- 19 May 10
As the youngest member of the Fine Gael front-bench, Leo Varadker has a reputation for being forthright and abrasive. But it turns out that the 31-year-old doctor has a sensitive side too, as he discusses sex, politics, the loss of privacy and the boys club that is Dáil Éireann.
“People tell me that all the time. You’re literally about the sixth person to say it to me today. I think it’s because I tend to slouch when I’m on TV.”
Standing well over six feet, Fine Gael’s enterprise spokesperson Leo Varadkar – or ‘Varad-the-Impaler’, as the Sunday Times have dubbed him – is surprisingly tall. He’s also surprisingly familiar, casually greeting your Hot Press correspondent as though we’ve known each other for years. We’ve never met before, but he tells me that he remembers my own unsuccessful Dáil run for the Cannabis Legalisation Party in the 1997 general election. The mixed-race Castleknock GP was 18 at the time.
Already named by Enda Kenny as a possible future Cabinet member, Varadkar’s promotion to Fine Gael’s front-bench has been remarkably swift. He was elected to the Dail in 2007, snatching Dublin West’s second of three seats from the Socialist Party’s Joe Higgins. While Higgins’ polished wit and razor sharp oratorical skills have been badly missed by many Dáil observers, Varadkar has certainly been holding his own in the entertainment stakes. He wasn’t even “a wet week in the House” (to use Bertie Ahern’s phrase) when he infuriated the disgraced former Taoiseach by asking questions about his murky personal finances.
He’s been making his mark since. Various radical right-wing policy suggestions, such including the notion that we should pay unemployed foreign immigrants to return home, have kept him in the headlines. However, although considered Fine Gael’s boy wonder, he does make the occasional gaffe. Recently, he scored an own goal and embarrassed his party by comparing Brian Cowen’s dismal political record to Garret FitzGerald’s thus: “You’re no Sean Lemass, you’re no Jack Lynch and you’re no John Bruton. You’re a Garret Fitzgerald. You’ve tripled the national debt. You’ve officially destroyed the country.”
He’s friendly and polite, raving about a recent short holiday in Cuba over the Easter holidays, and absolutely insisting on paying for our coffees in the Leinster House cafe.
OLAF TYARANSEN: Your father was an Indian GP and you grew up in Castleknock. What kind of upbringing did you have?
LEO VARADKAR: A relatively uneventful one [laughs]. Mum and Dad are still alive. He’s from India originally, and studied there, and then emigrated to England, which was quite common at the time. My Mum’s from Waterford, and she’s a nurse. She went to England separately and they got together there and married there. They moved back to Ireland in ’73. So, I was a local GP’s son.
Do you have any siblings?
Two big sisters. Sophie and Sonia. Sophie’s in London now, she’s a consultant over there. And Sonia is here in Dublin. She’s a midwife by training. And she just had twins there a couple of weeks ago. I have four nieces and nephews.
In school, did you ever get any hassle for having a darker shade of skin?
I don’t think I’ve ever really been subjected to any kind of overt racism. Now, the fact that you are the local doctor’s kid sort of insulates you, because you might be different to let’s say someone who might be an asylum-seeker or somebody who has just come into the country with no background in the community, or whatever.
And were you a rebellious kid?
I wasn’t particularly rebellious.
You were a teenager in the '90s – what kind of music were you listening to?
A bit of everything. It would have been very boring Britpop – Blur and Oasis, that kind of stuff.
You weren’t into rave culture or the dance scene?
Not really, no.
Did you ever experiment with ecstasy or any other illegal drugs as a teen?
Now, that came quickly! [laughs]. What did Brian Cowen say to you, again? Not since I’ve held elected office, anyway. I’ve been extremely law-abiding since I’ve been elected to politics.
Have you ever smoked cannabis?
I did a bit in my college years, yeah. But I wouldn’t be advocating that anybody else do the same – particularly being more aware now of the evidence linking cannabis smoking to schizophrenia.
What’s your take on the head shop debate?
