Green who often sees red

 

PROFILE: PAUL GOGARTY, GREEN PARTY SPOKESMAN ON EDUCATION:Likened to a demanding teenager, Gogarty is an outspoken TD for Dublin Midwest who has been criticised for having more influence than is his due, but supporters find him refreshingly honest for a politician, writes Louise Holden

WHEN A TEEN is slamming doors, hurling abuse and threatening to run away, the whole house will concede to his demands for the sake of a quiet life. It seems the whole House has been bending over backwards for Paul Gogarty TD. The Green Party TD for Dublin Midwest has been called a foot-stamping adolescent, a baby throwing his toys out of the cot, Go-Go, No-Go, the Boy Who Cried Wolf.

Eyewitnesses swear that he threw himself to the floor while Fine Gael’s Frances Fitzgerald was addressing a public meeting in Rathcoole in 2008. Onlookers thought he was having a seizure.

When asked if he would think about going independent he replied: “If somebody asked me to cook a kitten in a microwave, the thought would cross my mind. But I’m an animal-loving vegetarian, so I wouldn’t do it.”

He famously dropped the “F” bomb on TD Emmet Stagg during a parliamentary session and has since launched the same expletive at Eamon Gilmore via Twitter.

He has publicly described the Green Party relationship with Fianna Fáil in the baldest of sexual terms and, like the subjugated lover he imagines the Greens to be, threatens to leave almost weekly.

His Tweets could have come from the thumb of 50 Cent: “u mt spk d trth or spk de cr@p” or “Ditto. Block me fool” are just two.

His love of Tweeting and texting completes the adolescent profile, but Gogarty’s assumed role in the Green family structure makes sense. He represents the youngest constituency in the country, Dublin Midwest, comprising land considered fair game by voracious developers during the boom: Lucan, Clondalkin, Palmerstown. Projects that have become synonymous with Ireland’s difficult relationship with planning – Liffey Valley, Adamstown – are his to protect. This is a young, populous and vulnerable constituency that needed someone to slam as many doors as possible on its behalf.

Since his election to the Dáil in 2002, and since his move into the Government in 2007, Gogarty’s unconventional style has won him a huge amount of publicity. He has yoked his red-line issues to his support for Government right from the start and, to the gall of many, his two policy babies – class sizes and third-level fees - were adopted in last year’s programme for government.

Many in Leinster House genuinely resent the power that Gogarty has wielded. “Gogarty is a typical example of how a minority party can have a totally disproportionate influence on government policy,” says an (envious?) insider. “He’s a headline chaser. He enjoys the thrill of publicity.”

Sources within the student union movement take a different view, naturally. “Paul has been an instrumental figure in education policy and is an unsung hero as far as I’m concerned,” says a student activist. “He’s professional, honest, accessible, and he never says what he thinks you want to hear. He’s very different from typical politicians.”

Education has been Gogarty’s stomping ground in Dáil Éireann and, like it or not, he has made himself a presence in national education policymaking.

Married to a teacher, Gogarty has been chairman of the Oireachtas committee on Education and Skills since 2007. He resigned his position as the party’s education spokesperson last year after a motion passed by the party threatened to soften Green education strategy.

Despite this, during last year’s programme for government negotiations on education Gogarty punched well above his weight.

“When the renewed programme for government was negotiated, education was left to the very end, signalling it was going to be the most difficult to agree,” says a senior education figure. Gogarty held the line for the Greens and insisted on a major rowing back of Batt O’Keeffe’s cutbacks. That wasn’t easy – Batt was Cowan’s right-hand man in cabinet. Two former FF education ministers were on the other side: Hanafin and Dempsey. Finance was obviously against Gogarty, but he fought his corner vigorously and refused to give an inch and kept his Green Party colleagues at the table.

“The outcome was a clear win for Gogarty – no further cuts in class size or school funding, no increase in third-level charges and the free book scheme for needy kids restored.”

There are less generous interpretations. “He single-handedly sabotaged the future policy direction of the third-level sector by blocking a proposed loan system that the rest of his party had no objection to in principle,” says a furious observer.

“They took heed of him because he was threatening to leave the party. He has had a completely disproportionate influence on Government policy.”

Gogarty’s love affair with education policy started in the 1980s when he became a student activist at Dublin Institute of Technology, where he studied journalism. He went on to work as a journalist and editor before getting involved in local politics. He made his mark in Lucan battling with planners on the provision of proper infrastructure, especially schools, in the burgeoning hinterland of west Dublin, topping the polls in the local election in 1999. He was one of the first TDs for the new constituency of Dublin Midwest in 2002, the first Green to win in a three-seat constituency.

He was very popular in his constituency as a counsellor and opposition figure but, along with the rest of his party, his ratings are down now. There’s some bad blood in the constituency: Gogarty was accused of trying to split a safe Green seat with a two-candidate strategy in the 2009 local elections, prompting the original candidate to drop out of the race.

In the end, the Green Party showing in the locals was poor, undermining the party base in the area. But few deny the hard graft he put in as a counsellor defending the locality from planners and developers. Even then, education was his big-ticket item – schools were always top of his agenda. Once in Leinster House he began building his “50 steps” education manifesto, the most detailed of any party. He has carried his crusade to the national stage, but many believe he might be playing out his final scenes.

He has told The Irish Times that an increase in class size is “not negotiable”, but Government sources are adamant that average class sizes will jump at least one point next month.

“He’s a man of his word so I wouldn’t be surprised if he walks on Budget day,” says a union source.

Within the Dáil there is more scepticism. “He’s like the Grand Old Duke of York. He’ll march them down again,” says one TD.

His biggest fight is yet to come. Holding on to his seat in Dublin Midwest will be very difficult against a background of plummeting Green support and a skeletal Green presence in the constituency.

“I really hope he can hold on,” says a supporter. “He has restored my faith in politics. I think the public have got the wrong impression of him, much of it fuelled by his own actions.” He has signalled his interest in running for mayor of Dublin should the position ever arise, but many believe it won’t. He could return to journalism or, as one colleague observed, “there’s a great book in him”.

If he goes, some in the House might miss their troubled teen.

“Gogarty is an unusual politician in an unusual party, representing an unusual constituency,” says a media observer. “He captures the Green’s general volatility and tolerance for diverse opinions and contradictions within their own ranks. He gets right up the noses of more traditional politicians in the Dáil. That’s reason enough to keep him.”

Outspoken Tweets

Gogarty is a prolific Tweeter and his engagement with technology has enabled him to connect with constituencies of voters that other politicians can’t touch. The student movement, in particular, has welcomed his accessibility. He has more than 1,600 Twitter followers and is as outspoken in text as he is in person:

“Just spotted a counterfeit note detector in Oireachtas restaurant. Apparently this place has been crawling with duds for years . . .”

“Mayor4dublin.ie campaign continues. Your views please. Wish media would focus on issues rather than me as mayoral candidate. Am NOT running.”

“Labour Party gave me a ‘fool’s pardon’ for calling Gilmore gutless. Am gutted. The fence-sitter is afraid of a real debate with John Gormley.”

“As per Clinton, it’s not about the next general election, it’s about the next generation, stupid!”

“Flip me. Seem to have offended Labour. Blasphemy to them for insulting their god.”

“Shove it up your cat 5 cable.”

“These figures really make you want to borrow gutless Gilmore’s strategy of saying nothing and promising nothing so damned eloquently.”

“Thinking of following party leader to bed. Separate rooms, I might add.”

“At its worst, Twitter is the headline in the sleaziest of sensationalist stories in the rottenest of rags.”

“At its best Twitter is to communications like haiku is to other forms of poetry.”