city's oldest gay bar, Loafers; leftie bookstores such as Solidarity Books, and shops that reek of patchouli oil.

In the Greens' office, it's like a political version of High Fidelity with Dan Boyle behind his desk, party activist Mick Murphy behind the other desk and me on a hard plastic chair. I've nearly convinced Dan to compile a top-five list of Fianna Failers Who Will Have to be Shot Come the Revolution when someone eventually shows up. It's Finbarr Murphy, a brother of the late Bernie Murphy, a Cork character who got elected to Cork Corporation in the Eighties. Finbarr comes in most days to urge Dan to investigate the goings-on in Greenmount Industrial School, which closed in the Fifties.

"Saturday is the open day, Monday to Friday are the appointments. Yesterday we got a few phone calls in terms of Ivor Callely, and Noel Dempsey was a flavour du jour yesterday as well about his travel arrangements," says Dan sheepishly.

I put it to him that it doesn't look busy at all, and should the hard-pressed taxpayer really have to foot the bill for an unelected senator's office in Cork and Dublin? Boyle defends his expenses. "I've always been mid-ranking and lowest in my region. Even with the new system, there's an underpayment for administration. I do run a public office!"

So, how much does he actually trouser in expenses? "I think I get in the region of €45,000 a year in expenses. About €12,000 of that goes on rent. About €10,000 of that goes on running costs and electricity and telecom. About €7,000 to €8,000 goes on travel up and down to Dublin. About €10,000 goes on accommodation in Dublin. Then €2,000 to €3,000 are incidentals."

That's, of course, in addition to the basic senator's salary of €70,000. "It's two-thirds of the Dail salary, but it's still a good salary, and I get an allowance of €8,000 for being deputy leader of the Seanad. I wouldn't see it as an enriching exercise."

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In many ways, Dan Boyle sums up the Greens' dilemma in Government. They invariably end up wrestling with their conscience -- and losing. He lost his Dail seat by only 280 votes in 2007 and had to make do with being a Taoiseach's nominee to the Senate. He cannot fail to hide his disappointment about what might have been. "I would have had a legitimate expectation of being considered for Cabinet," he says.

Still, he manages to drum up some enthusiasm for his new home. "The Seanad does play an important role. I think it's very undemocratic -- there's no doubt about that. But I think the quality of debate is better than the Dail."

Many people are curious about just how much influence Boyle has. He seems to be the Greens only senior member with any interest in economics, so he's involved in all the crucial debates about the economy. But how influential is he? "I would have access to documents that wouldn't be Cabinet documents, but would be informing the documents that eventually come together. We have a programme-for-Government office. I would meet with Department of Finance officials. I would consult with outside actors, like social partners. I assist the party in Government, and I am the public face of the Green Party . . . almost policing the Green Party Government."

Boyle has regrets, too, about his ill-fated attempt to win a European Parliament seat last year. When I visit his Leinster House office, he shows me the poster that was used for the European election campaign. He looks a bit odd in the photo -- almost like a German chat-show host. He really seems to blame this poster for his downfall. "I was led down the nose all the way with that. I had no say on it. It's just too stern. And the glasses weren't my idea either. They're not my glasses. They gave me glasses. The idea was to be European."

I tell him that the haircut looks a bit severe as well. Is it his hair, or was it Lego hair that was imported along with the glasses? "It was a barber in Cork. Singed and razors," he says.

With tumbleweed practically blowing down Douglas Street, I have to ask Dan how many people are actually left in the Green Party at this stage -- besides himself and Mick. "We have growing membership . . . but active membership is poor enough. It would be under 50 per cent of our actual membership. Actual membership is about 2,000." So the old gag -- "How many people work here?" "About half!" -- does ring true for the Greens.

Dan sure has a lot of regrets. If he was to assemble a High Fidelity top five it would be called My Big Green Regrets. He mentions a very dark period that happened earlier this year. "I think that the three-week period that started with George Lee's resignation, followed by Deirdre de Burca's, followed by Willie O'Dea's, and followed by Trevor Sargent's. That was a difficult time in the sense that we were dealing with Deirdre's situation and we were bounced into a situation with Willie O'Dea that I had to respond to."

When Willie O'Dea's fate hung in the balance back in February, Dan Boyle tweeted the following: "As regards to Minister O'Dea I don't have confidence in him. His situation is compromised. Probably be a few chapters in this story yet."

Why did he do it? "I was responding to unhappiness within the Green Party and unhappiness at a parliamentary party level as well. Although we were bounced into a decision where we didn't have a formal meeting, and the vote was going to take place in a couple of hours and didn't have any consultation process about it. And it was a lesson in how we shouldn't be doing things."

