- 07 Nov 17
Alan Shatter’s political career came crashing down, when he was forced to resign as Minister for Justice in 2014. The former Fine Gael TD believes that he was cynically betrayed by the ex-Taoiseach Enda Kenny – and by the party. In a powerful interview to coincide with the publication of his new memoir, there burns an incendiary indignation – and a fierce scepticism about the new Fine Gael. Interview: Jason O’Toole
After wrapping up several hours of an in-depth interview spread over two days, Alan Shatter is in a good mood. “You have enough there to generate some degree of controversy,” he says with a grin.
The retired politician knows what he is talking about. He is used to hitting the headlines – most dramatically when, in March 2014, under pressure from the then-Taoiseach Enda Kenny, he resigned as Minister for Justice and Equality, following criticism in the (Seán) Guerin Report concerning a series of Garda controversies. Alan Shatter’s actions as Minister were subsequently vindicated by the O’Higgins Commission, and in the Court of Appeal. But the fall-out from those events rumbles on, with a Supreme Court appeal, taken by Seán Guerin, looming. It’s an issue about which, during the interview, he expresses an incendiary outrage.
Under the shadow of those events, Alan – first elected to the Dáil in 1981 – lost his South Dublin seat in the 2016 General Election. Since then, he has turned his hand to writing. An old pro at the scribbling game, he is the author of four major academic books on Irish family law. He also wrote the satire Family Planning Irish Style, published in 1979 and Laura, a novel about a TD who gets his secretary pregnant and cajoles her into going to England for an abortion.
The 66-year-old started to write a memoir on the controversies of 2014, the backdrop to them and subsequent events. But he decided to change tack, working instead on a powerfully honest account of his Irish Jewish childhood, entitled Life is a Funny Business. He plans now to focus on finishing his political memoir. It’s a book that will have his political foes quaking in their boots, if it’s as forthright as this Hot Press Interview.
Jason O’Toole: Will you throw your hat into the political ring again?
Alan Shatter: I don’t know. I’m currently – apart from one or two honourable exceptions – something of a pariah to the leadership of Fine Gael! I’d hoped that there might be a change of atmosphere with Enda Kenny’s departure, but there’s no evidence of that. It’s highly unlikely that I’ll be a Fine Gael candidate in the next election – for a variety of reasons I won’t bore you with (laughs).
Would you consider jumping ship to a different political party?
It isn’t something that’s even crossed my mind.
But you wouldn’t rule out running as an independent?
I’ve made no definitive decisions. And that’s not a smart answer. It’s unlikely that I will. But life changes, circumstances change. I doubt if my wife would be hugely enthusiastic for me to return!
ON ABORTION, LEO VARADKAR AND THE PURPOSE OF FINE GAEL
As a private citizen will you campaign to repeal the 8th Amendment?
I’ll do what I can – provided what’s proposed is something I believe is right.
You’d agree that what we need to do is trust women to manage their bodily autonomy?
In 1992, I put on the Dáil record that at the very minimum the law should be changed to facilitate terminations by women who are victims of rape or fatal foetal abnormality, or as a result of incest. If there’s an issue surrounding not just the future life but the future health of the mother, I think the women must make that decision as to whether a pregnancy should be discontinued. I don’t think others have a right to say to a woman who’s pregnant, ‘You must have this child, even though we know medically you’re future health will be permanently damaged’. Men shouldn’t be making those decisions for women because men never will find themselves in those circumstances.
Should the abortion pill not be available – end of story?
I believe it should be available.
There’s a fundamental difference between the pro-choice and the anti-choice campaigns, in that the latter want to impose a regime on everyone, whereas the pro-choice people are forcing nothing on anyone...
Yeah. It’s also important that a referendum is successful. My concern is that if there’s a referendum held it is likely to be confined to allowing a termination only in the current circumstances and fatal foetal abnormality – that it may not be extended to victims of rape; or to circumstances where there’s a very serious risk to future health of the mother if a pregnancy is maintained.
The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar hasn’t said much on Repealing the 8th.
I think, from my experience, Leo’s main focus in politics is self-promotion. Leo would adopt whatever view he thinks will benefit his own self-promotion. He was presenting himself as pro-life in the context of being in favour of the 1983 Article as recently as 2010. He had a particular minority view that he was expressing then in Fine Gael. Frankly, I don’t know what his current view is. But I’m sure when he’s tested the opinion polls, and having worked out what might result in some level of both media and public applause, he’ll then declare what his view is.
