Able Coalition still capable of policy targets, says Gilmore
THE TWO party leaders in Government are in daily contact about issues of common interest, in face-to-face conversation, by text message or by phone, says Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Eamon Gilmore.
“We talk, we text, we phone. There’s a continuing discussion between us,” says the Labour Party leader.
The Tánaiste describes the relationship as a good one and notes the formal mechanisms in place, such as the Economic Management Council, for deciding key issues confronting the Coalition.
The Tánaiste has “a very good personal working relationship” with all Ministers in the Coalition administration and denies suggestions he might have shouted at Minister for Health James Reilly over the latter’s failure to alert Labour to the impending resignation of Health Service Executive chief Cathal Magee.
“No I didn’t and I don’t. Sometimes these things are blown a bit out of reality.
“We have a good working relationship. Of course, where you have two parties in Government there are, from time to time, issues on which there will be disagreements. Or we’ll see things differently; or there’s a difference of emphasis, or sometimes, occasionally, wires get a bit crossed. But the important issue is that we have a way of dealing with problems like that when they arise.
“The important thing also is that we have dealt with every single issue that has arisen at any time between the parties, and the Taoiseach and I have a very good day-to-day working relationship.”
He is forthcoming on most issues. But there is one subject on which the Tánaiste becomes as mute as a nun in an enclosed order. And that is this year’s budget.
“I’m not talking to you about the budget . . . This is July, the budget isn’t until December and it’s far too early for discussion and speculation about the budget.”
However, he demonstrates a more relaxed attitude to the issue of the constitutional convention. “We intend to have that up and running in September. The structure of it is agreed: that there will be one-third political representatives and two-thirds individual citizens, selected at random, using the electoral register and a methodology which is similar to the methodology that is used by polling companies.”
There is no question of the individual citizens being party loyalists.
“It’s not going to be done by the Government, it will be done independently . . . It will be done by a polling company.”
The Labour leader says all-day Saturday meetings are the most likely. “We’ll do two issues initially which is, I suppose, the test-drive of it.”
These are reducing the voting age to 17 and cutting the presidential term from seven to five years.
“This is the first time that we have a body like this, the majority of which will be made up of individual citizens. So it is quite a radical departure in terms of what it is doing.”
He expects at least some of the meetings to be in public.
The Tánaiste reiterates his view that gay marriage is “the civil rights issue of this generation” and adds: “I actually don’t think there is any big deal about this – that is where Irish society is. People do have a sense of live and let live.”
So if the issue is that important, why not deal with it through the Dáil rather than long-fingering it at the convention? “This isn’t long-fingering it, the intention is that the convention will have the list of items that it has been asked to address . . . within a year,” he replies.
The proposed abolition of Seanad Éireann is not on the convention agenda and has been earmarked for a referendum. But what is the timetable?
“Well, the timetable there is we made a commitment in the programme for government that there would be a referendum on the future of the Seanad and we intend to hold that referendum.
“We haven’t decided a date for it yet. In terms of referenda, our intention is to hold the referendum on children’s rights in the autumn. One of the lessons I think that was learned from the referenda that were held with the presidential election is that it is best to do referenda on a stand-alone basis. So we intend to hold the children’s referendum as a stand-alone referendum . . . the early part of next year will be dominated by the European Union presidency.
“So I think it is unlikely that we will hold a referendum in the first half of next year on any issue because of the fact that we will be very much preoccupied with the presidency . . . I’m just saying it’s unlikely to be now in the second half of this year because of the children’s referendum and it’s unlikely to be the first half of next year because of the EU presidency.”
On the divisive issue of abortion and if it is becoming an issue, the Tánaiste replies: “No, it’s not. There’s been a judgment of the European Court of Human Rights that we’re obliged, under our international commitments, to honour. And an expert group has been established to work out what we need to do to comply with that judgment. That expert group had been expected to report by July, but it has asked for an extension to September and when it reports in September we’ll then make a decision on it.”
The Labour leader reveals an an upbeat view of our economic prospects. “We have made quite an amount of progress from this time last year. The principal purpose of this Government was to bring about economic recovery and we’re on the road.”
When it comes to the Croke Park agreement on public sector pay and reform, the Tánaiste is unequivocal.
“We have achieved quite a degree of change and cost-saving in the public service, all in a situation of industrial peace where I don’t think there has been a single day lost through industrial action. The important thing . . . is that when an agreement is made between trade unions and this Government, we will honour the agreement. By doing so, we’ve built the kind of confidence that is necessary for unions to engage in further discussion with government.”
He is engaged with his foreign affairs obligations, especially Middle East issues.
The Tánaiste says that “nobody could fail but to be moved by what is happening in Syria”. He also indicates a “frustration in the international community about an inability to deal with it more quickly”.
He is also sharply critical of Israeli policy on settlements.
“The continuation of settlements on the West Bank is going to make a two-state solution physically impossible to achieve and the EU has taken a very strong position on that, the strongest position that it has taken to date.
“What I said at the Foreign Affairs Council is that we will need to return to this and if we don’t see progress in the autumn, the EU will have to consider stronger measures, including the possibility of a ban on settlement products into the EU but also a ban on individual settlers who have been engaging in violent activities against Palestinian people in the settlement areas.”
Finally, like all leaders in all governments here, he receives a fair share of criticism. But how does he rate the Opposition?
“I think the Opposition is poor. It will take some time for Fianna Fáil to recover from what they did to the country. It will take some time for people to forgive and forget that.
“I think Sinn Féin are being seriously opportunistic. They benefited in the short term from the profile they got during the stability treaty referendum but in the longer term the stability treaty will have done a lot of damage to Sinn Féin’s economic credibility.”
And the Independents? Some are “very good”, he says, but overall, they’re “a mixed grouping”.
Hard talk: TÁnaiste’s view
On his relationship with Enda Kenny
"We talk, we text, we phone, there’s a continuing discussion between us”
On the budget
“I’m not talking to you about the budget. I’m not talking about the budget until the budget-time. This is July, the budget isn’t until December and it’s far too early for discussion and speculation about the budget”
On the representation of citizens on the constitutional convention
“It’s not going to be done by the Government, it will be done independently. And it’s random selection. It will be done by a polling company”
On gay marriage
“I actually don’t think there is any big deal about this – that is where Irish society is; people do have a sense of live and let live”
On the economy
“We have made quite an amount of progress from this time last year. The principal purpose of this Government was to bring about economic recovery and we’re on the road”
On the Croke Park agreement
“The important thing – and Government has been clear on this – is that when an agreement is made between trade unions and this Government, we will honour the agreement. By doing so, we’ve built the kind of confidence that is necessary for unions to engage in further discussion with Government”
On the Opposition in the Dáil
“I think the Opposition is poor. It will take some time for Fianna Fáil to recover from what they did to the country. It will take some time for people to forgive and forget that. I think Sinn Féin are being seriously opportunistic”.