Tuesday 22 October 2019

Finally face to face with those who suffered my most fierce criticism

Commitment to change and partnership has delivered a new type of government, writes Shane Ross

HONOUR: New transport minister Shane Ross with President Michael D Higgins and Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Colin Keegan
HONOUR: New transport minister Shane Ross with President Michael D Higgins and Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Colin Keegan

Shane Ross

It was my Joe McHugh moment.

On Friday afternoon I had got the call from the Taoiseach's office. I hadn't a clue what ministry he had in mind, but I was apprehensive. We had exchanged robust words in negotiations over the previous 24 hours. This could be his moment of revenge.  I dreaded the hospital pass, the Department of Health. Or even another bed of nails. He opened his mouth and I swore he said something about the Department of the Gaeltacht. My heart sank. What a brilliant stroke. I don't have a word of Irish. In a flash I envisaged Gerry Adams and his crew asking me questions in the Dail in Irish. I thought I would have to decline his offer and stay on the back benches. I remembered the last Minister for the Gaeltacht, Joe McHugh, whose promotion to ministerial rank saw him attending Irish classes for a year.

The McHugh moment passed. Enda had offered Transport. I gulped with relief.

Transport sounded a bit run-of-the mill. Images of big buses spitting exhaust fumes, trains and boats and planes. Then as I bounced back towards Leinster House the first penny dropped: First stop, the Luas strike. Tomorrow morning I presume that the top item on the desk will be the intractable clash of unions and management. The lion's den beckons.

As I re-entered Leinster House the second penny dropped. Several people asked me which portfolio I had landed. I told them. Within minutes I was informed that my first action was a gaffe! I had released a secret. No one had told me, but apparently such information ranks alongside the third secret of Fatima for about 45 minutes. It was all over the media in seconds.

Then a third penny hit me: that any newly appointed minister with a long career behind him is bound to have a bit of 'form' on most issues. I suddenly recalled that my views on semi-states in permanent convalescence - like CIE - are well-documented, that I wrote a whole chapter in a book about the very strange goings on in Iarnrod Eireann, that I once suggested that all fares should be restricted to €1 and that there should be wholesale culling of the boards of quangos. I am really looking forward to my first meeting with some of the organisations which have received harsh criticism in this column.

God knows how the bearded trade unionist Jack O'Connor and I will get on if we ever have to sit across the table over the Luas strike or any other dispute. Everyone says he is a really nice, committed guy, but we have a bit of history …

Unsurprisingly they were not slow picking up the potential for such friction in the Dail. Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin skillfully skewered me for past hostages to fortune, touching several raw nerves when he referred to the difficulties I might have as a journalist keeping Cabinet confidentiality, and the possible fireworks that could accompany any future dealings with transport unions. Others just had a lash at Independents having crossed the floor into Government.

It is a pity that so many other Independents (or small parties) ducked the challenge of the responsibilities of government taken by my colleagues Sean Canney, John Halligan, Finian McGrath and 'Boxer' Moran. All of them will enjoy ministerial office in the near future. They have taken big political risks. We nearly dragged Michael Fitzmaurice over the line with us on Friday but he stood firm on a principle dear to him. There are few people in politics with such backbone and there is a bright future for the man from Roscommon. He will hopefully remain a member of the Independent Alliance and enjoy all the non-party freedoms that accompany it.

Being holed up in Government Buildings for most of the last 10 weeks creates an odd camaraderie. The Independent Alliance bonded brilliantly. We had rows, of course. Most of us have volatile tempers, deep and differing views, but are united in a desire for reform. Sometimes the atmosphere was explosive. The real foundation of common sense to sort out all problems came not from the long-standing TDs like John Halligan, Finian McGrath or me, but the newcomers Sean Canney and 'Boxer' Moran. The new duo brought us to our senses at the most heated of moments.

The hot house atmosphere was not without humour. On Friday, as the last-minute talks began and the tension rose before the Dail vote at noon, a few of us were locked in the Taoiseach's dining room alone with our advisers. 'Boxer' Moran spotted a bottle of Dubonnet on the sideboard. It was just 10 in the morning. "OK everybody," he said "Let's have a drink". He laid the table with wine glasses for everyone, including at the places waiting to be filled by latecomers. He filled up our glasses with tea and suggested we pretended to anyone coming in that we were having a bit of a party before the vote.

Finian McGrath arrived and looked at the rest of the room in horror. 'Boxer' casually asked him if he wanted a drink. He was stunned, suggesting that we had all gone insane, reminding us that the vote was due in less than two hours. He stared at me aghast as I supped the tea. Finian would be aware that I am nearly 30 years off the gargle and the effects might have had an interesting impact.

Next, an adviser to one of my colleagues arrived. He saw the rest of us downing the syrupy mixture. We suggested he join us. He looked a bit puzzled. His eyes lit up, he immediately opened the bottle of Dubonnet, filled his glass and downed the alcohol. Before he helped himself to a second glass we had to tell him we were drinking cold tea.

There was plenty of opportunity for other mischief. When we reached 'The Park' and posed for the mandatory photographs with the President. I was placed right behind the Taoiseach, and was within an ace of putting my fingers up 'rabbit-ears style' (as my grandchildren do) behind Enda as the cameras clicked. Then I remembered that the images would be circulated around the world. I resisted the temptation in deference to the Taoiseach, the occasion and our wonderful President.

Tomorrow morning the hard work begins. I meet the mandarins, many of whom have been lampooned in this column. The difficulties in Transport are formidable. Yet the unique background to the formation of the Government suggests that real reform is possible.

Let no one downgrade the commitments made to ridding Irish public life of insiders and cronyism, to a new approach for those in mortgage difficulties and the empathy with rural Ireland. If anyone is in doubt let them look at the changes in judicial appointments. New legislation ensuring that judges are selected on merit and no longer on political patronage are now on the way. The old system will be replaced by a selection body with a lay majority and an independent lay chairperson. Politicians and judges will no longer choose our judges. The selection of directors of State bodies will be unrecognisably reformed. Refreshingly the Dail, not just the Government, will need to agree to these radical changes. Power is passing from the few to the many, thanks to the General Election result.

And acceptance of these changes has come from one or two surprising quarters. On Thursday night I asked the Taoiseach if he would abolish the Ecomomic Management Council (EMC), the quartet of four senior ministers who sat in weekly conclave to dictate the Cabinet agenda. Critics regarded it as a politburo that dictated the political programme to a docile Cabinet and a passive Dail.

Enda Kenny responded immediately. The EMC was killed on the spot. There was no longer any specific need for the body set up in the middle of the economic crisis.

The omens are good, although the transition will be difficult. It was already difficult on Friday to see old friends on the Opposition benches. It was possibly harder to see recent political opponents in adjoining seats. But we will embrace a new Dail where the views of everyone must be considered to pass measures. Past hostilities will need to be forgotten in the interests of the nation.

Sunday Independent

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