Are you saying that if Leo felt it was in his interest to keep the referendum very limited – to only include fatal foetal abnormalities and exclude cases of rape – that he’d do so?
I think he’ll make the decision based on his best interests – not necessarily on women’s best interests. I hope I’m proved wrong. I do think it’ll be very difficult for any politician to retain credibility and propose a constitutional amendment that didn’t also extend the possibility of a termination to victims of rape. But I’m not convinced that it will go any further.
When we checked back, we saw that in his last Hot Press interview, Leo said he was against same sex marriage.
Haha! It was my job as Minister for Justice (and Equality) to bring the proposal to Cabinet to hold a marriage equality referendum. There was some resistance within Fine Gael. In the autumn of 2013, I brought to Cabinet the proposal that we hold a referendum in the spring of 2015. Leo was one of the people I thought on that occasion would be likely to oppose the marriage equality referendum. But my recollection was he didn’t oppose it. But he wasn’t actively engaged in trying to promote a marriage equality referendum – that fell to Jerry Buttimer, who courageously went public on his own sexual orientation and the need to change the law. It was only before the marriage equality referendum that Leo came out.
Was Leo supportive of your efforts to introduce the Children and Family Relationships Act?
There was no support forthcoming from him that I evidenced at that time – on that or the marriage equality referendum. And that bill was not just of importance to heterosexual couples but it was of key importance to same sex couples in dealing with the issue of surrogacy. In May 2014, the draft bill included expressed legal provisions to address the issue of surrogacy and to allow both heterosexual and same sex couples to lawfully have children through surrogacy and to prescribe the legal relationships of the commissioning parents to those children. I had to fight a battle with Enda Kenny’s special advisors to retain that provision in the draft bill. I succeeded in doing so. When I ceased to be minister, Frances Fitzgerald announced that those provisions were being dropped. And the next announcement was that Leo was going to deal with them as Minister for Health and a new bill would be published, addressing those issues, in January 2015. Well, that bill has still not seen the light of day.
It sounds like someone buried it.
The bill clearly got buried. I understand there are now promises that it’s about to re-emerge. I don’t know in what form. It’s three years later. The legislation could’ve been enacted and in place by 2015 had the original timescale been stuck to.
The Taoiseach has also been criticised for the lack of gender balance in his Cabinet.
Yeah. (Laughs). Well, that’s blindly self-evident. I don’t think there’s any great comment required.
There’s no love lost between you and Leo.
I have a particular view of the type of politics that Leo engages in. People should be judged in politics by substance not image. Unfortunately, in the current climate, perspective seems to be determined by clappy happy media relation events rather than substance. I have a difficulty with the way Fine Gael is currently operating. There’s some really good people in Fine Gael, in the parliamentary party and at Cabinet, but I do believe in politics you have to stand up for values. You have to stand up for the truth – even when it’s difficult. You have to not succumb to the mob. You have to have particular views about issues and not basically check where the mob is going – and then present yourself as their leader!
How can the current Fine Gael government be good for the country if what you are saying is true?
My personal experience of Leo does not fill me with optimism. I know this runs counter to the prevailing public view and that within the Fine Gael party. I claim no monopoly on wisdom. Ultimately the electorate will express their view at the ballot box. Image and clever sound-bites may seduce voters, but it is substance which ultimately impacts on their lives. Making and implementing tough decisions that are in the public interest, but which do not reflect populist views, nor which are designed to generate the praise of commentators, is ultimately a test of leadership. A commitment to social justice and reform; having a real view of the world that is not based on opinion polling; knowing the full facts and telling the truth about issues – these are important. Jogging is not the issue!
You’re talking about the fact that there have been pictures…
I went jogging for many years but never felt the need to alert media photographers and bring them with me. I suppose that was my mistake. I also occasionally wore strange socks. And once, in Leinster House, I was briefly concerned I had developed a limp – sometime later I realised I was wearing odd shoes. I now realise I should have turned all of those things into publicity opportunities. I made the fundamental mistake of spending too much time drafting legislation and doing other serious stuff.
You clearly believe there’s been a seismic shift within Fine Gael.
