A WEEK really is a long time in politics. Just over a week ago I was the Minister for Defence, a position I enjoyed immensely and a duty I performed with pride. With all that has been said about me by my detractors since I resigned from the Cabinet, I am glad to see that not one of them has taken issue with my role in charge of the Defence Forces.
Right now, the last thing I am looking for is sympathy, but of late I have been getting a lot of it and I have to say I cannot help but be thankful to the people who have shown me this kindness. I walk down the street in Limerick and the recurring theme is sadness that their local deputy is no longer at the Cabinet table and personal sympathy to me.
It might sound strange to say it after so many years in the public life, but I can't help being a bit self-conscious these days, especially back up in Dublin. You feel that people are looking at you and nodding to one another as you pass. And, of course, some of them have stopped me for a chat. They have been invariably polite and kind, but the recurring question seems to be: "Willie, what exactly was it that you are supposed to have done?"
I suppose if you stole money or cheated on your taxes or were found sleeping with another man's wife, it would be simple enough. People would get that instantly and make up their own minds. But there has been so much spin and so many twists and turns in the past week or so, that there is still a lot of confusion. I try to explain the sequence of events as simply as I can -- winning the vote of confidence, then resigning after the Greens' ultimatum. People then have responded to me by saying that they believe the punishment did not fit the "crime". Some said it should have been a yellow card, not a red card.
The fact that the story did not start and end with me only adds to the misunderstanding. People bring up the Fine Gael and Labour attack on Dermot Ahern and Trevor Sargent's resignation and it all seems part of one complicated political muddle.
Naturally I feel sympathy for Trevor, though I suppose the wrench will not be as great for him, since he was not in office as long as I was. The totally unwarranted attack on Dermot Ahern was part of the fall-out from my resignation and, for me, one of the most regrettable aspects of the whole affair. I suppose Fine Gael recognises a tough and effective Minister for Justice. His crime apparently was that he spoke up for me in the course of a heated Dail debate! Then when Trevor resigned because of an unlawful representation made to a member of the Garda, two and two were put together to make five. The logic was that Dermot Ahern is the Minister for Justice; the Minister for Justice is in charge of the Garda; therefore the Minister for Justice has "questions to answer"! That was it. That was the full substance of the case put forward. The Taoiseach quite rightly described this pathetic nonsense as "beneath contempt", and "without foundation". To which I would suggest he could have added "almost certainly defamatory".
Like me, Trevor will have to start getting used to a new life, a new way of life. In my case, I will now operate without the strong team that has been backing me up for years -- my two garda drivers have now gone back to the garda pool; my six constituency secretaries and my private secretary are still in the civil service but no longer available to me, and I will now concentrate on running my constituency office with just my constituency secretary.
I feel most sorry for Suzanne Coogan, who was most skilful in looking after my media relations and Derek Mooney, my personal assistant, who have become unemployed as a result of my decision to resign. I owe them both a great debt of gratitude.
And, of course, it is a difficult time for family members because they too have been facing a barrage of questions as they go about their daily lives.
But from my own point of view, I now have to get on with my political life. I have a constituency to serve. People's problems don't go away just because I am not in the Cabinet. I represent an area that has been particularly hard hit. We were heavily dependant on tourism, which has been considerably reduced, and we lost of lot of manufacturing jobs that were low-skilled and so it was not very easy to find alternative employment.
I was able to persuade my fellow ministers to back the regeneration scheme for Limerick and that has now reached the point where it requires the heavy investment of some government capital. The big question is, is the money there? I am confident we will get it. The Minister for Housing, Michael Finneran, has assured me the money is in place. And I will do everything possible to ensure the scheme is fully delivered. That is my priority, together with ensuring this Government survives to carry on the work of restoring the economy to a functioning, job- creating entity.
After all, that is why I resigned from Cabinet in the first place.
Willie O'Dea is a Fianna Fail TD for Limerick East