- 03 Aug 16
Paschal Donohoe has emerged as one of the brightest and most capable politicians in Fine Gael. As Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, he occupies one of the hottest seats around the cabinet table. Far from being a dry, policy wonk, however, he is a remarkably rounded character, who is a big fan of music, literature and films – not to mention Hot Press.
My first impression of Paschal Donohoe is a good one. In contrast to a lot of politicians, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform replies directly to my request for an interview by sending a personal WhatsApp message.
“Jason, I’ve read and bought Hot Press for 20 years,” he says. “I could not be more familiar with you and your interviews. Would be delighted to do it. I’m up to my eyeballs this week – would next week suit?” Shortly afterwards, the minister’s affable press secretary Deborah Sweeney gets on the blower to confirm the arrangements.
The first thing that strikes you about his office in government buildings is the huge collection of Star Wars figurines perched on the window ledge. “When I put them up,” he smiles, “questions were asked of me. ‘Does this fit in with the sombre tone of my department?’ But I’ve decided that there’s enough that I have to say and do that’s sombre in nature – and that the Star Wars figurines will only add to it.”
The bookcase beside his desk is also crammed with books. He always has a book or two on the go. These days, all his creative energy goes into his department, but he was once a budding fiction writer.
“Before I got into politics I published a few short stories,” he explains. “Even recently, over the last few years, I’ve published a few essays in different places. I had one in the Dublin Review of Books and then in The Journal, the quarterly publication that comes out of the Jesuits, about history and politics and that kind of thing. It’s great. It keeps the soul going.”
Born in 1974, Donohoe grew up in Clonsilla, in Dublin’s north-west, and was educated at St Declan’s CBS in Cabra. He did a degree in politics and economics at Trinity College, before going to the UK. He worked his way up the business ladder there, to become commercial director with P&G (Procter and Gamble), a multi-national that owns many of the best-known household brand names, including Gillette, Head & Shoulders, Ariel, Pampers, Wella, Tampax and loads more.
It was in the UK that he met his future wife. Having decided to settle down, they moved back to Dublin to start a family – the father of two children quips there’s “no more on the way” – and for Paschal to enter politics.
He joined Fine Gael and became a city councillor in 2004. He became a Senator in 2007 and was finally elected to the Dáil in 2011, when he topped the poll in his Dublin Central constituency.
“Dublin Central was the jewel in the crown of Fianna Fáil,” he says, “and I spent many years battling away with little anticipation of getting elected. But I did it because I enjoyed what I did and I valued it.”
He hasn’t looked back since. He was elevated quickly, becoming Minister of State for European Affairs in 2013, and then Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport in July 2014.
He’s now got one of the biggest political gigs going, as Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.
Jason O’Toole: I was thinking about your interest in Star Wars and wondered: as a kid, would you have been regarded as a bit of a geek or a nerd?
Paschal Donohoe: No. I don’t think I ever would have been described as a nerd or a geek. The thing that probably defined how others may have seen me, when I was growing up, is that I had very bad asthma. It meant that it was an awful lot more difficult for me to participate in the sport and physical activity, and the rough and tumble that is a big part of growing up. Sport was something, I’m afraid, that I watched rather than participated in. I wasn’t the sporty type. But that wasn’t by choice – if I could’ve done it, I would’ve.
I’m guessing if you had asthma that you never tried marijuana.
I’ve never gone near it. Until recently I had really bad asthma, as a result of which I’ve never smoked a cigarette, let along marijuana.
(Laughs) I never kiss and tell!
Were you bullied at school?
Everything was good. I had a very happy time in secondary school. It was when I was in secondary school that the seeds were planted in me of an interest in political life. I had excellent teachers in history, economics and English – all of which gave me the different influences that ended up with my considering a career in politics.
When did you get into Star Wars?
I’ve had a lifelong interest in books, in music, in film – everything from watching Buck Rodgers and Battlestar Galactica on the little screen to Star Wars on the big screen. I hugely enjoy reading. I’d be a big fan of different genres like sci-fi and crime fiction. Even now I would be a big fan of Doctor Who and Star Wars films and all that.