It’s difficult to identify currently what the actual values of the Fine Gael party are – other than a desire to stay in government. You have to be in politics with objectives. You have to still have some ideals. You have to sell those ideals to the electorate. There has to be a reason why you want to get re-elected that goes beyond simply, ‘I want to be in government’. You have to have a moral compass. I think today, showmanship and populism has greater impact than truth, decency, integrity, respect for the law, fair procedures, that type of stuff. Look, what attracted me to Fine Gael was that it was a party committed to sane economic and financial management and social justice. I’m not sure where that social commitment has gone. I’m not sure how identifiably different Fine Gael is to Fianna Fáil! It seems to me that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are currently involved in something of a phony war.
ON BEING SHAFTED BY ENDA KENNY & DEATH THREATS
Do you feel you were persecuted during your time as Minister for Justice?
That’s for others to judge. I went through a very strange period where the level of media venom went beyond anything I’d ever seen in my lifetime. It’s very difficult to operate within an environment in which you know you’re telling the truth, but all your political opponents, and the media universally, barring one or two honourable exceptions, are targeting you as the nearest things to Darth Vader. It was a very stressful period. You can’t identify a single allegation against me that three inquiries – the O’Higgins Commission, the Cooke Enquiry or the Fennelly Inquiry – dealt with that was upheld. Yet there’s still a narrative that promotes some of these.
On the Garda whistleblowers, is the truth not that you were played like a violin by senior Gardaí?
No. I wasn’t played by anybody because I required investigations to be undertaken – and very substantial change and reform resulted. The whole idea was that the Garda were doing favours for friends. That was never established and that’s never been proved to be true. What was established was enormous administrative and oversight dysfunction.
There was no evidence of Garda corruption?
There’s no suggestion of any Garda ever taking a ha’penny for cancelling a ticket charge. And where are we in 2017? We have the extraordinary and bizarre circumstance of 1.4million false breath tests recorded! Again, evidence of enormous dysfunctional and managerial failure of a greater nature than anything that was disclosed in the ticket charge issue – it hasn’t generated one tenth of the heat or excitement as the issues that I was involved in generated.
Do you feel the Gardaí misled you – and it cost you your job?
I’ve no evidence that anyone deliberately lied to me. I do believe there were levels of incompetence and dysfunction within the Gardaí. It became clear as we got into 2013, which is why I asked the Garda Inspector to produce a comprehensive report on all aspects of policing in Ireland. I don’t think they actually produced it until 2015. I think it has over 160 recommendations and most of them haven’t yet been implemented.
Were you not wrong – or mistaken – not to listen to Mick Wallace and Clare Daly?
Well, that’s one of the great fictions. I took the ticket thing very seriously. I asked the Garda Commissioner to respond to the allegations. The perception that I didn’t deal with that properly, is all part of a narrative that ran at that time.
The impression you give is that Enda Kenny was dishonest with you...
Kenny was very supportive through the initial period of the controversies. Things started to go peculiar around the time of the Guerin Inquiry. I advised Kenny that the criticism was wrong, that I dealt with issues correctly and that Guerin had reached the conclusions he reached without ever talking to me! It’s a very basic principle that someone is not condemned without being given a fair hearing. I explained to Kenny I got no fair hearing. Guerin himself publicly stated that he hadn’t read what he described – and in quotes – as ‘voluminous’ documentation of GSOC.
So why did you resign?
On the day I resigned, I believed that Kenny was as much a victim of this report as I was. I believed Kenny had no choice but to accept those conclusions. He put me under pressure to resign. I also resigned because I could see the controversy that would arise from the report: it would be hugely damaging to Fine Gael and Labour in the forthcoming European and local elections. But I didn’t appreciate not having an opportunity to fully read the report and understood that Kenny would follow-up the flawed nature of the inquiry. I discovered subsequently that Kenny had done nothing to follow them up. He was merely managing me.
Yours was the head on the plate, used to quell the mounting political crisis...
Yes. Ironically, I was the only Minister whose evidence was believed by Fennelly, which is a great irony of our time.
What changed your mind about Enda Kenny?
As a result of an FOI, some 19 months after my resignation, I discovered that two weeks before Guerin produced his report, he sent correspondence to Kenny, which was a copy of a letter he sent to GSOC in which he informed GSOC he was going to complete his inquiry without reading GSOC’s ‘voluminous’ document. Kenny was aware that the Guerin Inquiry was flawed and that not all of the documentation would be read by Guerin, as he was required to do. He had no interest in the fact that I was condemned without a hearing.
He was hardly alone in that.
