Hot on the hunt for seats in the by-elections, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin spent a day in Co Wexford on Thursday canvassing with Malcolm Byrne.
Here he sets out why voters should give the North Wexford man their number one, while defending the National Constituency Committee's decision to add two extra candidates, Michael Sheehan and Malcolm Byrne to a four-party Wexford ticket in the General Election. In a wide ranging interview he takes aim at Fine Gael describing them as out of touch and all spin and little substance, while airing his views on everything from Brexit to climate change, while discussing ways the lives of Co Wexford residents can be improved through better education, housing policies and foreign direct investment.
What prompted the change to four Wexford election candidates?
Historically four candidates in a five seater was our approach. When I first ran there were four candidates in election, in '87, '89, '92. The National Constituency Committee keeps all tickets under review. The selection conventions selects candidates but by no means is that the end of the story. So the result of the local and European elections created a new scenario. If you look at the Local Election performances, the Gorey LEA was phenomenal for Fianna Fáil - we got 45 per cent of the vote. Malcolm Byrne gets 25 per cent of that vote.
He got the highest vote of any candidate of any party in the local elections. Michael Sheehan got 1,800 votes and in New Ross we got 38 per cent. Mick Wallace gets elected to Europe, creating a vacancy. Historically New Ross was one of Fianna Fáil's strongest areas and our two seats always pivoted between the Browne axis in Enniscorthy with New Ross so the National Constituency Committee looked at it.
We have strong candidates in James and Lisa but given the election of Mick Wallace, which was a game changer, and the need for Fianna Fáil to regain a foothold in New Ross, Michael Sheehan did well so the National Constituency Committee felt he should be added. And given Malcolm's performance in Gorey and his European performance. You gain more profile, you're more electorally attractive. He's a strong candidate who did well in Europe against some big guns.
People felt given his Local Election performance and his European performance he was uniquely well positioned for the by-election given the fact that he had such a long European campaign, six months at the doors talking and engaging with people. I think he would be a good representative for Wexford. He has the makings of a very fine national politician. I think he would be a strong candidate from Wexford in the national parliament and would be a representative so I can understand why the National Constituency Committee, which is empowered by the national executive, made the decision to select Malcolm for the General Election and also added two candidates to what is a very competitive field and I acknowledge that. We are strong in Wexford but we only have one Dáil seat and we are going for two.
Were you shocked to hear Lisa McDonald's comments about the party being like a team of over the hill footballers?
I was disappointed and taken aback but I can understand where people are coming from on one level in terms of the competitive nature of the constituency, but I think when you look at the facts in terms of the electoral performances of Malcolm and Michael Sheehan I don't think those accusations stick.
At any point was it considered to remove Lisa from the ticket?
No. That kind of angst happens. Every constituency committee in the country is being reviewed. Just because people are selected at a convention it doesn't mean a ticket is closed. It's not just Wexford, we have been adding on candidates all over the country and we still are. I understand Lisa doesn't like that. We are in a multi-seat, proportional representative system so you get this individual competitive edge and this type of friction, it's natural.
Do you think it will all be forgotten about come election time?
It won't be forgotten about. People have their views on it. It's part of multi-seat, electoral politics. It's internally competitive, as well as being externally competitive with other parties.
What are the priorities for Co Wexford?
Getting more economic development into Wexford. Growing indigenous companies, with a particular focus on the agri-food industry and tourism as well. Infrastructurally, I think the proposed technological university for the south east and how that can develop its outreach into Wexford. It's been too slow happening. There have been ongoing issues between Carlow and Waterford Institute of Technology. More development in Rosslare Port. We nearly got caught out with Brexit, if a no deal Brexit happened we woul be fairly badly exposed. We are a trading country and we trade with the world so Rosslare should have been developed much more effectively. There are issues over the ownership. If there was a hands-on approach by the government that should have been resolved by now.
Are you happy with Leo Varadkar's option of May 2020 for the General Election?
I have been very consistent about this since last Christmas when the prospect of a No Deal Brexit was very much on the table. Notwithstanding the government's failures on health, housing and climate change, we couldn't precipitate an election given the uncertainty in Britain and the fact we could have had a No Deal by March. That allowed us to pass emergency legislation to prepare the country for a No Deal Brexit which we did in the first quarter of this year. Obviously things got worse in Britain: change of Prime Minister, threats of a No Deal Brexit heading into October and I had made it clear that you can't be extending Confidence in Supply every month so I said there would be no election this year. We would facilitate the budget. I mentioned springtime as the potential date, the Taoiseach has mentioned May, there is very little between us. I never envisaged anything before Easter.
