‘Everybody hates you’. I was warned not to look at social media, but you know how it is. So when curiosity got the better of me and I opened Twitter on my phone early Friday morning, they were the first three words I read.
On Thursday I joined Fianna Fáil, and was appointed spokesperson on Brexit. The reaction on social media was a tsunami of abuse. The satire was at the most cutting edge of Irish wit. Some public figures I greatly admire shook their heads, publicly. A Kenyan friend of mine WhatsApp’d me from Nairobi – a Wicklow resident she knows had been in touch to see if she might intervene (true story). The questions at the press conference in the Dáil were delivered with a certain professional glee, and they were straight to the point – Why, given the myriad of criticisms you’ve made over the years of Fianna Fáil’s role in the crash, are you now joining them?
And there’s the obvious human question – Why, when you could’ve stayed safely on the Independent benches, would you invite such a torrent down upon yourself? I had, after all, a pretty good idea of how some would react, and it’s a deeply unpleasant thing to experience. I did what was hands down the worst interview of my six years in politics, on RTE’s Drivetime. I struggled to address a strong criticism of Fianna Fáil it was being insisted I had made. I paused (never pause). I said I didn’t know where the quote was from (never do that). I said it just didn’t sound like my language (stop digging), and was told it was from my own website (car crash). The clip was put online by Drivetime and devoured by an online hoard. That sanctimonious ass (me) was getting his just deserts (and in fairness, I had it coming).
As an aside, I checked the source afterwards and as I suspected, it wasn’t my language. I had been quoting a third party from a conversation back in 2011, who was reflecting that a culture associated with Fianna Fáil during the bubble would invariably now be seen in the incoming Fine Gael / Labour Government. But it doesn’t really matter, because the basic charge being levelled was the same one put repeatedly on Thursday – I was joining a political party I had been highly critical of in the past. And that charge is both accurate and fair.
So why do it? Right now, in spite of some genuine progress, Ireland is being driven in broadly the same direction that we see fracturing parts of Western society. This fracturing is giving rise to events like Brexit, American isolationism and the growth of far right-wing politics across Europe. If we continue down our current path, that fracturing will happen here, and arguably already is. And even if it doesn’t happen, these international events already pose the greatest economic threat Ireland has faced in decades.
Given this, the best way forward, for me, is to work with a strong political team, who I believe want to steer Ireland in a better direction, and who have the ideas, the ambition and the capability to navigate the choppy waters ahead. Based on the social and economic thinking and policies being put forward, I believe Ireland would be better served by a Fianna Fáil-led government than by a Fine Gael-led one.
I have levelled numerous criticisms at Fianna Fáil. I stand by those statements, and believe that policy decisions taken from about ten to fifteen years ago contributed significantly to the crash. But I’ve equally criticised Fine Gael and Labour, and believe that policy decisions they made in the last Dáil contributed significantly to unnecessary damage caused to so many people during the recession. So no matter what party I might join, it would be one whose policies I have been critical of, and I would, absolutely correctly, be held to account for what I had said about them previously.
But that discomfort pales in comparison to what matters in Ireland today. Nearly a decade on from the crash, Ireland should be in clear blue waters. We should be enjoying a gradual return to a stable and shared prosperity. Some things are going well, like the on-going fall in unemployment. But look through any Sunday paper, and you’ll see a menu of the challenges we’re facing. Domestically, there’s the obvious, in areas like housing, healthcare, child poverty and transport. And there’s the less obvious, in areas like education funding, pensions, infrastructure and the erosion of a stable tax base.
Internationally, the two obvious concerns for Ireland are Brexit and an increasingly isolationist America. But there are more subtle challenges too. If Marine Le Pen is elected, for example, she may seek to pull France out of the Euro, which could collapse the currency. There’s the imminent erosion of much of Ireland’s tax competitiveness. President Trump has told big business he’ll drop the US corporate tax rate to 15-20%. Prime Minister May is signalling that she may go below 15% (it was 30% in 2006). And Northern Ireland is moving its rate to 12.5% pretty soon. There’s the attempted relaunch by the European Commission of a policy that would spread out corporation tax receipts around Europe in a way that could wipe billions off our tax base. Any of these issues, on their own, would pose a material risk to our economy. But they’re all happening at the same time.
Why do I think a Fianna Fáil government would serve Ireland better in these times? Firstly, I see a party going back to its social democratic roots, emphasising a stable tax base, support for business, investment in public services and communities, and a shared prosperity.
Secondly, the party I’ve witnessed over the past six years is one that’s worked hard to move on. There are those who call this naivety on my part. Maybe, but my view is based on experience – over the past six years I’ve worked at close quarters with a fair number of Fianna Fáil TDs and Senators on three different Oireachtas Committees, and I’ve been consistently impressed.
Thirdly, the scale of the domestic and international challenges and opportunities we face requires some of the big, brave thinking of the Lemass era. And rightly or wrongly, I believe that potential’s there today. The stark reality we have to address is that the socio-economic model that we’ve been using in the Western world isn’t working for too many people, nor for the planet. The result is less opportunity, and more instability, for too many people. The centre – both the centre left and centre right – need to reimagine the way forward. We need to figure out, very quickly, how to grow socially and economically in ways that are both inclusive and sustainable. That is the challenge of our times, and the stakes – both the risks and opportunities – cannot be overstated.
What I did this week wasn’t done lightly. I knew some people would react negatively, and would have preferred me to stay Independent. These are my reasons, and I fully respect those who do not agree with them.
Now, it’s on to Brexit – ensuring that the rights of the citizens of Northern Ireland are protected, that our Irish companies are given every possible support, that Ireland’s voice is heard clearly in the upcoming negotiations, and much more.