Was it while at Trinity that you started reading Hot Press?
No, I was in secondary school when I started reading Hot Press and it’s been a really big publication all my cultural life. I still buy it. I don’t know if you remember but for many years, when Hot Press were rating albums, they used to do it by having two dice?
I remember. I’m a year older than you and I started reading Hot Press at 13.
One of the earliest memories I have of Hot Press was reading the review of Green by REM – ‘Orange Crush’ was on that album – and never having heard of REM, I remember reading that article and it giving me a hint that there’s a big world out there of music. I can’t remember what the order was, but I read a review in Hot Press of Spike by Elvis Costello. They’re two clear memories that I have of Hot Press. Also the gig reviews – and that’s lead me to now being a really big gig-goer. Even in life as a Minister I go to a lot of gigs. And it introduced me to artists, music and albums that have played a huge part in my life.
What about the political interviews in Hot Press?
To be honest, they wouldn’t have featured as much as the music and cultural stuff. I remember there used to be a page towards the back of Hot Press that used to be the book review page – and I remember reading a review of The Dice Man. Do you know that book?
It’s a great book, by Luke Rhinehart.
Yeah. And coming across that book then, and subsequently reading it. But, as I said, REM and Elvis Costello – hearing about artists like that for the first time and hearing about the concept of an album as opposed to a song, where the album was something that would be reviewed and commented on in a critical manner: Hot Press was the portal into all of that for me. And that’s why now I’ve music on all the time, reading all the time – Hot Press played a big part in a lot of that. If it wasn’t for Hot Press, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to know novelists like William Boyd and Ian Banks, let alone artists from REM to The Waterboys to Kanye West. You know, the contribution that Hot Press has given to me in terms of that kind of cultural life is something that I’d like to acknowledge. It’s such a great publication for our political and cultural life.
What music do you have on your Spotify playlist these days?
On my Spotify playlist at the moment are Muse, The Gloaming, Macklemore And Lewis, a great American band called The Hold Steady and a great Irish band called Hamsandwich. You’ve heard the phrase, ‘Music is the soundtrack to your life’. It’s certainly the soundtrack for my days. This weekend I was at Beyoncé in Croke Park on Saturday night. I’m not a typical member of the ‘Beyhive’ – but I do think Lemonade is a great album. Recently, I’ve been at Adele, I’ve been at Macklemore and Lewis in the 3(Arena) – and I’m going to see Elvis Costello on Saturday night.
I’m not sure where I got this, but is it true that you’re a really good dancer?
Only in my own imagination!
What inspired you to get involved in politics?
I believe that I have a duty to try and help everybody across our country get the same opportunities that I had. I had the opportunity to go to great schools. I had a family that were able to look after me as I was growing up. Everybody should have those opportunities – and if you don’t have those opportunities, the State has a role to play.
Were you not put off at all by Fine Gael’s reputation as a conservative party – the so-called farmer’s party?
I’m not a conservative. I’m not a farmer obviously. Our party is a broad church. A benefit of being a broad church, or a big tent party, is that it gives you a very deep insight into all of the different elements that make up our country. But if I was living in England, which I did for a while, I wouldn’t vote for the Conservative Party. I wouldn’t vote for the Republican Party in American. I have different views.
So, would you have voted for Labour in the UK?
When I was in the UK I never voted in an election because my view was that I voted for general elections here in Ireland and I never felt comfortable with casting a vote in two jurisdictions at the same time. So, if I had a vote, I would’ve voted Lib Dem and then when Tony Blair was leader of the Labour Party, I’d have cast a vote for them.
You came out strongly in favour of the Gay Marriage Referendum – isn’t the Catholic Church’s position on this whole thing extremely insulting to gays?