Frances Fitzgerald was Minster for Justice: she ignored the entirety of what I had to say. I felt I had no choice but to take court proceedings, which I won in the Court of Appeal, having lost in the High Court. The Court of Appeal unanimously concluded there was a lack of fair procedures. But before the Court of Appeal decision, the O’Higgins Commission of Inquiry established that all of Guerin’s conclusions in relation to me were wrong. I would’ve assumed that should’ve been the end of the matter.
In your view, Kenny was dishonourable in the way he treated you.
He was entirely dishonourable in the manner in which he dealt with these issues.
Did you confront him about it?
The confrontation took place in the Fennelly Commission of Investigation in which we each gave our evidence. There was extraordinary little focus by the media on those particular findings of the Fennelly Report. Fennelly clearly didn’t accept some of the evidence given by the former Taoiseach, nor did he accept some of the evidence given by the former Attorney General, Maura Whelan. I have a particular view of the world, which is that you tell the truth about issues.
So Enda Kenny lied basically?
Fennelly clearly took the view that some of the evidence did not truly detail the evidence that occurred.
That’s a nice way of putting that he lied.
(Laughs) Well, it’s all there in the Fennelly Report.
You’re still embroiled in a legal dispute with Guerin, who is appealing the decision.
I find myself in this very bizarre Kafkaesque position. It was clear that Enda Kenny and others disapproved of my making waves by challenging Guerin in the courts. Varadkar has maintained the same stance as Kenny. Despite my vindication in the O’Higgins Report, he has continued as Taoiseach to indemnify Guerin’s legal costs for his appeal to the Supreme Court in which he is essentially asking that court to stand over conclusions he reached, which O’Higgins – in a sworn inquiry – established were entirely wrong. I found it incredible that once I was vindicated by O’Higgins that the State continued to fund this litigation for Mr. Guerin. I’ve been paying my own legal costs, which in practical terms for barristers alone exceed €200,000 at this stage. It’s completely mad, completely insane.
You feel let down by some of your former colleagues?
The manner in which the Guerin Inquiry was conducted for me was the equivalent of a kangaroo court. Unfortunately not a single Fine Gael cabinet minister or aspirant minister had any interest in addressing my concerns and I was left to fight a lonely battle. What Mr. Guerin’s actually asking the Supreme Court to do now is to endorse conclusions damning me that have already been discredited by the O’Higgins Commission. It is a very bizarre circumstance in which to find yourself. I don’t know what the values of the current cabinet are, if this is acceptable.
What about Mr. Guerin himself…
If Mr. Guerin had any conscience, or any shame, instead of continuing to litigate this into the Supreme Court he would by now have publicly apologised to me for his mistaken conclusions. We may get to a point where a further inquiry may be necessary into how he did conduct that inquiry. I’ve no wish to prolong this issue, but I find it quite astonishing that he’s incapable of publicly admitting that when he conducted his informal inquiry, he reached mistaken conclusions in relation to me, and how he cannot find it within himself to apologise for the devastating impact on my life and my reputation of the conclusions he reached.
Would you want Enda Kenny to publicly apologise to you?
I won’t hold my breath. He told the Dáil the day I resigned about (me) accepting responsibility for all the failures that Guerin had attributed to me – which was entirely untrue, because I said to him that I hadn’t dealt with the matters in the manner Guerin said.
If you came across Enda Kenny in a bar would you have a pint with him?
I’d probably go to the bar next door. I’d have no interest in getting entrapped into a hail-fellow-well-met false conversation intended for public approval. At the end of the day, if not for his intervention in the last election campaign, I would’ve been re-elected to the Dáil.
Have you ever received any death threats?
I was a regular recipient of death threats during the pro-life amendment in 1983 – to extent that we took our phone number out of the telephone directory. Some of it was just pure hate stuff, not necessarily anti-Semitic. On one occasion, I was speaking late night at a meeting in Drogheda and I got home at 1.30am to discover that my wife had received a phone call about an hour earlier anonymously from somebody asking, ‘Is he still alive?’
And more recently?
There was a big incident amid all of the 2014 controversies. Around March of that year, some powder arrived in our home in an envelope. There was a concern it could be anthrax! It was accompanied by anti-Semitic literature: pictures of Jews going into concentration camps. It turned out that the substance was ashes. It was supposed to be symbolic of Jews getting burnt in concentration camps. There was a similar parcel intercepted in the post office.
Did you ever fear for your safety or your life?