But how did a 48-year-old man become such an ardent follower of Twitter and a fan of Facebook? "I was encouraged at the start of the European-election thing to look at social media, and I signed up for both Facebook and Twitter.

"I've been tweeting for 18 months now. The first effect was during the European elections, where I tweeted that I was going to make a speech in Tralee and a lot of people were going to be unhappy about it. It was the negotiations of the programme for Government. Then the Willie thing as well."

He keeps close tabs on his followers. "I do about three or four tweets a day, and in total I've passed 2,000. I've got 4,500 followers. In US terms it's about 300,000, and UK terms that's about 75,000," he said.

What do his Green Party colleagues such as leader John Gormley think of his unpredictable tweeting?

"He would have been taken aback by the Willie O'Dea thing. Then he could see there was a political advantage in it. There have been times and occasions when he'd whisper in the ear, 'You should consider tweeting about this,'" adds Dan.

Boyle tweets on his ever-present BlackBerry, and also on his laptop. He's convinced it will be an electoral advantage. "I like people using it as a sounding board. I can see it turning slightly around. After all, we're only looking for a 10 per cent vote in the constituencies we're standing for."

He's an eternal optimist when it comes to regaining his seat, despite the fact that the Government is so unpopular. "I've done a bit of canvassing recently and it's been more positive than I thought it would be. It's certainly a quantum leap from the kind of experiences from canvassing last year. It's not effusive, but it's more polite."

This seems like a risky strategy. Just because the voters aren't giving him dog's abuse, he can't assume he's in with a shout at the next election. "I am going to run. There was a time when I was a 30-70 chance; I think I'm up to a 40-60 chance of winning. I'm well aware that Cork South Central never re-elects the same five people."

Despite such optimism, he tells me that the Government may shudder to an end next year. "A natural term of government for any government is at least four years. From next summer on, you're talking about the possibility of an election. The budget this year will be difficult. It's vital. It would send all manner of wrong signals if the Government fell on the budget."

With all this tweeting and political intrigue, I ask him if he gets much time for family life. This turns out to be another source of regret -- and heartache. "I often use it as a distraction from other elements of my life. Sometimes life gets you down on a personal level, so it's good to be occupied," he says.

He married his neighbour, Blaithin -- they lived practically next door to each other -- when he was 24 and she was 22. They have a 20-year-old daughter, Saoirse.

So, what exactly is wrong with his personal life? "It's not ideal. My wife and daughter live in England, for about two years. Studying is the reason, as such; my wife's starting a doctorate in Cambridge. We are living separate lives, to be honest. We're not officially separated."

Dan seems pretty shell-shocked any time he talks about his personal situation during our few days together, and his eyes well up as he does. "My wife did a couple of years at a musical management course, a further education college. Then she did a three-year degree in UCC. Last year she did a masters in Warwick, and now she's doing a doctorate in Cambridge. She submerged herself, and a lot of what she is doing is fulfilling her own life potential. We knew there was a kind of risk. She's been away for two years now. We live apart. I fill up my time. Basically on my own."

It's a typically head-scratching Green explanation for what's going on with his personal life, complete with phrases such as "fulfilling her own life potential". He tells me his wife is doing her PhD in art history, while his daughter is studying drama.

"I support my wife, and we're in regular contact. I still care very much for her. I'd prefer if it didn't happen, but it has . . . Had lunch with her on Saturday. She was in Dublin; she's doing a lecture next week in the National Gallery."

The couple are looking into selling the family home in Cork. "It's something that we're considering selling, because she has to fund her course in any case. I'll be moving to different accommodation in Cork fairly soon. We bought at a good time, and it still has an economic value far above what we paid for it."

Despite all this flux and uncertainty, he's started to take more care of himself and grapple with a weight problem. "I have new interests. I've started going to a gym. Going for walks. Doing things for myself. I would have eaten wrongly, would have drank too much. I still have about three stone to go!"

I notice over the course of the week that he has a tendency to say yes to just about anything. While I'm shadowing him in Leinster House, he has back-to-back appointments with postgrad students who are doing masters in public administration and accounting. He tweets later in the week that he's on Sam Smyth's radio programme and the This Week programme. He's clearly the Green Party's brain when it comes to, well, everything.

Boyle holds forth on social partnership for 20 minutes with the first postgrad, and then rattles out party policy on carbon tax to the second student. He's in his element on the couch in the Leinster House cafe.

