independent

Saturday 15 June 2019

RAY MacSHARRY IN CONVERSATION

In a candid and revealing interview with Barry Brennan, former Finance Minister and EU Commissioner, Ray MacSharry, reflects on his remarkable career. Showing early enterprise in breeding cats which he sold to neighbours as rat catchers, the man who never

Barry Brennan: How did you feel about Fianna Fail's performance in February's General Election?

Ray MacSharry: It was a disappointment, there's no question about it. But I wasn't surprised, because we were moving into a situation where the major decisions that had to be taken were having their impact. We're now being run, financially, by the IMF, the EU and the ECB. On the other hand, many of the cutbacks that were imposed by Government were beginning to bite very severely; so severely, that you would meet people canvassing during the election who had lost up to one hundred and fifty euros a week, even though they were working. They literally had lost, in tax or surcharges, the amount they were paying in their mortgage per month. There was a lot of anger, and one understood that anger; therefore, as I've said-disappointed, but not surprised.

BB: Do you think Fianna Fáil will recover from this loss?

RM: Well, they have a possibility. Fianna Fáil's real strength is its units of organisation – 3,500 in every half-parish in the country. The tragedy is that for the last number of years, the leadership ignored them and didn't give them the service they required or listen to what they were saying. Over the last number of years, everybody knew that this bonanza couldn't last, that corrections would have to be made. But the Government just ignored that until it was too late, and therefore the party that's there now-TDs, Senators and Councillors-must seek to rebuild those 3,500 units of the organisation throughout the country, and if and when they do that, when the local elections are coming up, we'll see if there are improvements there. Then when they go on to the next general election, in my view, there'll be no difficulty, if they do their job between now and then, that they could double their seats at the next election.

BB: Did you want to enter politics from an early age?

RM: No, I knew nothing about politics at all; I wasn't interested. I found there were a lot of complications in the Junior Chamber, where I was doing some social work; I felt that the Chamber should put candidates forward for the local elections, which they did in 1966 but they were postponed until 1967. Three of us were going forward – Johnny Ryan, Terry Byrne and Ray MacSharry. The other two opted out in 1967, and I was the only one left. I felt it was better to go through a political party, so I went to Fianna Fáil and got a nomination from them. Then the Dáil elections came up in 1969; there was a vacancy and they asked me to go forward. I did, and I was elected; and I was elected every time after that. I didn't even know where Dáil Éireann was, only that it was in Dublin.

BB: What is your opinion of former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey?

RM: Well, Charles Haughey was probably one of the best political brains and leaders that this country has had over the last number of years. As a Minister for Justice, for Health and for Finance, as well as being Taoiseach, he had only one thing in mind, and that was to serve the people who elected him and to serve the party that supported him. And he did that, from early morning until late at night. What he did personally and financially, nobody would condone, but it was none of my business; I speak politically. Insofar as my involvement working with him in the political context, I have no difficulty in saying that I was proud to work with him, and proud of what he achieved.

BB: Of all your ministerial portfolios, you are probably best remembered for your time as Minister for Finance. Did you always want Finance as your portfolio?

RM: No, I didn't. I was anxious, not anxious, but hopeful, as I was there a long time and I'd been working hard as a local representative and dealing with national issues in the Dáil as well. I was honoured to be appointed by Jack Lynch as a Junior Minister in the Department of Finance and Public Service in ' 77. So, I got into Ministerial office very quickly and I went onto a senior ministry in Agriculture, then I went back in Finance and Public Service again; then out of government, then in the European Parliament, then back again as Minister for Finance. So, I had involvement for the ten years of my ministerial time with the Department of Finance as a junior or a senior Minister, and with the Department of Agriculture for three years as Minister for Agriculture and five years as European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development. So how you're remembered depends on who you're talking to. In business and economic activity, people recall things I did that worked out right; I happened to be there at the right time, I did the right things and they worked out, so I'm remembered for that. Equally so, worldwide I'd be known as the person who took on the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and reformed it – and the basis of that reform is still in existence today. Again, I was in the right place at the right time, did the right things and they were successful. I'm not saying I had a magical brain that achieved that; I was just the kind of representative who looked at the problems that people had. The reason I will be remembered is I cut services severely; because of that I became known as Mac the Knife. At the same time, all I did was humane. My interest in Finance was to protect the public finances, because if we don't have that, we don't have a country.

BB: You also served for several years in the European Commission. Do you still have faith in the EU, and would you welcome a United States of Europe?