I think it’s kind of curious the extent to which the attacks on the head shops are being carried out by drug dealers. It really shows the extent to which the main opponents of any form of legalisation or regularisation of drugs are those who are making a fortune out of selling unsafe, dangerous, drugs that are not properly monitored in any way whatsoever. So I think that’s an interesting education for us.
Do you think they should be banned?
It would be almost impossible to actually ban head shops because they’ll always be one step ahead of the law, and it might make more sense to try and regulate them. We don’t ban tobacco, we don’t ban alcohol, we don’t ban caffeine – not that I’m equating mephedrone with those sort of drugs. But I think you need to have some sort of rational basis on which you decide which substances are legal and which ones aren’t, and which ones you allow people to use, and under what circumstances. I don’t think you can have a situation where you allow people to sell drugs and try and pass them off as bath salts or plant food. Like, that’s making a mockery of the law, but I think our failure to have a proper legislative framework makes that happen.
You studied medicine. Given that your father was a doctor, was that preordained?
Looking back on it, the real reason why I did medicine was because it was the family business. And it was kind of what I was expected to do. And even now, I suppose particularly my Mum, would look down on politics as not being a noble profession. You know, you should be a lawyer – not even a lawyer, you should be a doctor or a priest! I actually studied law for a couple of weeks. And then I got an upgrade in my points in the Leaving Cert and got the points for medicine. And I went into it, and I didn’t really like it for the first couple of years. And that’s how I got more involved in politics, particularly in college, debating, all that kind of stuff. And it was really only in the clinical years, when I started getting into hospitals, that I actually started to like it.
Are there many doctors in Leinster House?
Six or seven. It can be a bit of a pain in the ass because they have a system here whereby if any sort of minor injury happens or minor emergency they’ll call one of the doctors in the House. You don’t mind if it’s a real emergency, but often somebody’s cut their finger, or a visitor feels faint. You get called more because the House is trying to cover its own ass, than because anyone actually needs medical assistance.
Your father was a Hindu. Did you ever consider Hinduism?
My parents, I think, made a very strategic decision there that we would be brought up in the religion, and in the culture of the country that we grew up in. And I think I’m kind of glad they did that. I wouldn’t like to be brought up as a foreigner in my own country. But I’m not a religious person. I might go to mass maybe at Christmas, but yeah, I’m not a confessional person. I don’t necessarily believe it all, you know.
Do you believe in God?
I do believe in God, but I’m not sure I believe in all the doctrines of the Catholic Church.
Do you believe in an afterlife?
I don’t know. I think I probably do. I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t an afterlife. I guess I won’t find that one out. I’d love to know, though.
Explain the difference between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
The big difference, and the reason I joined Fine Gael, is values. There’s really two things that make the parties very different. The first thing is that Fine Gael is the party that likes to tell the truth. It’s the party that will tell people the truth even when they don’t want to hear it. We did that with things like benchmarking, the wage agreement, decentralisation, neutrality, all that kind of stuff, whereas Fianna Fáil is the party that’s naturally inclined to find a white lie, or a formula of words, that’ll keep everyone on board. So, if there is a problem, we try and fix it, whereas they try and buy it out. Unfortunately, that means that we usually end up in opposition because the other way is the more naturally Irish way of doing things. Maybe that’s about to change.
A cynic might say that Fine Gael would be better off in opposition for the next few years, given the problems that have to be sorted.
Yeah, we have this discussion within Fine Gael and there’s no consensus on it, as to whether we’d prefer the election to be now or later. Some people say later because, you know, let Fianna Fáil fix their own mess. And then we get in, in 2012. I would be of the other school of thought, which is I’d prefer to see it now. First of all, because we’d win. And there isn’t a guarantee that we’d win in 2012 – people are funny.
How do you mean?
If there is an upturn, that core 35%, of Fianna Fail supporters might come to the conclusion that, ‘Ah sure, they led us into the crisis, but sure they led us through it too’. And they might go back to them, so I wouldn’t assume we’ll definitely get in if we go for the long game. Secondly, if you get in now, there’s changes that people would accept that would have been impossible in the past. And it would actually be a good time to be in government from that point of view. It’s all down to whether you’re up for it or not.