I was concerned during one particular pro-life amendment. We used to keep a file in my former solicitor’s firm. I got so many death threats in the ’80s. In the beginning, I used to look at them as letters from nutters and throw them away. I had a secretary who decided if I was bumped off maybe we should keep them because the Guards may want to see them. So, we opened a file called the ‘Murder File’, which was something of an in-house joke at the time in which we put all of the various death threats. Certainly, the crescendo reached during the 2014 excitement, I had real concerns for my family safety. But happily everything worked out ok.
ON BREXIT, AND A POTENTIAL RETURN TO VIOLENCE
What should Ireland do now about Brexit?
Avoid fantasy politics! I’m concerned we’re now engaged in some degree of self-delusion because in circumstances in which the United Kingdom is committed to ceasing to be part of the customs union, committed to ceasing to be part of Europe’s open markets, I don’t see how we can have a ‘seamless’ boarder on the island of Ireland. The fact that both the Irish government and British government say, ‘We want an invisible seamless boarder’ doesn’t produce that result. So, I have an enormous concern that we’re heading down a very dangerous route. Brexit is the most extraordinary act of self-destruction and self-inflicted damage I’ve seen a democratic European State engage in.
So, you believe there could be a border?
I’m enormously concerned that there is an inevitability in some type of border, in relation to trade and tariffs. And in circumstances in which the Northern Ireland Assembly has ceased to function, and the talks between the DUP and Sinn Féin have collapsed – because each of those parties in the Brexit context has a vested interest in their collapsing – I’ve huge concerns that we’re going to see a return to violence on this island. I don’t see how this is going to be resolved in circumstances in which a completely dysfunctional and delusional UK government is propped up by the only party in Northern Ireland, the DUP, who are pro-Brexit.
You really feel there could be a resurgence of violence in the North?
If anything is done on this island to recreate the symbols of a border, there’s an enormous danger the Nationalists, young people in Northern Ireland at the extreme edges, will see that as a provocation that justifies violence. And there’s a danger that within the Loyalist community there’ll be other groups who feel the need to defend the border. And this is a very dangerous slippery slope. The Brexiters in Britain gave no thought of any description to Ireland prior to the referendum. I don’t see a happy ending to any of this – unless a rethink results in Britain reversing course as result of a further referendum abandoning Brexit.
Is there any possible post-Brexit solution?
It seems to me the only alternative is that the whole island of Ireland is basically a free trade zone with no customs barriers post-Brexit.
What was your response to the email on behalf of David Davis which said that he would like to meet ‘Kenny’, who was Taoiseach at the time, and when would ‘Kenny’ be available?
It’s part of the delusional approach of the current Conservative leadership to dealing with the island of Ireland. But the difficulty that creates will be in relationships between commercial entities in Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain, and how the Unionist population view it. I think at our peril we ignore the emotional impact and danger on this island of flags and symbols and borders.
Honestly, what do you think of Boris Johnson?
ON ANTI-SEMITISM, TRUMP, GOD AND SEX
Were you offended by the infamous Kevin Myers article, and its references to Jews?
No (laughs). Simple answer. I regarded it as Kevin trying to be a little bit too clever by half, using very unfortunate language that he didn’t give adequate consideration to. I think what he wrote was ill considered. He gave a very contrite apology when it dawned on him how awful it was. I heard the broadcast where he suffered some elements of foot in mouth disease! That should’ve been the end of the matter. It’s very popular today to launch a lynch mob. And even after he was contrite and apologised, the lynch mob went after him. I think that was regrettable.
Was it a step too far in firing him?
I wouldn’t have fired him. I can’t take seriously anyone within the Sunday Times standing on a moral soapbox and pretending that that paper operates on the basis of principle, in which truth is given some real meaning. It was simply opportunistic, based on the publicity around Kevin Myer’s article, that they fired him. They should’ve done a better job editing what he wrote.
Is the enmity and violence between the three great religions of Abraham not one of the most profoundly stupid things you could dream of?
You don’t really believe in God, do you?
No (laughs)! I’d be delighted to be proved wrong.
So there’s no heaven and hell?
I wish I could believe that this was only a preliminary to some fantastic afterlife. I’m afraid I believe this is our once-off engagement and you should try to make the most of it, whilst being as kind as you can to those around you.
How does it feel to see a White Supremacist in the White House?