RM: Well, definitely not a United States of Europe or a federal Europe. What I am always interested in is the economic union, and where political decisions can be made in the interests of that union, then we support them. We don't have any military alliances; we stay neutral so we don't become involved in anything other than peacekeeping. But I would have complete faith in the EU, particularly the economic advantage it has in relation to a free and open market and free movement of people and capital. Of course, you'll get people whingeing now about the EU "imposing their will on us". We're imposing our will on others; we're sharing our democracy, as a small country, less than 1% of the population of Europe. We're in there with the biggest of them, making decisions and making our

contribution, and we have succeeded enormously.

BB: What would you do today if you were Minister for Finance?

RM: I think that what's being done is probably what needs to be done. The only problem is probably that they waited three years too late in starting to do it. They should've warned the people at least two years in advance; very blunt instruments had to be used in the last five or six months, and the party that had to do that had great courage to do it. I would have preferred if they had done it two years earlier; they paid the price for not bringing the people with them. But in '87 to '89, some of the statistics that are around today were worse in '87 than they were in the last 3 years. Unemployment was 17 per cent; it's around 14 now, it was 17 in my time as Minister for Finance. The National Debt was 120 per cent of GDP – it's only around 100 now, including the bank debts. The only area that's worse now is the budget deficit, and those things had to be dealt with in the 87-89 period. They were, and we resolved them, and laid the foundation for the future growth that came. So there's no reason why we can't get out of the difficulties that we're in now. In my time, the IMF were outside the door; I told them I didn't want to see them. I was democratically elected by the people of Ireland to do what needed to be done on their behalf, and I didn't need them. And home they went, and we did what was necessary.

BB: Looking back now, do you think that the Celtic Tiger was detrimental to Ireland?

RM: Well, probably the quick answer is yes, but when you analyse what's been done – with the exception of the property bubble – we have had a massive improvement in the infrastructure in this country, whether it's roads, water services, sewerage, electricity, gas; the whole infrastructure.

Therefore you can't say the Celtic Tiger was wasted or was detrimental. What happened arising from the property bubble was and is still detrimental. But you've got to look at the totality of the activity over the last 20 years, because the Celtic Tiger came from the foundations that were laid in the late 80s, early 90s, around when I was Minister and Commissioner in Brussels. The Government seriously badly managed the period from the mid-nineties until the mid noughties. They should have seen it coming.

BB: What do you think you would have done had you not entered politics?

RM: I'd have continued at what I was doing. I started off earning money by getting cats from your great-grandmother that were good for killing rats – I used to breed them and sell them to the neighbours. There was no Rentokil in those days; there were lots of rats around. The next thing was, I used to buy 50-day old chicks every January and feed them, and sell the cocks to the poultry shop down in O'Connell Street, and keep the hens to lay the eggs, which I used to sell to my mother to use in her own house. When I had a fiver together, I bought a sheep, and I had him on my uncle Louis' land. Before I left Summerhill, I had 40 sheep on rented land, at 15 years of age, out beyond the Regional College there. I only rented the land; the sheep were running all over the place. Before I was 20, I had bought land myself then. I did well; I started working at 17, I got a truck in meat exporters' names, because my job with Cosgrove and Clark was arranging transport for cattle in the factory. As I made a few pound, I bought license plates, put the trucks into my own name, and had three of them running six days a week to Dublin, whether it was cattle or merchandise of any kind, for many years. I would have stayed there, or in that type of business, which I did extremely well.

BB: Would you have liked to have been Taoiseach during your career?

RM: No. I never wanted to be up on the top there. I felt, in this economy, the two most important jobs in economic activity were Minister for Agriculture and Minister for Finance - and I was both of those. I never wanted to be Taoiseach. I could have stayed on rather than go to Europe as Commissioner for Agriculture, but I knew I could do more for Ireland by being over there with the reform of the CAP coming up.

BB: Would you recommend a career in politics?

RM: No. Not now, it's a vocation rather than a career. It's a great honour, there's no question about it, to put yourself out there on a ballot paper and be elected. I did so ten times and I was elected every time, many times on top of the poll. There was great trust placed in you; you were like the priest in the confession box, with the kind of things people told you – the worries and troubles they had. I wouldn't consider myself as having failed in politics – every political career ends in failure, they say; yet I don't feel that. I just wouldn't recommend it as a first priority for anyone, and I did my best to keep my children out of it and succeeded with five, but not with the sixth. So he has to put up with it now, and it's tough, and it's difficult.

BB: What advice would you give to young Irish people today?

RM: Well I'd say first, study hard, work hard. Achieve as much as you can in the educational sphere; and education is not just about books and learning, it's about life. It doesn't necessarily mean that to enjoy yourself you have to have drugs or drink. You can have everything in moderation, but study hard and work hard. Be yourself is probably the most important advice you can give to anybody. Be yourself; and when you're yourself, you'll know what your capabilities are, and you will think as big as those capabilities. Barry Brennan: How did you feel about Fianna Fail's performance in February's General Election?