Didn’t Mary Harney once say that “your worst day in government is better than your best day in opposition”?
Yeah. I haven’t had any days in government myself, but I’d like to find out if that’s true! [laughs] I suspect it probably is. At least you can do things.
Eamon Gilmore seems to think that he’s going to be the next Taoiseach.
So I hear. I can understand why he’s going for it. He’s hardly going to turn up at his conference and say, ‘Vote for me so I can be Enda Kenny’s Tánaiste’. Because, having ruled-out Fianna Fáil, that’s the only option. And things are so volatile now, nothing is impossible. I think it’s highly unlikely, but it’s a long shot. It would be the same as us arguing for an overall majority. It’s what we’re aiming for. It’s a possibility, but not a probability.
Kenny has ruled out any coalition with Sinn Féin, which some people regard as a mistake.
What he said, as far as I remember, is that he’d rule out a coalition with Sinn Féin because they have an army, essentially. Because they have the IRA.
Well, not any more.
Well, they do. It still exists.
But it’s decommissioned, isn’t it?
The weapons are decommissioned. I’m not an expert, but as far as I know the organisation still exists, and they still have an army council, and all the structures in around it. And you can’t have a party in government that has a private army and has a private court system and you-name-it. So, I would agree that as long as that exists we couldn’t do business. But I suppose if they were to disband the IRA – and give up all their policies [laughs] – we’d have to consider it. But I don’t see that happening.
What’s your take on NAMA?
The Anglo thing in particular really makes me furious. A lot of times in politics you have to sort of put on anger sometimes, or feign emotions, in order to show that you connect with people. But Anglo really pisses me off.
There’s a theory going around that it’s being bailed out solely in order to save the reputations of certain politicians.
I don’t know about politicians, but it’s being bailed out unnecessarily at an expense of €15billion to all of us, and that’s the kind of money that could be either not borrowed, or spent on so many different things. I can almost live with some of the other aspects of it, like Bank of Ireland, or AIB, but the Anglo thing and [Irish] Nationwide didn’t have to happen. And I think it has made the country kind of toxic as well because there’s so much anger out there. Most reasonable people understand that there’s a couple of rough years ahead, and that sacrifices are going to have to be made. But the thing that makes it impossible to bring people along is the injustice that they see with the banks. And I think in order to move the country on you are going to need some sort of catharsis. First of all, with a change of government, which is part of that. And then secondly, either if we can reverse some of the stuff with the banks – or actually see some of the people who were responsible for what was done with the banks pay.
Are you suggesting someone like Patrick Neary should have his pension taken away?
Patrick Neary? Absolutely, yeah. He got a big bloody golden handshake. You can see the difference now between Elderfield and Neary. Elderfield was the guy we needed five years ago. So Neary did a lousy job for five years, got paid a fortune, and then got a golden handshake, and now gets a massive pension. I think there should be a law that would allow the Oireachtas to take pensions away from people. That would go for corrupt politicians, it would go for public servants who failed miserably, or were incompetent. They have it in America – policemen in America lose their pensions, lose their jobs. It doesn’t happen in Ireland though. There’s no consequences. Rody Molloy would be another one.
Is there not a risk here of scapegoating people?
I’m sorry that politicians didn’t stand up to Neary sooner. Like, it would have been known around here that people didn’t think that he was really up to the job, that he was almost appointed deliberately not to be up to the job. To be a kind of a – not so much a light touch, but just kind of a soft touch. And I don’t think that people were brave enough in politics to say that sooner.
In fairness, if you think Fianna Fáil were allowed to get away with outrageous stuff it suggests that Fine Gael and Labour, to a large extent, were toothless.
I think that’s kind of half-true. In the last couple of years we’ve been much more willing to put the boot in. I think maybe before the last election we weren’t, but then I’m not entirely convinced people were ready to hear it. Like, people often criticise our manifesto in the last election, they say – rightly – that we used the same projections as the government, and that we made similar sort of promises. But at the same time, would people really have bought a message that [said], ‘Vote for us, and we’ll cut your pay and increase your taxes’? You have to bring people with you as well.