I don’t think you could have any more bizarre behaviour by any President in the United States than we’ve seen from Donald Trump. I marvel at world leaders visiting the White House pretending that they’re engaged in some meaningful exchange and who try to maintain a serious presentation of the nature of the meeting they’ve had and ignore some of the insanity that floats around this current White House.
What’s your response to the fact that Trump is intimately tied in to the resurgence in Nazi-ism, in the US and globally?
Trump is more complex than that. Trump has played to a base of individuals who are prejudiced, who are racist, who are anti-Semitic, who have no interest in social justice. But, at the same time, he has insights into other aspects of politics in which you couldn’t possibly label him as anti-Semitic. So, I think Trump is a very peculiar political presentation. But he’s a very dangerous political presentation. I’ll come back to something we were discussing earlier: Trump’s politics is all about populism and self-promotion. He sees being in the White House as some sort of presidential TV reality show! He’s used to TV reality shows and that’s the manner in which the current presidency’s being conducted.
What is your reaction to Larry Flynt’s offer of $10 million to anyone who comes forward with material that would lead to the impeachment of Trump?
I’ve never yet had any great reaction to Larry Flynt. So, I’m not going to have one now (laughs).
Staying on theme of things concerning Larry Flynt, what’s your thoughts about porn?
I try not to think about it!
Growing up how important was sex and chasing women for you?
Like every young healthy teenage boy, girls were fascinating and enormously interesting. I don’t think I was too different to any of my friends.
You wouldn’t have had the burden of so-called Catholic guilt.
Ah, now, there you go! Catholic guilt and Jewish guilt are two entirely different things. Catholic guilt is all about sex. I better be careful in the context of Mr. Weinstein: he’d want to have a lot of guilt for his conduct. But Jewish guilt seems to extend to all sorts of things. I feel guilty at the end of the day if I don’t think I’ve done something that’s worthwhile or useful (laughs).
Younger Hot Press readers might be amazed to discover that condoms were banned in Ireland during the ‘70s.
That was one of the great Irish jokes. But condoms were gettable. Either you went up to Northern Ireland and got them, or people flew in with them, or they were posted to you. It wasn’t illegal to use them: once you got your hands on them you were fine. It was unlawful for people to sell them –and under Haughey’s bill it was unlawful to acquire them here unless you had a prescription. You had the mad circumstance where if you wanted to lawfully purchase condoms you were supposed to get a doctor’s prescription. It left doctors with the interesting dilemma of trying to work out how many condoms per month they should prescribe to guy who called into their clinic. You know: what type of condom and should it be smooth or ribbed and should it have a particular flavour and what should the colour of the condom be?! It was all completely mad stuff.
Did you question your sexuality growing up?
I’m afraid I was a mad, rampant heterosexual (roars laughing). I don’t think there’s ever been any great need for any self-examination.
How old when you lost your virginity?
Now, there’s something between me and the person responsible (laughs)! Despite my enthusiasm for writing Life is a Funny Business, one of the things I was careful about was to ensure that I didn’t cause grief or embarrassment or stress to any of the very nice people I grew up with in my teen and late teenage years by some unnecessary revelations of goings-on (laughs). It would’ve made the book too long!
There was a hullabaloo over the graphic sex scene in your novel, Laura.
There were two paragraphs of intimacy in it, which were required for the story and no more. When I became Minister for Justice, a number of journos, who were too young to notice Laura getting published in 1989, thought they’d discovered some great revelation in this book containing two paragraphs of intimacy – and then proceeded to make fun of it. Which was very sad because, one, it took away from what was a good story, but, secondly, it suggested that when it came to intimacy I had an extraordinarily limited imagination, which would’ve been extremely sad if it were true.
The scene describes a TD having sex with his secretary on the floor of his Dáil office.
Fortuitously, it wasn’t on the plinth of Leinster House – that’s only there for people to drive cars over apparently!
Would that have been a fantasy of yours?
Having sex on the floor? No, as I said, I would’ve hoped that my imagination would’ve extended beyond that if it were a fantasy. I think the floors in Leinster House are not clean enough, frankly, to be engaged in that type of activity!
Somebody must’ve shagged in the Dáil.
I am very relieved to say to you: one, yes, it may have happened – but the relief is I’ve never caught anyone in flagrante delicto in the context of that! Not a sight I want to see, frankly, in the context of some of my former colleagues in Leinster House.
In the book, you talk about the character sleeping with a virgin…
… And ‘the overflow (of semen) on her slender body’. Would that have been a fantasy of yours?