Ray MacSharry: It was a disappointment, there's no question about it. But I wasn't surprised, because we were moving into a situation where the major decisions that had to be taken were having their impact. We're now being run, financially, by the IMF, the EU and the ECB. On the other hand, many of the cutbacks that were imposed by Government were beginning to bite very severely; so severely, that you would meet people canvassing during the election who had lost up to one hundred and fifty euros a week, even though they were working. They literally had lost, in tax or surcharges, the amount they were paying in their mortgage per month. There was a lot of anger, and one understood that anger; therefore, as I've said-disappointed, but not surprised.

BB: Do you think Fianna Fáil will recover from this loss?

RM: Well, they have a possibility. Fianna Fáil's real strength is its units of organisation – 3,500 in every half-parish in the country. The tragedy is that for the last number of years, the leadership ignored them and didn't give them the service they required or listen to what they were saying. Over the last number of years, everybody knew that this bonanza couldn't last, that corrections would have to be made. But the Government just ignored that until it was too late, and therefore the party that's there now-TDs, Senators and Councillors-must seek to rebuild those 3,500 units of the organisation throughout the country, and if and when they do that, when the local elections are coming up, we'll see if there are improvements there. Then when they go on to the next general election, in my view, there'll be no difficulty, if they do their job between now and then, that they could double their seats at the next election.

BB: Did you want to enter politics from an early age?

RM: No, I knew nothing about politics at all; I wasn't interested. I found there were a lot of complications in the Junior Chamber, where I was doing some social work; I felt that the Chamber should put candidates forward for the local elections, which they did in 1966 but they were postponed until 1967. Three of us were going forward – Johnny Ryan, Terry Byrne and Ray MacSharry. The other two opted out in 1967, and I was the only one left. I felt it was better to go through a political party, so I went to Fianna Fáil and got a nomination from them. Then the Dáil elections came up in 1969; there was a vacancy and they asked me to go forward. I did, and I was elected; and I was elected every time after that. I didn't even know where Dáil Éireann was, only that it was in Dublin.

BB: What is your opinion of former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey?

RM: Well, Charles Haughey was probably one of the best political brains and leaders that this country has had over the last number of years. As a Minister for Justice, for Health and for Finance, as well as being Taoiseach, he had only one thing in mind, and that was to serve the people who elected him and to serve the party that supported him. And he did that, from early morning until late at night. What he did personally and financially, nobody would condone, but it was none of my business; I speak politically. Insofar as my involvement working with him in the political context, I have no difficulty in saying that I was proud to work with him, and proud of what he achieved.

BB: Of all your ministerial portfolios, you are probably best remembered for your time as Minister for Finance. Did you always want Finance as your portfolio?

RM: No, I didn't. I was anxious, not anxious, but hopeful, as I was there a long time and I'd been working hard as a local representative and dealing with national issues in the Dáil as well. I was honoured to be appointed by Jack Lynch as a Junior Minister in the Department of Finance and Public Service in ' 77. So, I got into Ministerial office very quickly and I went onto a senior ministry in Agriculture, then I went back in Finance and Public Service again; then out of government, then in the European Parliament, then back again as Minister for Finance. So, I had involvement for the ten years of my ministerial time with the Department of Finance as a junior or a senior Minister, and with the Department of Agriculture for three years as Minister for Agriculture and five years as European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development. So how you're remembered depends on who you're talking to. In business and economic activity, people recall things I did that worked out right; I happened to be there at the right time, I did the right things and they worked out, so I'm remembered for that. Equally so, worldwide I'd be known as the person who took on the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and reformed it – and the basis of that reform is still in existence today. Again, I was in the right place at the right time, did the right things and they were successful. I'm not saying I had a magical brain that achieved that; I was just the kind of representative who looked at the problems that people had. The reason I will be remembered is I cut services severely; because of that I became known as Mac the Knife. At the same time, all I did was humane. My interest in Finance was to protect the public finances, because if we don't have that, we don't have a country.

BB: You also served for several years in the European Commission. Do you still have faith in the EU, and would you welcome a United States of Europe?

RM: Well, definitely not a United States of Europe or a federal Europe. What I am always interested in is the economic union, and where political decisions can be made in the interests of that union, then we support them. We don't have any military alliances; we stay neutral so we don't become involved in anything other than peacekeeping. But I would have complete faith in the EU, particularly the economic advantage it has in relation to a free and open market and free movement of people and capital. Of course, you'll get people whingeing now about the EU "imposing their will on us". We're imposing our will on others; we're sharing our democracy, as a small country, less than 1% of the population of Europe. We're in there with the biggest of them, making decisions and making our

contribution, and we have succeeded enormously.