Where do you see yourself in the cabinet if Fine Gael win the next election?
Em… in the realpolitik, you get what you’re given. I would be delighted – whether we have 15 seats in the cabinet or 10 – I’d be delighted to be asked. I’m very lucky to get on the front bench so quickly, so I wouldn’t assume that would necessarily happen. I would like to be in a Department that has a budget and has a bit of power. I wouldn’t like to be in a Ministry where you couldn’t actually do things.
How about Health?
I’d love to do Health, but I think James Reilly has first call on that. He has done a great job as spokesperson.
How do you rate Mary Harney’s performance?
I’d rate her higher than other people do. I think she gets a lot of stick from the public and from the media. And it’s a very tough job. But I think she has a lot of courage. And what she has done, with varying degrees of success, is stand up to vested interests. She stood up to the consultants, she stood up to pharmacists, stood up to the drugs industry, she’s prepared to stand up to unions. She’s made a lot of mistakes as well – the HSE is a disaster. And she is wrong about the two-tier system. There’s two kinds of politicians – there’s ones who are actually prepared to go in there with an agenda and fight battles. And there’s ones who are prepared to just be the minister, and be driven around and advised what to do by civil servants. And she’s more the type that I’d like to be.
Why did you got promoted to the front bench of Fine Gael so quickly?
I don’t know. I have theories [laughs]. Obviously if we had won the election I wouldn’t have been in government, but having not won the election Enda would have been thinking more of the longer game, of people who were going to be around in 2012, so he was inclined to pick some new people, and he did.
You called Bertie Ahern a liar in the Dail within weeks of getting elected.
Did I call him a liar? I can’t remember if I actually used that word, maybe I did.
You didn’t use the word ‘liar’, but that’s what was implied.
Yeah, well he didn’t tell the truth [laughs]. I think in your first year or so you tend to speak your mind more. And one thing that I found hard is that, particularly when you are a councillor, when you are starting off in politics, most people are ignoring what you have to say. And then, all of a sudden when you get to a certain level in politics, when you have a certain profile, people start to listen to everything you have to say, and often overanalyse it. And that’s when you kind of get into the gaffe space.
So you consider it was a gaffe?
I’m not sure if I would call him a liar now, but I think it is absolutely the case that he didn’t tell the truth on a number of occasions in relation to stuff in the tribunal. I think I made the right call on Bertie. He did some things – like you’ll never take the Peace Process away from him. And he did do that very well, but on the economy he was a disaster. And when it came to various issues involving his personal finances, he didn’t tell the truth.
You also attacked Brian Cowen…
Well, the same thing applies to Cowen. There has to be some responsibility. People are inclined now to blame [Charlie] McCreevy for the mess more than Cowen – I have no evidence behind this, it’s just my own kind of personal theory is that McCreevy did allow things to run out of control.
“Spend it when you have it!”
Absolutely. But then he actually started to rein things in, and was very much of the view that now we need to start reining in spending, reining in lending. And then Bertie Ahern had his Inchydoney moment, and decided that, ‘Sure, we couldn’t have this,’ and dispatched him off to Brussels and put Brian Cowen in, who then was a non-Minister, literally, was at the wheel of the car, but not driving. So, I actually think he is more responsible than anyone else, perhaps other than Bertie, for the economic crisis.
Did you get chastised by Enda Kenny for taking a sideswipe at Garret FitzGerald during your attack on Cowen?
I did a little. It was one of those things. I was in the chamber, didn’t plan to say anything like that, and was in a heated debate and I was kind of throwing a grenade at Brian Cowen. I actually wasn’t aiming for Garret at all, that’s just how it happened. Maybe more appropriately I threw a pin rather than a grenade! But I saw it on the nine o’clock news, and I just thought, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be a problem’. And I rang Enda the next day just to apologise to him for causing embarrassment to the party, and for taking the focus off the reshuffle, because I spent 10 minutes making a detailed critique on the reshuffle, which was actually very good, and that got ignored. And all the media focus was on the 25 seconds of circus. But he was very decent about it, he kind of accepted that it was… I mean, some of what I said was true, some of it wasn’t, but he sort of accepted that it was a mistake. He would have mentioned one or two things that he said in the past, and then one thing he did mention was the “flawed pedigree” thing, which Garret did himself! I had thought, ‘This is going to be a real disaster’. But the only concern I have now is it’s going to be replayed for the rest of my bloody life! Which is a serious risk.
