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Michael McGrath interview: RTÉ should not have to ‘compete’ with health and education for funding

The Minister for Finance would ‘love to have more time’ with his seven children, but ‘you want to set a good example about work ethic’

Minister for Finance Michael McGrath says he does not favour abolishing the RTÉ licence fee and replacing it with direct exchequer funding, warning that such a move would leave the broadcaster “competing” with the Department of Health and others for cash which is “not easy to find”.

This puts him at odds with Minister for Media Catherine Martin, who says the option of direct taxpayer funding should be “on the table”. An expert group has been tasked with making a recommendation.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Irish Times, McGrath said a decision would need to be made soon on the future funding model for the station following months of controversy over misstated payments to former star presenter Ryan Tubridy. The Minister said that despite a large decrease in TV licence fee sales, the station will have generated €130 million in such income for 2023.

Even in the worst of times for RTÉ, around €130 million was collected in 2023 in respect of licence fee sales. The overwhelming majority of people want to pay their licence fee

“We do need to make a policy decision and come to a settled position in relation to the funding of public service broadcasting. That involves RTÉ, but other actors as well in the broadcasting space. I would strike a note of caution on the calls to abolish the licence fee and replace it with general taxation or general exchequer funding. The question I have to ask is: where will the funding come from?


“Even in the worst of times for RTÉ, around €130 million was collected in 2023 in respect of licence fee sales. The overwhelming majority of people want to pay their licence fee, and while of course their confidence in the main public service broadcaster was badly damaged in 2023, I do think that that can be repaired.

“It’s a lot of money to walk away from. I’ve been through four budget negotiations as a minister in the Department of Public Expenditure and now in finance, and I know when it comes to finalising a budget that €130 million-plus is a lot of money and it’s not easy to find. I do not favour 100 per cent exchequer funding, because funding for RTÉ and other public service broadcasting would then be competing with the health service, education and other vital frontline services.”

Asked whether the fee, or a levy, could be collected through Revenue instead, he says: “Revenue Commissioners collect tax. That’s their primary statutory duty. I’m not in a position to confer any additional functions on the Revenue Commissioners. But, of course, I recognise that I and my department and the bodies under our aegis may have a role to play in the future in relation to ensuring that public service broadcasting is sustainably funded.”

McGrath speaks about a spate of arson attacks on buildings that have been either earmarked or falsely linked to emergency accommodation for asylum seekers. Those who are convicted of such offences “need to be punished”, he says. “They don’t speak for the Irish people and they don’t represent the values of the Irish people.

“We’re now accommodating about 100,000 people from Ukraine as well as international protection applicants, and all of that happened in a very short period of time. It has come on top of an already stretched accommodation situation. So there are accommodation pressures around the country, but none of that is an excuse for criminality and for attacks on property.

“It is difficult to know whether these acts originate within the community itself, whether they are copycat in nature, or whether we have people going around the country trading on fear, trading on rumours and attacking property. The Government will have to consider what is the appropriate response, but it’s not going to be possible to have 24-hour security at every publicly owned property in the country.”

He says the local and European elections in June will be “the first real test” of whether the politics of the far right have gained a foothold.

“We have to continue to stretch ourselves. We know it’s not easy but we have to do the very best we can to look after people who come here in genuine need while at the same time, for those who are not entitled to be here and who go through the process of seeking international protection and who are not successful, they need to be returned to their home country.”

This year will see McGrath deliver his second budget as Minister for Finance, but rumours persist that he may be in the running to become Ireland’s next European Commissioner, a role that will be up for grabs after the European elections this summer. McGrath does nothing to dampen this speculation. Asked if he would accept the job if it were offered, he replies: “Who knows what the future holds? I love the job that I’m doing and I’ve only been Minister for Finance for a year.

“I am at the very early stages of developing ideas for Budget 2025, and work is under way in that regard. It’s a great honour to be associated with roles that may come up in the future but I’ve always been very sanguine about these things. Life is very unpredictable. Who knows where any of us will be later on this year? And I’ve always taken the view that I cross every bridge when I come to it, and that is not one that has arisen at this point.”

Upping sticks to Brussels would not only be a big move for him; he has important family considerations too. McGrath lives with his wife, Sarah, in Cork with their five boys and two girls. How does he balance children and work?

“Well, I have a wonderful wife, Sarah. The kids are getting a little older. The youngest is eight years old, so Santa paid a visit over Christmas, which was lovely. I really enjoyed the time. Working parents, generally, will understand the juggling that is involved in working full time. We both work full time and raise children. It’s a trade-off. You’d love to have more time with them but you also have an important job to do and you want to set a good example about work ethic and having ambition and doing your best and making a difference.

“Life is very busy, it is very full. I enjoy spending all of my downtime with them, generally at their matches on the sidelines getting cold and enjoying the victories and the defeats and being there with them as much as I possibly can. But I think it is a juggle that all parents who work full time can relate to, whether you are the Minister for Finance or hold down any other role in the country.”

The Cork South Central TD has been mentioned in political circles as a potential leadership candidate for Fianna Fáil. When party TDs or Ministers are asked about their ambitions, they often demur and say there is no vacancy available at present. This doesn’t stop them answering how they would feel about potential future Coalition talks with Sinn Féin, however, especially as this could be Sinn Féin’s most direct route to power mathematically.

McGrath says he does not believe he can support Sinn Féin’s economic policies, including their plans to increase taxes on those who earn more than €100,000.

“They put forward the argument that increasing the burden of income tax on incomes over €100,000 won’t affect the vast majority of people. That is a fallacy because if you do not attract the key decision makers, who are generally the higher earners, to Ireland, then the other jobs will not follow. I think it would damage the Irish economy and I think it would cost jobs and it would make us less attractive. Those are policies that I couldn’t support, having spent my whole time in politics trying to help rebuild the Irish economy and make Ireland attractive.”

He also believes Sinn Féin “still have to account for their perspective on what happened in Northern Ireland over a number of decades. I think Sinn Féin still need to explain what is their perspective now – are they still of the view that those types of atrocities were justified? – in plain and simple language”.

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