Shane Ross: ‘I lost a friendship with Mattie McGrath completely. He got totally personal’

The most hated man in rural Ireland? 'It's wrong', says the defeated Minister

Minister for Transport Shane Ross at Fernhill Gardens, Sandyford in his former constituency. Photograph: Alan Betson

Minister for Transport Shane Ross at Fernhill Gardens, Sandyford in his former constituency. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Mattie McGrath no longer stays over at Shane Ross’s house.

The recently re-elected Tipperary TD and freshly defeated south Dublin Minister were once friends.

Always an odd couple of Independents, one fiercely rural and and the other staunchly urban, they fell out after Ross, as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, introduced drink-driving laws that automatically banned anyone caught driving over the limit for three months.

McGrath and other rural TDs portrayed Ross’s crackdown as an attack on rural life. Ross stuck to his guns, and things got personal.

Sitting in his ministerial office on Leeson Street in Dublin, the polarising politician – now caretaker at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport as the parties continue to circle each other in government-formation talks – is in reflective mood, recalling a rollercoaster 45 months in power.

“I don’t think I would have done it differently and I think we were right to do it,” says Ross, looking back at his “zero tolerance” drink-driving laws, one of the most divisive decisions he made during his time as an Independent Minister in the minority Fine Gael-led Government.

“I regret I lost friends over it, which was a pity. I lost a friendship with Mattie McGrath completely. He got totally personal. I still see him and talk to him. I mean he stayed in my house. That all ended.”

It certainly wasn’t a vote for a united Ireland. It was a vote for ‘hey, these are the people who offer some hope of a radical solution to the housing and homeless problems’

Today, Ross, who lost his seat in the February 8th general election, is not so much licking his wounds as scratching his head at the results.

“I still don’t know,” he says, when asked what happened in the election and how he lost 13,656 first-preference votes over two elections since he first became a TD in 2011.

The loss of his Dublin Rathdown seat, after he came sixth in the three-seater constituency, ends a political career that lasted 39 years and brought him from the Seanad to the Dáil to Cabinet.

Ross’s own polling, carried out in November, showed him winning the third seat narrowly. Then came Sinn Féin “like an express train, even in Dublin Rathdown”. The party’s surge in pre-election polls pushed anti-Sinn Féin voters in the southside constituency towards Fine Gael as the “most protective” party from that surge, he says.

In an election that gave Fine Gael a bloody nose, Ross’s constituency was the only one where the party gained a seat on the 2016 results. Fine Gael won two seats; the Greens topped the poll.

Overall, Sinn Féin was “the only home for the change people were looking for”, says Ross.

“It certainly wasn’t a vote for a united Ireland. It was a vote for ‘hey, these are the people who offer some hope of a radical solution to the housing and homeless problems’,” he says.

The 70-year-old acting Minister says the “most striking” part of the election was the number of people “who were quite well off” who voted for Sinn Féin.

“We have got to ask ourselves, why did they do that?” he says.

Sinn Féin winning the highest share of the vote was “a reflection that people are totally frustrated with all the old-style politicians and the traditional parties”.

Ross believes the separation of Sinn Féin from IRA and army council influence is “gradually happening”, but he accepts younger voters “don’t see the legacy issues”.

Sinn Féin’s 24.5 per cent vote “entitles them to a major say in government formation”, but he sees no alternative to a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael coalition with “an add-on” of the Greens or Social Democrats or Independents. The Greens are “gagging to get into government at all costs”, he says.

“There is a kind of competition going on between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to be more antagonistic to Sinn Féin than the other because they see that as fertile territory,” he says.

Beyond tribal differences and legacy issues from the Civil War 100 years ago, Ross sees no major policy differences that should keep them apart in government, particularly after their confidence and supply arrangement that put Fine Gael in power with the support of Fianna Fáil. He sees the role of taoiseach rotating on an annual basis.

I used to get lynched every day by the Mattie McGraths and Michael Collinses. I mean Michael Collins called me a scumbag the other day. It was quite personal

“They should get together. Whether it means that the short-term interests of the individuals are served is a different matter,” he said.

Ross’s advice to the 21 Independent TDs in the 33rd Dáil is: “Get into government at all costs . . . don’t become one of those people who is permanently in opposition bellyaching.”

The stockbroker-turned-columnist believes rural Independents fared better than their urban colleagues (only one Independent was re-elected in Dublin) because they were part of a protest that accused Dublin of “victimising” rural Ireland, an anger Ross believes “became concentrated” on him. The “Dublin is crucifying us” line was a “very easy narrative to peddle”, he says.

He laughs at the suggestion that his name evokes the same reaction in rural Ireland that the Healy-Raes from Kerry generate in Dublin, or that he could be the most hated man in rural Ireland.