I think ministers in health and housing wanted to get out of their jobs. The word is Simon Harris and Eoghan Murphy led the charge for the General Election as they wanted to get out of the departments they are in because they are not doing well.
I don't believe in general elections every two years. Otherwise there would be instability and chaos. I can recall as a young student there were three elections in the 1981, 1982 period. It's arguable it took another six or seven years because real decision could be made in the country. We have facilitated four budgets now under confidence and supply. We base it on policy and issues around education, in particular, housing, health, crime and so on. The government clearly haven't delivered on housing or on health. There is no question we had to maintain that stability of Confidence and Supply over the Brexit period and I think we are looking at an orderly wind down of Confidence and Supply up in April or May. In my view we will be able to demonstrate to the public that Irish politicians can - notwithstanding divisions and differences - do things in the overall national interest in response to this.
Do you think Confidence & Supply has worked?
In some areas yes, in other areas clearly it hasn't. On budget there have been significant differences. The fundamental frustration for us is failure to deliver. We sought a number of speech and language physical and occupational therapists as children are waiting too long. An extra €6m was provided to provide 100 odd additional professionals and only eight of those were provided and that's poor delivery. It's a scandal and there is no sense of urgency about it and there is no cut through from government. These are overarching priorities. It has been very frustrating.
Do you agree we are living in a two-tier economy?
The foreign direct investment story, I think Wexford could have done better in recent years because it's close to the capital in travel time. Ye should be getting more foreign direct investment. I was involved in getting Coca Cola, which demonstrated that high quality, international companies can locate in Wexford. We have had some good pharma successes in Wexford and I think that should be built on, particularly around financial services.
It's accepted there is a lack of balance. The overarching focus seems to be Dublin. It's a double edged experience there. Home ownership now is the lowest in the country since 1971 and we are below the European average and given the fact we are a country that prided ourselves in our home ownership, for me that's a big wake up call. I think Fine Gael have over-relied on the market to provide solutions. Instead of building more houses they are competing with couples on the private market. The result is we are spending €800m on housing assistance repayments and the state isn't getting any houses for that. Their housing strategies have been wrong. We should be building more social and council houses and we should be building more affordable housing estates, subsidising people to buy at an affordable rate. Last year we got a scheme to provide 6,000 affordable houses over three years. If we were in government we would have expanded that far more but that was what was negotiated with the minister at the time.
Are young people being failed?
I think this current generation has the greatest challenges of any previous generation. I look back at my own father who was a bus driver in Cork. There was one wage packet and he managed on a busman's wage packet to buy a house. We want to assist young people to buy their house. We will be bringing a range of measures before the next General Election.
If in power what key priorities do you have as leader?
The key priorities are housing, health and climate change. There are other areas around cost of living, trying to reduce it and rebalancing regional development as I think rural Ireland needs a strong focus. People are very concerned about the future in terms of climate change and biodiversity. It's not often acknowledged I think but Fianna Fail's record has been strong on climate change.
Are you in favour of the Shannon NLG gas project?
That has been a long running saga. There is a new ownership now taken over and it remains to be seen will that be developed or not. That was announced in the mid-Noughties. I was Minister for Enterprise at the time.
That whole proposal fell through and new people took over. I think gas is going to be a transitional option. Personally I want to do much more on the renewable side. I don't think the country has advanced as quickly as it should have on offshore wind. Copenhagen has led the way on this. In terms of anaerobic digestion and localised micro schemes and for farmers to be remunerated, I do think we could be doing more on. I do think gas will be a transitional fuel. I would prefer to take the emotion out of the debate and see what our needs are over the next 50 years and see what we can do with renewables. What will it take and what is required for projected population growth and industry needs.
What did you think of the Extinction Rebellion week of protests in Dublin?
The most important ingredient in terms of the climate change agenda is to bring the public with us. We know that from the last decade with people saying in throwaway remarks that we can't make my contribution to it and climate change deniers. I have no problem with people protesting but I think we need to be careful about stopping people going to their work place as the danger of angering people and turning people off is very real.
In London they were causing disruption on the underground - why would you disrupt public transport? That seems counter intuitive to me concerning the whole agenda on climate change and you have people in shops ion Dublin and retail is in difficulties as it is so we need a balance here. I like the Greta Thunberg approach, she has mobilised people across the country and that has been very positive and we can all do things in our own homes and communities that can cumulatively affect things. I think Fine Gael has been very weak on climate change. When I was last in government with the Green Party we had a standing cabinet sub committee on climate change.