It was time for the bemused postgrad to make her excuses and leave as Dan started waxing lyrical. "The first modern taxation was introduced by William Pitt the Younger in the late 18th century, and it was two shillings in the pound to pay for the Napoleonic wars. We have no problem using a tax to declare war on environmental evils. A more beneficial use of it than the funding of a war machine," says Dan.

Please make the bad man stop, I'm only doing an accounting masters!

One major criticism levelled at the Greens is that they talk a lot about making the bankers pay, but nobody has been held accountable. "It's very frustrating -- this far down the road and no action has been taken. I'd go further to say that in the event of a general election and no prosecutions have been started, that would be a massive indictment of being in government," he says.

"The way they treat white-collar crime in this country is farcical. It's constantly brought up in Cabinet. There are regular informal meetings with the Director of Corporate Enforcement and people like Patrick Honohan and we're impatient about it," he adds.

That arrogance associated with being in government -- even peripherally -- does surface frequently. Boyle is gung-ho about the Government's fiscal policies. He believes the recent interest-rate hikes for variable-rate mortgage holders were unavoidable. "The alternative is additional capitalisation, which comes from the taxpayer anyway. Interest rates were 13.5 per cent when I bought my house."

"If the interest rates aren't raised and the banks don't return to some sort of profitability, it means the taxpayer puts more money into it. That's the mathematics of it. They run it past the Central Bank. Patrick Honohan has a job to ensure whether it's sustainable to raise the rates," he adds.

He even compares the running of the country to the dilemmas faced by hard-pressed mortgage holders. "The only way is to show you can run your house properly. The Government is in the situation a lot of mortgage holders are in. We've got to make the books balance before we start spending again. It's going to be at least three years of that," says Dan.

His tendency for indiscretion is highlighted when he speaks about possible sanctions against Anglo Irish and Irish Nationwide. "We have to show that there can be different types of banks growing. I think the real scandal outside of Anglo is Nationwide, because of the guarantee and stuff like that.

"There is some investigation -- the Director of Corporate Investigation is investigating Nationwide. I think, proportionately, what happened in Nationwide was worse than Anglo," he adds.

Despite his own tendency to shoot from the hip, as well as his BlackBerry, Dan is irked by fellow Green Paul Gogarty's decision to call in the gardai on Ivor Callely. "I don't have any problem with what he has done, but I would have preferred if he talked to me first. It has put me in this compromising position. You couldn't have a public hearing about evidence that's being looked at as part of a garda investigation," he says.

The Greens are clearly entering that late Richard Nixon conspiracy phase -- where enemies appear everywhere. Dan is clearly irked by the Rise! campaign. "I worked for Muintir na Tire in north and east County Cork. It's a myth about the Greens that they don't understand rural Ireland. I understand rural Ireland all too well. Turf-cutting, nitrates directives, et cetera, it's convenient to blame the Greens.

"A lot of the anti-Green perception of rural communities comes about because of the Rise! campaign, which is a very successful campaign in black propaganda. It's been a very well-funded campaign to protect the Ward Union Hunt," he adds.

"They had very skilled communicators who got people talking about issues other than the Ward Union Hunt. We suffered as a result of that. This idea of the Greens being a sado-masochistic party, or whatever -- that we all go around in leather suits and whips and stuff like that. We live in communities, we talk to people!"

But whips and suits aside, Dan's background is slightly different from the norm. His parents met in America, his mum was from Cork and his dad was an islander from Arranmore in Donegal. He was born in the States and he spent the first eight years in Chicago. His mum brought the family home to Cork because she worried about their futures.

"I used to hang off the back of garbage trucks. I remember breaking into a house once and pouring a lot of salt into someone's dinner that was simmering -- not stealing anything. I was eight years old. I was hanging around with a 10-year-old."

It was probably a good move to go back to Cork. "The school I was going to, the principal was shot dead a couple of years afterwards by a pupil who was in my sister's class."

Moving Dan and his two sisters back to Cork city at the age of eight was quite a culture clash. "I came from the American public-school system -- mixed gender, mixed race -- and came over to Scoil Chriost Ri. I immediately regressed! I had an American accent. I got picked on for the first couple of years I was over."

Going into government with Fianna Fail must have reminded him of those early years in primary school after arriving from Chicago. "I think a lot of that has to be with being in government since 1997 . . . It has to do with a type of arrogance. That ye're the new boys here and we're the people who're experienced. And if ye do what we're doing, it'll be better. Many times the opposite is the case. Being in government so long has introduced a disconnect."

One thing that Dan Boyle may not have considered is that being in government with people who have been in government so long also introduces a disconnect.


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