Joe O’Toole has few regrets for making waves on Irish Water

Resigning as water charge body chairman is ‘rear-view mirror’ for former senator

Surrounded by friendly faces, savouring the Lake Cafe's coffee cake on the shores of a sun-dappled Lough Derg in Dromineer, Co Tipperary, Joe O'Toole lacks the demeanour of a chastened man. "People say to me: 'Are you fierce upset?' No, I'm not. It's rear-view mirror for me."

He may be more upset than he seems, of course. Certainly those who know him best thought he might be in need of solace. “In fairness, when the news broke, my texts and emails were flying – really nice, concerned, supportive messages. Lovely to see it but I was actually fine, having a pizza in Obama Plaza on the way down here.”

Yet, even for this mischievous, jovial , independent-minded 68-year-old, living “a charmed kind of a life”, to be drummed out of a prominent position before it had even begun was hardly his heart’s desire.

He just answered the questions he was asked, he says, which will come as no surprise to those who know him. No elephant in any room on Earth will escape the critical gaze of O’Toole, a Kerryman taught to “never know your place”, by a formidable Dingle grandmother.

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"And not only are there a lot of elephants in the room in Ireland but there are people with secret boxes of bananas to feed the f***ing elephants. So I would prefer to address the elephant, get him out of there or deal with him."

Stubborn

Removing elephants from a room can be highly disruptive, though. “I know that causes problems. Me speaking my mind last week caused difficulty. I said that in my statement – I said I regretted that. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t do it again.” Stubborn too.

And yes, he is well aware of the view that commission chairmen or chairwomen should keep their private views private. “And I think that’s a reasonable point of view. But it’s not my point of view. Here’s the thing: the views of everybody else on the commission were widely known. When asked, I just said I’ve been paying my water charges – I wasn’t going to hide from that – and I said I think it’s right to pay them.”

Did Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Simon Coveney know of his views in advance? “I told him what they were. He showed great confidence in me.”

He is genuinely baffled that anyone might regard his personal views as relevant to the role of chairman. “Last week, it was no bother to me to have very strong views and still walk in to referee or chair something. That’s what I’ve done all my life. Representing the INTO [Irish National Teachers’ Organisation], I had to say things that didn’t 100 per cent reflect my own view of the world.

“It stuns me that we’ve reached a stage in politics where people cannot understand that you can put your personal views to one side and deal with life as you find it beyond that. I think this is why we’re becoming more polarised and less tolerant,” he says.

“There is such an intolerance of different points of view now, so many people with an ‘ism’; in other words, people who want to push their view of the world on everybody else . . . Why can’t we be tolerant of people who live their life differently to us but as part of our community and recognise that we differ with them but respect them? . . . Now people hear something, take a position and it becomes an unshakeable position.”

For all his mischief-making, he is deeply serious now. “In public life, when people take an honestly held point of view, they reach that conclusion after considering all the aspects and sides of the issues.”

In that world of reason and logic, if a point is raised by the other side that O’Toole has not considered in advance, he regards it as his duty to take the new point into consideration “to think about it and, if necessary, make changes”.

“But the problem is there are a lot of people who lack confidence and can’t do that without being afraid of losing face. People say to me that I’m arrogant and over-confident; well, I don’t know whether I am or not, but the issue of losing face has never bothered me. A lot of people would feel I lost face this week – maybe I did in their eyes, but not in my own.”

The important thing in politics, he believes, “is that people with different views continue to engage with each other. I’ve learned that the most effective people were the people who weren’t arguing for show in the house but had a difference of opinion that if they met in the Members’ Bar over a pint, they would continue it. Not gutting each other but just engaging with each other’s point of view.”

Pro bono

John Bruton, Pat Rabbitte and Michael McDowell were people he would not have shared a view with, but who were happy to continue the discussion later, he says. “They are the kind of politicians that we need more of in Irish society.”

He took on the commission role pro bono. “I’m on a decent pension, I’m well looked after and I felt this was something I could do. But the minute there was a row about it – early on Monday morning, I rang Simon [Coveney] and said: ‘I want to make this clear to you. I’ve said what I have to say, I won’t be withdrawing any of it, but if this causes a problem for you, I’ll walk away.’”

Cruiser

“All politics is personal but no politics is personal at the same time. I’m down here with my grandkids. They’re out there enjoying the sailing. I’m out here on the water, on my 38-year-old cruiser, which I love and which my family love. I’ve always had another life. I love reading, I love writing, I love nature, I love boating . . . There isn’t enough space in my life to do the things I want to do. I don’t know boredom; I haven’t been there.”

He comes across as a man comfortable in his skin. “And I’ve loved every single day of my working life,” he adds.

But would it not be reasonable to be just a little upset about this week’s events ? “I’m disappointed, because I was willing to do what I consider is an important national duty and apparently my comments f***ed that up and I have to take responsibility for that. So I have a sense of regret and I caused problems for Simon Coveney, who acted so honourably in all this. But that’s where it finishes.”

But was it wise to give such expansive interviews ? “I would be more strategic than wise. If I felt something needed to be said, I would say it and then deal with the fallout.”

But perhaps he went a bit too far this time ? “I probably did go a bit far. All my life I go a bit far.”

Is it possible that, as one Leinster House observer suggested, his tongue might have been loosened with a few pints ? He looks thunderstruck. “Oh God no. Good lord no . . .” he says, pausing in shock before pointing out, for example, that both radio interviews were in the early morning. He volunteers that because of his “red and ruddy complexion”, he is “often associated with having a drink problem. I don’t. On my word of honour, I don’t. I’m saying that for the record.”

In any event, his views on water charges have been carefully considered. He finds it "extraordinary", as he told the Irish Examiner, "that people who present themselves as being left- wing politicians are opposed to things like property tax, are opposed to polluter pays, are of a view that if you have two or three cars and a swimming pool that you should be paying the same water charge as somebody next door."

He says he would have brought to the water charges commission “a left-of-centre approach. I think every left-wing party in Europe would completely agree with my words last week.”

Lightning rod

Does he accept that the water charges were a lightning rod for many other impositions during the recession years ?

“I certainly accept that that would be the view of a lot of people, that they opposed it because they felt it was the final straw. People were hit with the USC, with the property tax, with an extraordinary, crucifying list of demands and this came on top of all that. I certainly don’t blame anyone who said this is a tax too far.

“But what I don’t understand is the people who make it a matter of principle. I learned a long time ago, if you can reduce principle to pounds, shillings and pence then it’s not a principle. This is a matter of money – and money and principle are two separate issues.

“But where does it stop after that? Taking out the water meters? So why don’t we take out the electricity meters as well and make the one job of it?”

Then again, if the decision had been his, Joe O’Toole would not have started with charges, but with education. “Without paying anything, Ireland, over a period of 10 years became the most effective recycling and reusing nation in all of Europe. We did that. No charge. Just purely education, information and good example. I think we should have tried something like that on water.”

As we speak, invitations are coming in to appear on various radio shows. He is clearly tempted by one in particular, but within a few minutes he has decided against it. It is difficult to imagine O’Toole going away quietly. A man who was topping barrels, milking cows, skinning sheep and preparing coffins in his early teens, who was brought up not to know his place, is unlikely to be spancelled by one flick of a tail.