We were criticised when we left government by Enda Kenny who said our targets were too high and unrealistic. Fianna Fáil pushed for the ring-fencing of the carbon tax. I know some people felt there should be a direct dividend back but we felt the money will be required to do retro fitting and biodiversity measures. I am disappointed in the budget we didn't do more for the National Parks & Wildlife Service. I think we will be paying farmers to mind our biodiversity. At the moment if you have scrub-land you are penalised when we should be saying fine, you're OK. Farmers are trying to create alternative enterprises and revenue streams and some of that could be in energy generation.
Are you happy with the role of county councils as economic drivers?
They have changed in terms with their work with Leader and enterprise boards. I preferred the Leader agencies on their own. They should be economic drivers but they should be doing more on housing. 47 houses were built in 2017 in Co Wexford and 110 in 2018. You have over 2,000 on the social housing list. We would do more on housing and health services in Wexford.
What is needed to cure the health service here?
The government has changed tack twice in recent years. They moved Wexford into the Dublin area, along with Kilkenny and kept Waterford in Cork and now they have taken Waterford out of Cork and it doesn't know where it's going and that has upset academic appointments. It's a bit of a mess in the health service in the south east and the same applies to mental health services. We need a lot more community based service in mental health and the elderly. Wexford is one of the worst areas in terms of home support, having the third highest waiting list nationally. 6,800 people were waiting at the end of May.
Is there enough substance with Fine Gael and its leaders?
They are very media and PR driven. Spin over substance has been the hallmark of this government. There has been a chronic absence of delivery. Broadband has been promised since 2011. They would have been far better if they had given it to the ESB far earlier and get the towns done as now it's being delayed again.
Do you pay much attention to polls?
National polls not as much because they have been proven to be wrong time and time again. The debate should be more issue oriented.
What would you have done about Maria Bailey if she was a Fianna Fáil TD?
I would have moved more quickly. The Maria Bailey case was a very serious one, I haven't seen the internal report. I think it was unsatisfactory that Fine Gael had an internal secret report that only select media got leaks from. It spoke to an insurance claim culture that is causing immense problems for businesses who can't survive due to false insurance claims. If you sit in a swing in a hotel at night that's your personal responsibility and that you would put in a claim to get a handy insurance payout really struck at the heart of the complacency at the centre of government relating to insurance.
Is there enough accountability for politicians?
I think buttongate is unfair and the issue today: there is no correlation between fobbing and voting, there never was. Overall I think the Irish body politic has been quite constructive in the national interest if you compare it to what is going on in Britain and America. On the key issues that affect people's livelihoods Irish politicians have acted responsibly. We didn't play politics with Brexit and Europe took succour from the fact that Ireland was united. Britain don't seem to be able to leave the European Union without a deal.
Fine Gael are driving Brexit?
The deal that is now being struck isn't exactly a great deal long term for Ireland. If Boris Johnson gets re-elected and proceeds to take Britain out of the customs union and out of the single market then that's a worse deal than the Teresa May deal. She was keeping Britain much closer to the custom's union so she was looking at a much softer Brexit for the agri food industry in Ireland. The moment when Teresa May's attorney general was negotiating in Brussels was a moment lost. I think Europe should have cut Teresa May more slack because I think the Teresa May deal was a better deal all round than what we now have. Northern Ireland may do well out of the current deal.
Is the Fianna Fáil front bench capturing the public's imagination?
I think Michael McGrath has been very strong on finance, Barry Cowen on public expenditure, Charlie McConnell on agriculture, Lisa Chambers has been a very active spokesperson on Brexit, I think Darragh O'Brien on housing, James Browne, if you talk to any of the NGOs on mental health are very praiseworthy of him. He has been very, very effective. James Lawless is originally from Wexford and is representing Kildare. On the whole area of third level he has commanded that brief. He is full of confidence and strong on research. He really has carved out a niche for himself there and is very authoritative on that subject. Stephen Donnelly has been a good recruit to the party on the health service so I think we have a very capable and confident front bench. Dara Calleary as well and there are many more I haven't mentioned.
Do you foresee a dirty, robust campaign in Co Wexford?
I don't play dirty and I don't agree with that. I don't get personal. It will be a challenging election. The General Election I think we have a very strong position of getting two seats. The dynamic of the campaign will determine it. The by-election will be more difficult because it's all about transfer and it's one seat, not five seats. We feel it will be very challenging, but what's good is that we have a very strong candidate so we are in with a good shot.