Explain your proposal that Ireland should pay foreign immigrants to return to their home country.
Yeah, you can spin out a lot of ideas and a lot of policies, and the ones that get coverage are the ones that are soundbite friendly. It’s often the kind of wackier stuff, or the stranger stuff, that gets coverage. Now, on that particular occasion, I read about the scheme they have in Spain, and at a committee meeting, asked about it, as to whether the people who were at the committee meeting – department officials, FAS and a few others – thought it was a good idea. And that’s how that became a big deal.
Did they think it was a good idea?
As it happens, the government actually does it now. It’s called the ‘European Return Fund’. It’s funded by the EU and it funds voluntary repatriations for foreign nationals in the EU. But, you know, that would have been the serious debate, but unfortunately it turns into something else. Particularly if you touch on racism in any way, it can be very dangerous. It’s a shame because I think we need to be able to talk about immigration, but these are all kind of hot rail issues, that if you even talk about them you are immediately characterised.
Do you think that Ireland made a mistake by, as some people put it, “opening the flood gates” to a wave of immigrants?
I’m around long enough now to never use the term ‘flood gates’ [laughs]. That’s exactly one of those kinds of terms that can be used to misrepresent you, but I do think that we were unprepared. And this is very obvious, if you go back to the debate about the Nice Treaty – the Nice Treaty in Ireland was sold as a treaty on enlargement, and it more or less was. And everyone, including Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, at the time, Labour, everyone who was supporting the Treaty said that there wouldn’t be – after enlargement – there wouldn’t be a lot of immigration from countries in Europe. And there was. All the other countries in the EU brought in transition arrangements, but Britain and Ireland didn’t. And as a result we had 200,000 people, maybe more, came to the country from Poland, from Lithuania, from other countries, often to work in our economy, but also fuelling our economy at a time when it shouldn’t have been fuelled. And we weren’t prepared for that. We hadn’t organised ourselves for it economically; we hadn’t organised ourselves for it in terms of schools. I don’t know if anyone can turn that into a racist statement, they can try their best! But it just happens to be the truth
You suggested that Irish prisoners should pay for their own food and board.
Again, that was a parliamentary question in the Dáil, and I’m a bit wiser now about asking questions. What I was getting at there, and I still think this is valid, is that the CAB can go after people who have assets if they can prove – if they can more or less prove – that they acquired those assets through criminal means. But yet there are people in our prisons, not a lot of them, but there are some, who acquired their wealth through criminal means, but because the CAB can’t prove it they can’t take that money. Maybe they should. So, we’ll say a major banker – if, for example, Sean Fitzpatrick ends up in jail, and he might, he could still be drawing his very large pension, and we’d have to pay for his incarceration. It was that kind of scenario I was thinking about. But again, it’s so easy to misrepresent it into, you know, ‘Crazy Tory Right-Winger Leo Varadkar Wants To ….
Would you describe yourself as a right-winger?
Yeah. Centre-right, anyway. In Ireland that’s a difficult term to use. I think most countries understanding of things is a bit better, but in Ireland left-wing means you’re a good person, right-wing means you’re a bad person, which is a very unsophisticated way of interpreting politics.
Define ‘centre-right’ for me.
To be somebody who is right of centre is somebody who has broadly liberal-conservative/Christian-democrat ideals, and the basic principles of that is that before you can distribute wealth you have to create it. So the first thing that you need to do is set up an environment in which wealth can be created, and then it’s the role of the government to distribute it reasonably equitably. Whereas if you’re on the left you start the other way. You say, ‘There is this cake, now let’s divide it up’. If you are on the right, you say you have to make the cake before you can divide it up. Ireland is a country where the vast majority of people have a centre-right mindset and vote that way, but yet they can’t say that, because ‘right’ is a bad word. So they kind of delude themselves into being left-wing because that makes them a good person, but they actually think, act, and vote in a right-of-centre way. And to me that’s irrational.
