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Not the best of bed fellows: Shane Ross pulls no punches in new book

A look from the inside at the last Government is the subject of a new book, 'In Bed with the Blueshirts' by former Minister Shane Ross who chats to Cathal Mullaney about his experiences in the cut and thrust of politics

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Former Minister, Shane Ross. Pic: Mark Condren

Former Minister, Shane Ross. Pic: Mark Condren

Leo Varadkar pictured with Shane Ross during their time in government together.  Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins

Leo Varadkar pictured with Shane Ross during their time in government together. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins

Shane Ross's new book

Shane Ross's new book

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Former Minister, Shane Ross. Pic: Mark Condren

sligochampion

Few government ministers have polarised opinion as much as Shane Ross.

A former stockbroker, Ross made his name in public life through his journalistic work and a lengthy stint as an Independent Senator in the Seanad, where he sat from 1981 through to 2011.

Elected a TD in that year's election, Ross spent five years often criticising Enda Kenny's government from the opposition benches before throwing his lot in with Fine Gael in 2016, and taking ministerial office as a member of a grouping, the Independent Alliance.

His time at the Cabinet table is now the subject of an insightful book, In Bed With The Blueshirts.

It makes for interesting reading, and does not shy away from the cut and thrust of what was initially a very fractious arrangement, before it settled to become somewhat more civil.

Ironically, Ross himself was once of the Fine Gael persuasion in the 1990s, when he was elected as a councillor for the party in Bray, Co Wicklow. However, having left the party in the middle part of that decade, he subsequently forged a notable reputation as a straight-talker with strong opinions, and helped establish the Independent Alliance, a group of Independents who operated in the Dail as a de-facto small party.

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As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, the Dubliner - who lost his seat in Dublin Rathdown earlier this year - was regularly criticised by those in rural Ireland who saw him as someone with little concern for anywhere outside the pale.

On the other side of that argument, many more commended his work at the Cabinet table, with Sligo County Council leading the way on that front having passed a motion last month to write to Mr Ross, and his former Cabinet colleague Michael Ring, to acknowledge their contribution to the county.

Now in the position to reflect on his time in government, Ross acknowledges his perception of a ministerial role was different to reality, despite the fact that he had some 35 years experience as a politician prior to 2016.

"It was absolutely completely different to what I'd expected," Ross told The Sligo Champion.

"I'd been in opposition for 35 years, believe it or not, I was an Independent Senator and then I was in opposition in the Dail. I had been advocating various things for a very long time, and I very much, as I think all my Independent Alliance colleagues had, we very much had an opposition mindset so we started off not in the right frame of mind at all.

"In other words, we got into government but we still thought of ourselves as being in opposition. When we got into government I thought I was there to kind of keep Fine Gael in order, as I had been in opposition, which was no bad thing, but it didn't make for any good relations, the relationship was very, very bad indeed between ourselves and Fine Gael to start with."

The Independent Alliance venture, which only started shortly before the election in 2016, was dealt a decisive blow earlier this year when Ross lost his Dáil seat. There had been fault lines prior to polling day - both John Halligan and Finian McGrath opted to stand down, while Junior Minister Kevin 'Boxer' Moran left the Alliance before losing his seat too in this year's General Election. Sean Canney had resigned from the group in 2018, while Michael Fitzmaurice did likewise after failing to back Enda Kenny in the vote for Taoiseach in 2016.

A project which had promised much petered out quite quickly, but Mr Ross insists they made a positive impact.

"I do," is his response when asked if the Independent Alliance was a success.

"I think what we achieved, if you take a lot of the flak out we got and I particularly got that, I think what we achieved was OK, it was good and something we could be proud of. In terms of legislation, the book goes into some successes and some failures, but on the success side, as Minister for Transport, Sport and Tourism, I think we did OK.

"The FAI, which we sorted pretty much in a year, the Delaney thing was broken by Mark Tighe and others, we pretty much sorted the FAI out and it's now in a completely unrecognisable state.

"We sorted the OCI pretty well in a pretty short period, we got the drunk driving bill through against a huge opposition which was the major piece of legislation in the transport area, and the judicial appointments bill, which was definitely my baby, is definitely going to come to pass now.

Ross had a number of connections to Sligo during his time in office. Cllr Marie Casserly was the Independent Alliance 'standard-bearer' in Sligo-Leitrim, he says, and the Alliance also received the support of Cllr Michael Clarke. Deputy Marian Harkin was also supportive of the new initiative during her time as an MEP. "I probably don't give her enough credit in the book," he says of the Independent TD.

Ross was 'marked' by Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSharry in the Dáil for a short time when the Sligo-Leitrim deputy took on the frontbench role of spokesperson for Transport, Tourism and Sport in the latter stages of the party's period in opposition.

Ross says he was a 'great admirer' of Ray MacSharry in his time as Minister for Finance. "I thought he was a very good and decisive Minister for Finance," he observes, "and brave."

Analysing his jousts with MacSharry junior, Ross commented: "I didn't know Marc very well when he came in, he was appointed to mark me as opposition spokesman quite late in the day,

"He's easy enough to deal with as a spokesman because he tends to have a lot to say and not an awful lot to ask. Which means as a minister, it's not too formidable to deal with him because if he does not push you it doesn't mean that it's wrong or anything like that, but he has very strong views on things and it's more important for him to put those across than put the minister under pressure. But I liked him, I got on pretty well with him in terms of one-to-one when I met him afterwards and we'd co-operate on various things, so that wasn't too bad."

Fine Gael is a very conservative,  loyal tribe - Ross

Despite going into government with the party, Shane Ross believes Fine Gael is even more conservative now than it was when he was a member in the 1990s.

Having run successfully for the party in the 1991 local elections, Ross contested a Dáil seat for Fine Gael in Wicklow in 1992 but failed to be elected.

Having left the party in the middle of the 1990s, Ross believes that Fine Gael has changed very little in the time since.

He says: "There's a chapter in the book at the beginning, and I don't think it has changed much at all. If anything, it's more conservative now than it was when I was with them."

While many would argue that Fine Gael has in fact gone the other way since 2011 in liberalising certain areas of the constitution through referendums, Ross was taken by the conservative nature of his colleagues in government, as well as the strength of their commitment to the party.

"It is a very, very conservative party, a really conservative party, it doesn't have people with radical ideas, it doesn't have people who are working class in it, it's a kind of middle class, very conservative people and party.

"What I point out, I think it was six out of 15 Cabinet ministers, so half of the Fine Gael Cabinet ministers have fathers who were TDs. And that's really tribal, and I'm not saying there's anything wrong and they're really lovely guys and I get on very well with them, but it tells you an awful lot about the party.

"That's a huge number, and it's a tribe, they act as a tribe, they work as a tribe, and they stick together, they really are loyal to each other. And that's probably not a bad thing, but it comes from a family thing. So that's something which struck me as something which was very arresting. They're very unmalleable and difficult to move."

In the more recent past, Sligo County Council passed a motion to write to Ross, and former minister Michael Ring, to acknowledge their contribution to Sligo and the State. Although backed by a majority, four councillors - Declan Bree, Thomas Healy, Arthur Gibbons and Gino O'Boyle - asked that they not be included.

"I haven't seen the letter but I'm very honoured, and really grateful to them for doing that." Ross said.

"I think three or four said they didn't want to be associated with it, that's fine. I was really pleased and really honoured because to be honest, you don't expect gratitude in politics for anything ever, you don't expect recognition from politicians for anything, ever."

The book In Bed With The Blueshirts published by Atlantic books, is available online at present and also available in all good bookstores both locally in Sligo and nationally.


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