As former Seanad spokesperson on Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, what do you think needs to be done to combat the issue of rural isolation, and the mental health issues that go with it?
This is an issue which has gained traction in recent weeks given the proposal of Kerry County Council regarding drink driving. As a politician who has bachelor uncles living in rural parts of north and west Cork who are vulnerable people, I maintain that you can’t allow a situation to develop where you promote drink driving. We have a zero tolerance approach to drink driving.
We need to look at how we can develop community in terms of people coming together, socialising, and calling on neighbours, because we’ve always had isolation, be it in urban or rural life, and I think what we have to try and achieve is that people feel included, and feel vital to the community. We must look at how we can challenge people to become involved in activities that don’t centre around the pub, so that people don’t have to use alcohol as a means of congregation. That requires working in partnership with community associations in rural Ireland, and I think we can achieve that.
As Chairman of the Committee on Health and Children, you oversaw the recent submissions on the forthcoming abortion legislation. What can we expect to see in the legislation?
As Chairman of the Committee it wouldn’t be appropriate to give a personal viewpoint on it, but the Government is clear in that we are going to legislate and regulate within the parameters of Article 40.3.3. The Constitution is also quite clear in that it gives equal right to the life of the mother and the unborn and I think it’s very important that we have a debate that’s calm – that’s respectful, irrespective of one’s viewpoint. Some people will be very much pro-choice, other people will be very much against abortion coming in, and I think terms like ‘pro-life’ are not helpful because I think everyone is pro-life; I don’t know anybody who’s against life in any shape or form. The Supreme Court decision and the European Court decision require that clarity be brought, and it requires a legislative and a regulatory approach.
What Government will do won’t go far enough for some people, and it will go too far for others, but I think that we must reflect upon the Heads of the Bill when it comes out in the spring and see what that contains, so there’s a significant amount of time to go yet in the debate before the legislation is brought to its final position. The Minister is quite clear that he can only act within Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution. The Government won’t replicate what happened in America or England. They are going to stay within Article 40.3.3.
Has the Government considered holding a referendum to remove Article 40.3.3, considering the confusion it has caused?
No. The Taoiseach has made it clear that there won’t be another referendum. Now, there may be in time, perhaps, but at the moment the Taoiseach has made it clear that there’s not. The country has voted on it already and they’ve made the decision that it’s going to stay there.
One of the main issues facing students this year has been the hardship caused by the failure of the SUSI grant system. What is being done to make sure that this will not happen again next year?
Well, first of all, the Minister had franchised out the administration of the system to Dublin VEC. It’s a bit like the medical card – when you move it out to a centralised system there are teething difficulties.
It’s important that we make it easier for people to apply. Like when we’re booking a train ticket online, that there’s a process you go through, and at the end of the process you’ve a checklist of what you need, and it flags that ‘I need to return document X.’ I think we need to look at how we can make that process easier, more simplistic, more student-friendly, while at the same time recognising that there is an obligation too on the student to have all the necessary documentation. To me, it’s about the student requiring money, requiring the assistance, and making it easier for them. The process must also be shortened, more accessible and more flexible, and I will make suggestions to the Minister on that. And I think Dublin VEC, in its infancy, in its first year, needs to reflect on what went wrong and to rectify it.
Was the system rushed in too quickly before the proper resources had been allocated?
I think you can argue that point. I’m more familiar with the medical card and the problems when we streamlined it into one centre in Finglas. I think we can learn from that; it obviously needs more personnel at certain times of the year when there’s a bigger volume of applications, and that needs to be looked at. So the process must be made simpler, more straightforward, more streamlined, and, again, it may mean being flexible with how we allocate resourcing in terms of staff to different parts of the year. So I would be very much open to that.
Can you consider yourself a national legislator, when so much of your time has to be allocated to pandering to local issues in the community, which should not really be within your remit?
First of all, I think the abolition of the dual mandate was the correct decision in that a national parliamentarian should not necessarily have to sit on a local authority council. This morning I’ve had four people in the office, and every single person that came in, bar one, was a local or an individual concern – be it housing, be it traffic, etc. – as opposed to a global concern. So there’s a balance that needs to be struck between being a national parliamentarian and allowing yourself as an individual politician to be able to concentrate and read briefing papers and policy papers on a variety of matters. And sometimes you can’t do that because the volume of interest at local level is on the local matter.
In saying that, the issue of community and the issue of a person’s individual needs are very important because, for them, to make that step to come in the door to your office, in lots of cases, is a huge, huge, journey – one that they wouldn’t necessarily make only for the fact that they had to. So I think there must be a real analysis of how we can make politics more accountable and more transparent, whilst at the same time, in some cases, changing how people interact with their member of the Dáil or the Seanad. But if you become just a pure national parliamentarian you lose contact with your constituents, and that leads to different ramifications. It is a question that the Constitutional Convention will be discussing in a couple of weeks’ time.
And will the Putting People First reforms have a tangible impact on this issue?
I think they will; I think they’ll create a bigger emphasis on local democracy. I don’t necessarily think that abolition or merger is reform. I think we need to look at reform in terms of community employment, and, for example, the promotion and marketing of Cork as a tourism hub. Personally, I think this requires one Super-council between Cork City and Cork County which promotes Cork as the counterbalance to Dublin and Belfast. We need to keep people focused on the importance of what Cork has to offer, be it in terms of shopping, food, culture, music, and I think the best forum and the best vehicle through which to do that is through the medium of a Super-authority – a merger of Cork City and County Councils – and I think that that would give the region a strength: it would give it a democratic mandate, it would allow it to be empowered, and it could then go on without having any fear of division between City and County, and speak with different agencies and try and attract investment, to promote the region as a ‘come-to’ place.
As the Government nears its second anniversary, what are the biggest challenges facing the coalition up to 2016?
The biggest challenge that we face is the creation and retention of jobs. Unemployment is way too high, but if you look at where we’ve come from as a government, I think there’s been an incremental improvement. We must make it easy to employ people; make it worth having a job as opposed to not being employed. I think if we can do that then we’ll get our country back.
The second issue we’d look at would be engineering abroad the perception and the reality that Ireland is open for business with a very educated workforce, and with a lot of positives in terms of the employment conditions and our corporate tax rate. It is about telling people abroad that we are a good place to invest, that we have managed our finances and that we are prepared to make hard decisions to allow for our country to grow and for people to be employed.
The third point we have to tackle is in the context of our public finances. We have to demonstrate that we have the ability manage them, and not to allow our borrowings to go berserk like they did in the past… This won’t be easy in the context of a new Croke Park deal because people have expectations and they have rights and entitlements, but I think we must demonstrate that we can change work practices and work models, while at the same time preserving the integrity of the public service.