Did you get burned at all in the economic crash?
Not in the way other people did. One of the great things about politics is you get to meet all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds. And everyone in every group in society thinks they’re the ones who have been singled out, and they’re the ones who suffer the most. And it isn’t true. Everyone thinks politicians are out of touch, but in reality most people are only in touch with themselves, and they’re of their peer group and their friends and their family. Politicians actually have to be in touch because we are the ones who actually have to talk to farmers on Monday, self-employed people on Tuesday, private sector on Thursday, public sector on Friday, and the people who have really been burned are people who lost their jobs. They’re the ones who have really been burned. And the second group, which, really nothing is being done about, are the people squeezed by personal debt, and that’s going to become an even bigger issue.
How do you rate the Greens’ performance in government?
I think Gormley has definitely approached things in a very arrogant way, and you can see that more and more, whereas Ryan is sort of Fianna Fáil’s favourite Green. He is the guy who, more and more, is wheeled out to defend the Fianna Fáil line, and does it very well and very articulately. But a lot of the time he is actually bluffing, and that’s starting to become obvious now. But, as a party, I don’t condemn them for being in government. They achieved absolutely nothing in 20 years in opposition – or almost nothing – and then in two or three years in government they have managed to do things that they want to do. I don’t necessarily agree with them, but for example the bill on abolishing stag hunting was published today; they are doing a lot of things on planning development, a lot of which I agree with, actually. They have done some good things on the energy front as well. So, I think when they leave government they will be able to point to specific achievements, in their departments. And I think they’re thinking a bit like the German Greens.
How do you mean?
The German Greens were a bit like our Greens, they started off as a party of protest, you know, Petra Kelly and all them got into government for the first time, were then annihilated, but actually came back five years later with Joschka Fischer and so on, as a mainstream party of government. And I think that’s their plan. They’re a policy-driven party, and they think long-term. I think they will suffer very badly in the next election, but if you take the long view they’ll actually at least be able to show that they achieved some things, and then come back in 2017, or whatever, as a different type of party.
In recent months we’ve seen two senior Fianna Fail figures forced to resign – Willie O’Dea and John O’Donoghue. But they didn’t leave the House. Do you think Willie O’Dea should have, considering the extent of the scandal?
Em… I haven’t really thought about that.
Surely you can’t say that it’s unacceptable for a Minister to do this, but a sitting TD can.
Yeah, you can’t really say there’s a higher standard for Ministers than for Deputies. I don’t think that would be a sustainable position. But I think the Willie O’Dea thing is probably more complicated. What he did was he made a false statement under oath, and then corrected it, and he would claim that he corrected it only after he heard the recordings and remembered what he had said. Now, who knows? I don’t remember everything I said, so I’m not going to throw stones in that regard. But he handled it very badly. I actually think if he had come out in December, put his hands up and his cards on the table – to mix metaphors – and said, ‘Here’s the story,’ he actually would have got away with it. The fact that he didn’t do that and the fact that he then tried to present himself as the victim is actually what cost him his head. It’s often in politics how you handle the crisis, and not the crisis itself, that determines the outcome. You know, what Trevor Sargent did was potentially worse. What he did was, broke the law, wrote three or four letters – three or four threatening letters – to a young Garda, and he didn’t resign in disgrace because he handled it well. He has actually almost emerged with his reputation enhanced, even though the case against him is much more clear-cut than the case against O’Dea. So it’s a funny game, isn’t it?
Three of the Moriarty Tribunal lawyers earned almost a million euros each in the last year. Meanwhile, the judges have admitted to making mistakes. Is this not just a farce?
I don’t know if it’s a farce. It definitely shouldn’t have gone on for 13 years, and the fact that they are admitting – if the reports in the newspapers are correct – that they made mistakes is very worrying. It would be hard to have confidence in what’s happening. The situation with Moriarty isn’t looking good. For the last six months we were told that the report was imminent, and now it seems that they are going back to call witnesses again.