Shane Ross on Enda Kenny: 'I mean I remember him from nightclubs. That’s the kind of bond [we had] – many, many years ago'. Photograph: Alan Betson
Shane Ross on Enda Kenny: 'I mean I remember him from nightclubs. That’s the kind of bond [we had] – many, many years ago'. Photograph: Alan Betson

“It’s wrong. I am more aware of it than anybody else because I used to get in the Dáil and get lynched every day by the Mattie McGraths and Michael Collinses. I mean Michael Collins [Independent TD for Cork South-West] called me a scumbag the other day. It was quite personal,” he says. Collins subsequently apologised.

Ross traces the attacks back to his drink-driving changes. He laments the fact that a public safety issue descended into a rural/urban divide and personal attacks.

“It was a pity because we lost track of the argument, which was pretty simple: do you want to save a few lives? And drink was costing a few lives,” he says.

He has long had a propensity to provoke, which he brought from his days as a Sunday Independent newspaper columnist into government. He is still surprised at how thin-skinned Enda Kenny was after he called the then Fine Gael leader a “political corpse” following the 2016 General Election. The “bad blood” went into Cabinet meetings and “went on for months”, he says.

“I didn’t understand it, because I knew him well and liked him. God, I mean I remember him from nightclubs. That’s the kind of bond [we had] – many, many years ago,” he says.

Where Kenny saw the Independents in Cabinet as “enemies within” for the first six or eight months of government, Leo Varadkar, his successor from June 2017, “treated us as though we were part of a team and if there was a problem, let’s sort it out”.

“I never had raised-voice conversations with Leo or anything like that,” he said.

Ross says relations also did not start well with his civil servants; there was initially mistrust because he constantly called them “mandarins” in his columns. He feared they were trying to hoodwink him or push an agenda, while they felt he “might go off the reservation”. There was and is tension, he says, but on the whole his time in the department has “worked out quite well”.

“They have opinions and try to guide you in a certain direction and you need to be conscious of that, certainly. And they can be Machiavellian, of course they can. But on the whole they are good people and have what they see as the State’s interests at heart,” he says.

Ross’s “preconceived ideas” of semi-State agencies and his description of them as “quangos” also “didn’t go down a bomb”, he admits.

“It was wrong tactically probably to do that. It was rude, but I was trying to make a point. These guys need reforms and, in some cases, they were monopolies,” he says.

He is proud of the changes he made to board appointments at the semi-States and breaking “the history of politicians appointing their pals”, which he railed against in his columns and books.

I will tell funny stories. There are some very good, strange things that happened, which should be told

Ross believes he can hold his head high if he returns to column-writing and holding others to account again. He feels he cleaned up the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) after former chief executive John Delaney departed, and the Olympic Council of Ireland after Pat Hickey’s alleged ticket touting at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

“We didn’t blow it,” he says of his time in office.

On one of his failed reforms – his Bill that aimed to overhaul how judges are appointed – he is still refusing to admit defeat, despite Independent Senator and senior counsel Michael McDowell filibustering it for 18 months and the Bill lapsing with the dissolution of the 32nd Dáil.

He does not accept that McDowell will have the last laugh.

“It’s not over yet,” says Ross, believing that some changes to the appointment of judges could be resurrected by a future government because of the appetite shown for his Bill.

As for McDowell, he believes he exploited procedural loopholes to block the legislation in the interests of the legal profession and the judiciary.

“Michael should know better. He was a guy who looked for reform of the Seanad and then he abused it, unfortunately, in a way which was quite wrong for a year-and-a-half for something where he was massively conflicted because he was a leading barrister,” he says.

Ross’s face lights up at the mention of Stepaside Garda Station in his constituency. It was one of 139 stations closed during government cost-cutting in 2012 and 2013, and Ross made its reopening a condition of supporting the Fine Gael administration.

The pet promise, costing a €1.5 million refurbishment, left him open to accusations of “stroke politics”. He cheerfully boasts that it will reopen on March 9th (despite initially promising a 2019 opening).

He insists it will be operational around the clock, though he concedes it will not be open to the public 24 hours a day. Regardless, his constituents did not repay him by re-electing him.

“They stunned me with their ingratitude,” he says, with a laugh.

He hopes a wider public will get a lot from the book he is planning to write on his time as a government minister. The tome, which he hopes will hit shelves later this year, will be about what it is like to sit at Cabinet, which he describes as “the kind of inner sanctum of all inner sanctums”.

“These are not brilliant guys sitting in secret. They are not all in Mensa. It is full of ordinary, pretty nice guys who are just doing their best,” he said.

“I will tell funny stories. There are some very good, strange things that happened, which should be told,” he said.

There will be no score-settling in the book, he insists.

“I will tell a lot of tales and that may not be very popular,” he says.

Asked about his greatest regret over his time in government, he struggles.

“I don’t have one,” he says.