Shane Ross happy with his reputation as a troublemaker

Minister for Transport says some senior politicians ‘joined at the hip to the judiciary’

Minister for Transport Tourism & Sport Shane Ross. Photograph:  Gareth Chaney Collins

Minister for Transport Tourism & Sport Shane Ross. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

 

Shane Ross is quite happy with his reputation as a troublemaker in Government, in fact he hopes he has that title.

It is not his intention to cause crises, he says, but it is also not his job to keep Fine Gael happy.

The Independent Alliance TD does not agree with a lot of what his Coalition colleagues say or do, but he is well aware the feeling is mutual.

It is no secret, he says, that Fine Gael is less than enthusiastic about his proposals to change the judicial appointments system, or his legislation to automatically ban drivers caught over the legal alcohol limit.

“Those two measures have been difficult for them. Some people at the top of political parties are joined at the hip to the judiciary. That has been troublesome for them.”

It is not just members of Fine Gael who are nervous about changing the way judges are appointed. The proposed reforms will establish a new judicial appointments board with a lay majority and a lay chair. Senior members of the judiciary have “been biting our ears off” about the new measures, the Minister claims.

However, the Bill will proceed and will not be compromised, Ross tells The Irish Times.

One aspect frustrating Ross is the appointment of new judges under the old system.

The Minister had an informal agreement with former taoiseach Enda Kenny that no new appointments would take place until the new law had passed. Given the delay in progressing the legislation, such a deal has had to be abandoned.

“The case was made to me by Enda Kenny last year, he understood fully why I didn’t want any further appointments until the Bill went through, but the judges were maintaining, with some justification, that the courts were being clogged up and that people were not getting justice.”

A number of judicial appointments have been made over the past year under the old system including the controversial appointment of former attorney general Máire Whelan to the Court of Appeal.

“They had allowed me to block appointments but I did not want to do that. I did not want the courts to be blocked up. We look at each appointment as they come in, one by one.”

Ross would rather the Government did not make any further appointments and while he does not want to be an obstruction, he is willing to block appointments. “It was leverage, it still is leverage,” he says.

Stepaside

Many have questioned why a Minister for Transport would fixate on the appointment of judges or the re-opening of Garda stations.

Ross is unapologetic. Stepaside Garda station is his “baby” and something he has campaigned for since 2013, he says. He will not say sorry for reversing what he describes as bad Government policy.

“Do people really expect me, once I am elected, to say ‘that was yesterday and I am elected today and I have forgotten about this?’ Absolutely not . . . It is my baby, I am delighted it is happening. It is not stroke politics; it was right.”

His involvement in such issues has led his critics to question whether Ross has any interest in his department. He says he reads such “complete nonsense” in The Irish Times regularly.

“A lot of it is coupled with the accusation that I am involved in everyone else’s portfolio. It is saying ‘what are you doing worrying about the judges’, ‘what are you doing worrying about this, that and the other and not getting involved in your own’.

“That charge is understandable, but you have to remember I stood on a platform, I wrote some of the Programme for Government. Cabinet is not about going in and looking at your own portfolio.

“It is about going in and discussing what is in other people’s portfolios. They may not welcome it, but that is what you have to do.”

His input is rarely met with open arms, but he is not minded to change his style or tactics to suit Fine Gael.

Despite the bumps in the road, Ross insists relations within Government are better than ever before, assisted by the appointment of Leo Varadkar as Taoiseach.

The first six months were the trickiest, as the Independent Alliance and Fine Gael spent their time “watching each other, saying ‘where are they going to stab me next – the back or the front?’”.

Most of that distrust, he admits, was his fault. “There was a lot of antagonism between Enda [Kenny] and me at the beginning, which took months to get over. There was terrible bad faith there but that kind of changed and we got on very well.”

Political funding

Now the Independent Alliance is focused on maintaining stable Government, he says. But a few important issues have yet to be resolved.

The Programme for Government commits to extending State funding to political groups who stood on a common policy platform, and this includes the Alliance.

While the group is “very strong on opinions, very strong on personalities and very strong in terms of input to Government”, Ross says it does not have the resources it needs.

The Alliance has €1,000 in the bank, raised by the members. The TDs and their councillors have to fund themselves. Ross says the funding was agreed with Fine Gael and put in the Programme for Government but has hit “a few potholes”.

In his portfolio, there is a series of things on the Minister’s desk including changing speeding legislation, the banning of rickshaws, the third terminal at Dublin airport and a rail review examining the viability of the network.

He has plenty of time, he says, insisting there will be no general election in 2018.

He and the Alliance are acutely aware of the consequences it may face in the event of an election. “We do not want to fall into the ‘second party in government syndrome’ that happens a lot.

“The current success of the Government – we are sharing it, but we do not want to fall into the trap of all the credit going to Fine Gael.”

So, what does the future hold for Ross and the Independent Alliance? “We have surprised people because we are still there, a lot of people felt we were the destabilising force within Government but that has not happened . . . We will last the test of time and prove them wrong.”