The general perception is that this is just lawyers making money and there is no political will to see an end to it because even your own party won’t come out of it well.
I have seen some people going around trying to condemn the tribunal, and condemn Moriarty. You know, it was established by the Oireachtas, and it is investigating a former Fine Gael Minister, and it is investigating some issues relating to Fine Gael, as well as other people in other parties. And I think if we were to come out and start slagging off the tribunal now, it might be misinterpreted as us trying to rubbish the findings before they’re even published, which is why people are being cautious about it. But I definitely think if you take all the tribunals in totality, from Beef through Mahon through Moriarty to you-name-it, it’s not the way we need to investigate things. It’s massive expense with very few results, and a very long time. I don’t see why we can’t have public inquiries like the Iraq Inquiry in Britain, like the Banking Inquiry in Iceland.
Do you think the Gardaí should be armed?
Apparently a lot of them already are. I don’t think it should be the case that all Gardaí are armed at all times in the way that they would be, for example, in New York, but I definitely think they should be properly equipped.
What’s your opinion on same-sex marriage?
I have no problem with civil partnership, and that bill is going through the House now, and I’ll be voting for it. I do think that marriage is separate. And marriage in our Constitution is very clear that it’s a man marrying a woman, largely with a view to having a natural family, and if they are unable to do that, obviously then they can adopt. And I would be of the view that it doesn’t have to be the case for everyone, but that the preferable construct in a society is the traditional family, and the State through its laws should protect that and promote that. And that doesn’t mean to say that other people can’t have a different form of relationship, or different choices in their lives, and lots of people do, and that’s fine. But I don’t think that the government should be neutral on that, and that the best thing for – and this would be backed up by evidence – that the best thing for children is to be brought up by their father and their mother, a man and a woman, in a stable relationship underwritten by marriage. And I think the State should support that.
Do you think that homosexual sex is morally wrong?
But you describe yourself as a Christian Democrat?
Christian democracy is a political philosophy, it’s not a religious one. Obviously the Bible has severe statements on homosexual sex, but I don’t think it’s morally wrong. The reason why we don’t use the term ‘Christian democracy’ in Ireland is because it’s not understood in Ireland. In Germany and most European countries they understand it because there’s been a long tradition of Christian democratic politics. It’s not a political philosophy that means you have to sign up to everything in the Bible. To be honest, I’m not a religious person. If anything I’m an agnostic - though I’d share a lot of Christian values.
Are you in a relationship?
No. I’m totally, absolutely, single. But I’m going to need to do something about that now. I’m getting old – I’m 31!
Is being a politician a good means of attracting the opposite sex?
I don’t think so, because politics is very lonely. It’s strange: you are surrounded by people all the time, but you’re also kind of on your own as well. And even now, I’d have a lot of friends who I had in the past, who I sort of drifted away from, for various reasons, and I suppose over the last year or two as I have become more prominent, or whatever, a lot of them are all of a sudden interested in getting to know me again. One part of your head says, ‘That’s great, you know, it’s just an old friend trying to make contact with you again because they saw you in the news’. And then the other side of your head is saying, ‘Well, this is a former friend who didn’t want to know me when I was trying to get elected and needed people to send out leaflets, and all of a sudden wants to be my friend again’.
And the same is true of women?
You’d have the same thing with personal relationships, you know – you’d wonder if somebody is attracted to you or is it because that they really want to get to know you as a person better, or are they attracted to the persona? People are funny about politicians, and I suppose it’s the same with anybody who has a certain degree of celebrity, or whatever – not that I want to say that I’m a celebrity! – that normal judgements don’t apply, that people can totally lift you up to be something that you’re not, and at the same time, totally denigrate you to be this demon that you’re not. And that can be the same way with personal relationships as well, and that makes it very hard, actually. I was going to say that the best political relationships are people who have wives or husbands who are totally not involved in politics, but then, at the same time there are great partnerships there as well. If you look at Bill and Hilary, notwithstanding their difficulties [laughs], there is a great partnership there. Even David Cameron and Sam Cameron. And I think it would be great to have that kind of partnership.
Have you ever had a long-term relationship?