Do you know the great things about fantasies? You don’t always have to share them.
The Harvey Weinstein sex scandal: discuss.
The man’s conduct is indefensible and appalling. I think what’s sad is that it went on for so many years. And because he’s in a position of power, those women subjected to his conduct felt unable to give voice to the impact of his behaviour on them until now. I would anticipate that that isn’t unique to him. We all know exactly what’s meant by the casting couch.
Might a similar kind of bullying, macho culture have existed in politics in Ireland?
I don’t have an answer to that. Weinstein is someone imposing himself on others in circumstances that are entirely unacceptable and indefensible. I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone in Leinster House whose conduct has been of that nature, or publicly known to be of that nature.
There’ve been a good few ladies’ men.
In every walk of life there’s ladies’ men and there’s men’s ladies. In human behaviour and relationships you get every combination and permutation of possibility when it comes to how people interact.
ON HIS MOTHER, MENTAL ILLNESS AND WONDERWALL
Did your mother’s death shape your attitude towards women?
I ask myself that question. I genuinely don’t know the answer. I think that it made me, I hope, sensitive to difficulties that other people experience in their lives.
Did her death have any other effect on you?
Looking back, becoming involved in the Free Legal Aid advice centre; my involvement as a lawyer in family law; representing wives and husbands in my FLAC days; and dealing with so many law cases involving battered wives, deserted wives, unsupported wives and dealing generally with family problems – maybe it had some impact on my going down that road. I came from home where social issues were always discussed and there was a view of making your contribution to society. Perhaps my involvement was influenced by my mum’s death. But I think probably my views on the world were substantially shaped also by my father’s insights into the world and the discussions we tended to have about social issues and political issues.
You were only 14 when your mother, who suffered from anorexia, committed suicide.
It was a very stressful experience, there’s no other way of describing it.
Did you have a happy childhood before that?
I grew up in a very happy household for the first ten years of my life. I had a fairly idyllic childhood, with two parents clearly in love with each other. I was probably something of a spoiled child. There were no battles or fights or problems before I reached the age of ten. I always understood that what happened to my mum was a consequence of her having serious mental health issues. What I was never sure of – and I’m not still to this day – is what was the catalyst to those difficulties. Did some events happen in her life? Or was there some genetic background? I don’t know the answer to that. I think part of what I was doing in writing this book was exploring what shaped me as a person.
Have you ever suffered with depression?
No, fortunately. I won’t say I haven’t suffered from despondency. We’re all despondent on occasion. And certainly the circumstances in which I found myself in the last three years have been extremely unpleasant. But, fortunately, I’ve never suffered from depression or any other major mental health issue. But I’m sure I have a few friends who think I’m bonkers!
What music did you like as a teenager?
Probably the same music as everyone else: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and, as you progress from the 60s into the 70s, most of the then popular music. One of my odd favourites – I still have their LPs – was Jethro Tull. In later years, Leonard Cohen’s music would be a particular favourite. In more recent years, one of my favourite songs was ‘Wonderwall’. Go figure!
Would you’ve been a Hot Press reader?
Yeah. It was one of the publications I dipped in and out of. I was interested in reports on issues of social interest and the Middle East and generally what was going on globally. I had a healthy cynicism of much that went on in Irish politics.
You must have tried drugs along the way...
Funnily enough, I didn’t experiment with drugs.
You never tried marijuana?
Oh, I once tried, I think in my forties, smoking some ganja in the Caribbean! And after taking two puffs on it, and coughing my guts out, I decided this was not a good idea. I know a lot of people think I’m a very serious person because a lot of the issues I’ve been involved in over the years have been really serious. Those who worked with me know that I laugh a lot, crack a lot of jokes.
Would you support the Portugese model?
I’m not particularly familiar with that. I have a view of drugs, which is that you need to educate people not to become drug dependent. I do believe the law has a role to play in the context of the really serious drugs that can do enormous damage to people.
If someone was found with, say €50 worth of cocaine in their pocket for personal use, should they be doing time in prison?
I personally wouldn’t have them doing time in prison. But I would have them doing community service because I would be concerned that ingesting cocaine is going to have huge detrimental impacts on their health – and having it in their possession might result in them seducing others to try it. Education and community service would be my remedy for individuals who are ingesting, or using, serious drugs. For those who are pushing the drugs I’d have no hesitation in jailing them.
Life Is A Funny Business is published by Poolbeg, priced €16.99