BB: What would you do today if you were Minister for Finance?

RM: I think that what's being done is probably what needs to be done. The only problem is probably that they waited three years too late in starting to do it. They should've warned the people at least two years in advance; very blunt instruments had to be used in the last five or six months, and the party that had to do that had great courage to do it. I would have preferred if they had done it two years earlier; they paid the price for not bringing the people with them. But in '87 to '89, some of the statistics that are around today were worse in '87 than they were in the last 3 years. Unemployment was 17 per cent; it's around 14 now, it was 17 in my time as Minister for Finance. The National Debt was 120 per cent of GDP – it's only around 100 now, including the bank debts. The only area that's worse now is the budget deficit, and those things had to be dealt with in the 87-89 period. They were, and we resolved them, and laid the foundation for the future growth that came. So there's no reason why we can't get out of the difficulties that we're in now. In my time, the IMF were outside the door; I told them I didn't want to see them. I was democratically elected by the people of Ireland to do what needed to be done on their behalf, and I didn't need them. And home they went, and we did what was necessary.

BB: Looking back now, do you think that the Celtic Tiger was detrimental to Ireland?

RM: Well, probably the quick answer is yes, but when you analyse what's been done – with the exception of the property bubble – we have had a massive improvement in the infrastructure in this country, whether it's roads, water services, sewerage, electricity, gas; the whole infrastructure.

Therefore you can't say the Celtic Tiger was wasted or was detrimental. What happened arising from the property bubble was and is still detrimental. But you've got to look at the totality of the activity over the last 20 years, because the Celtic Tiger came from the foundations that were laid in the late 80s, early 90s, around when I was Minister and Commissioner in Brussels. The Government seriously badly managed the period from the mid-nineties until the mid noughties. They should have seen it coming.

BB: What do you think you would have done had you not entered politics?

RM: I'd have continued at what I was doing. I started off earning money by getting cats from your great-grandmother that were good for killing rats – I used to breed them and sell them to the neighbours. There was no Rentokil in those days; there were lots of rats around. The next thing was, I used to buy 50-day old chicks every January and feed them, and sell the cocks to the poultry shop down in O'Connell Street, and keep the hens to lay the eggs, which I used to sell to my mother to use in her own house. When I had a fiver together, I bought a sheep, and I had him on my uncle Louis' land. Before I left Summerhill, I had 40 sheep on rented land, at 15 years of age, out beyond the Regional College there. I only rented the land; the sheep were running all over the place. Before I was 20, I had bought land myself then. I did well; I started working at 17, I got a truck in meat exporters' names, because my job with Cosgrove and Clark was arranging transport for cattle in the factory. As I made a few pound, I bought license plates, put the trucks into my own name, and had three of them running six days a week to Dublin, whether it was cattle or merchandise of any kind, for many years. I would have stayed there, or in that type of business, which I did extremely well.

BB: Would you have liked to have been Taoiseach during your career?

RM: No. I never wanted to be up on the top there. I felt, in this economy, the two most important jobs in economic activity were Minister for Agriculture and Minister for Finance - and I was both of those. I never wanted to be Taoiseach. I could have stayed on rather than go to Europe as Commissioner for Agriculture, but I knew I could do more for Ireland by being over there with the reform of the CAP coming up.

BB: Would you recommend a career in politics?

RM: No. Not now, it's a vocation rather than a career. It's a great honour, there's no question about it, to put yourself out there on a ballot paper and be elected. I did so ten times and I was elected every time, many times on top of the poll. There was great trust placed in you; you were like the priest in the confession box, with the kind of things people told you – the worries and troubles they had. I wouldn't consider myself as having failed in politics – every political career ends in failure, they say; yet I don't feel that. I just wouldn't recommend it as a first priority for anyone, and I did my best to keep my children out of it and succeeded with five, but not with the sixth. So he has to put up with it now, and it's tough, and it's difficult.

BB: What advice would you give to young Irish people today?

RM: Well I'd say first, study hard, work hard. Achieve as much as you can in the educational sphere; and education is not just about books and learning, it's about life. It doesn't necessarily mean that to enjoy yourself you have to have drugs or drink. You can have everything in moderation, but study hard and work hard. Be yourself is probably the most important advice you can give to anybody. Be yourself; and when you're yourself, you'll know what your capabilities are, and you will think as big as those capabilities.

News