Not really. I’ve had short-term ones, but not long-term. I’ve never lived with anyone.
You haven’t got your eye on anybody in the House?
No [laughs]. One of the big problems here is the lack of women. It’s one of the things I find really weird about politics. I grew up in a house with two big sisters, a mother who was very much in charge of everything except the Practice. [She was] in charge of the money in the house and everything, and I went to a co-ed primary school, a co-ed secondary school, co-ed medical college – particularly in college there’s mostly women. It wouldn’t be unusual to be working under a female registrar, a female consultant – and then you arrive here! It’s the first boys’ club I have ever been involved in. It’s very strange. And you’ve to go down to a parliamentary party meeting and there might be 50 people there, and 47 of them are men. I find that weird. Now, I can see other people don’t find it weird because it’s maybe what they were used to. The Dáil is quite reflective of Irish society in a lot of ways, but one way it really isn’t is on the gender side. And I think that’s really, really, strange. And meetings are different – like a meeting that has one-third or half women in it is a different meeting, than one that’s 90% men.
A more constructive meeting?
Yeah, I think so. Less territorial anyway.
Do you think abortion should be legalised in Ireland?
I don’t, in short.
Even though there are in excess of 5,000 women a year leaving Ireland to go and have abortions in the UK and elsewhere.
I don’t think you can stop people travelling overseas. There are other things that are legal in other countries, and we don’t say to Irish people that you are a criminal for going overseas and doing things that are legal there. You have to allow people their personal freedom in that regard. But, I suppose the bottom line is where you see life starting. In Ireland when we talk about the abortion issue, people get very obsessed about what your view is on the Church or not. And, you know, if you’re pro-Church then you’re anti-abortion; and if you’re anti-Church then you are pro-choice without ever thinking about it in any depth. Through my Dad being Hindu, and always being aware of other religions and other ways of thinking – like, Buddhists are very clear that life begins at conception – but Hindus have hundreds of Gods, and some of them have heads like elephants and sixteen arms, and yet in Hinduism – for example, Gandhi was asked about abortion, and he said that, ‘Surely it’s a crime’. So we’d do great service to ourselves in Ireland if we got away from the pro- and anti-clerical argument, and actually had a human rights argument about it. And I think from a human rights point of view I wouldn’t be in favour of legalising abortion in Ireland. But I certainly don’t condemn people who have abortions. I can’t imagine it’s an easy decision anyone makes.
Do you have a temper?
Yeah, I do. I’m generally good-natured. I think I’m very good-natured, but… you can definitely get a rise out of me. I’m trying to work on that. And definitely if I’m tired, or stressed, or under pressure, or have three million things to do, I can be kind of ratty. I see that in myself and I regret it when it happens, but that’s just the way it is.
What really pisses you off?
Well, one of the things that really frustrates me is time-wasting. In some ways, I’m not a natural politician because I find it very hard to have meetings that are a waste of time, or meetings just for the sake of them, or having to have a conversation with somebody who repeats the same point 16 times, because I am kind of snappy and very efficient in my conversations. I find that frustrating. The other thing I find very hard in politics is you really have no privacy. Some politicians love that. They love the notoriety of everyone recognising them in the shop, and saying hello to everyone they meet, whereas I’m actually a private person. And I miss being able to have a drink in my local pub, which I can’t do anymore, or being able to go to the shops without every second person staring at me and looking at my basket to see what I’m buying! I find that really, really, hard. But then it kind of messes with your mind at the same time, because like, say you go into a restaurant and it’s in your constituency, and you know everyone’s looking at you and notices you’re there, that can sort of annoy you a bit. But then you have to remind yourself that you put stupid pictures of your face up on the poles, and knocked on their doors uninvited, and you kind of asked for it. But then on another day you might go in and nobody notices you, and then you get worried! And you decide ‘I better put out a leaflet’ [laughs]. So it kind of messes with your mind.
Are you emotional?
Not really, no. I don’t think so.
Would you welcome a general election in the next 12 months?
Yeah, the sooner the better as far as I’m concerned.
- Lifestyle & Sports
- 17 May 22