I go to mass. I consider myself a Roman Catholic. Like many Roman Catholics of my age, I suppose I also struggle with faith. Maybe that is the essence of faith. It’s all about belief and you have to sustain that belief. I did find it very difficult, the tone that was adopted towards gay marriage by Roman Catholic Church globally, not just here in Ireland. I remember during the debate on civil partnership, looking at the way the Vatican was then talking about civil partnership and I couldn’t reconcile the view that the Church had of gay people with the intrinsic equality that my gay friends had with me. The love, the care, the comfort and the attraction that a gay couple have with each other is the exactly the same as what I have with my wife. And that is an intrinsic and emotional truth for me – and everything else flows from that.
But would you agree that the Catholic Church not wanting to give this equality was insulting to the gay community?
It hurt people. It hurt them and it insulted them. And I believe the Church is on its own journey in relation to that. I know from talking to so many of my (gay) friends – they found the experience of the referendum and the commentary around that really difficult, because a verdict was being cast on them, which is what makes the result even more joyful.
I recently interviewed the Primate of All Ireland Eamon Martin and he stuck with the position that every time someone who is gay has sex that it is a sin. Is that not medieval nonsense, which is completely divorced from contemporary reality?
I completely disagree with that view. As I said earlier on, we are all equal – and the love and the attraction and everything that flows between us all is self-evidently the same to me. So, I wouldn’t accept that at all.
So you’d agree that it’s time we grew up and acknowledged that sex is one of life’s great pleasures, and that people are entitled to enjoy it freely whenever and however they like as long as it is between consenting adults?
(Smiles) Look, you’re putting all these words here in my mouth!
I’m not putting them in your mouth. It’s a question.
Love, care, sex, friendships – they’re either gifts from God, or gifts from nature, depending on your prospective. And they’re all the same amongst all of us. I keep on going back to what I said at the start: to me they’re intrinsically equal. The care and love I feel for my wife is obviously the same as the care or love that a friend of mine might feel for his husband. And once you accept that insight then our civic institutions must reflect that.
Do you believe in heaven and hell?
What’s the afterlife like for Paschal Donohoe?
(Laughs) Ah look, I’m too busy with the here and now to think about those things. But I do believe that even if there was not a reward in the afterlife, all of us have to do our best to lead good lives now and that’s what I try to do with my public and private life.
Do you believe only Christians go to heaven, or do you believe everyone goes to heaven – including Muslims, Moonies and Jews?
Ah, God! Jason, I don’t know the answer to that now. All I can answer you is about my own beliefs about these things.
Are you in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment?
I’m in favour of changing the Eighth Amendment to deal with fatal foetal abnormalities.
And what about in cases of rape?
I’d be in favour of looking at how we change the law to deal with that.
Are there any other circumstances you’d be in favour of termination?
Where at any point conception happens where violence is used, whether that be rape or incest, I also believe it’s an option that should be open to women who face that awful situation. We have said that we will have the Citizens Assembly in place by October. I’m hopeful we’ll be able to do it a bit before then. I believe that the process that we have now – which is the same process that we put in place in relation to marriage equality – is the right way to deal with this and I’m very supportive of doing that. And the first item they will be considering would be all the matters in relation to the Eighth.
You don’t think kicking it to a committee is political cowardice?
No, I don’t. We’re not kicking it into political touch. You’re talking about a political party that dealt with the legislation for the X Case, which is something that successive governments had refused to do. I remember coming home one afternoon on the bus from Dáil Éireann and coming up a road in my constituency and the entire road was lined with posters that had my face on it and underneath my face was the word murder. We have shown our mettle in dealing with this really serious matter in the past and I’m confident we will do that again. I do believe a referendum will be needed to change it though – and that is why I believe the Citizens Assembly process is the right way of dealing with it, because it’s not going to be just the case of removing the Eighth Amendment from our constitution. It’s also going to be a discussion regarding what will take its place.
You’ve been lucky with the birth of your own kids, but is it not appalling that women are in a position where there is a fatal foetal abnormality, and they have to travel abroad to secure a termination?
I want to see that situation changed. We must treat women who found themselves dealing with that unbearable trauma far better than we are supporting them at the moment. And that is why I want to see change in the Eighth Amendment to support mothers who are dealing with that. I don’t find acceptable the idea that mothers who have to deal with this awful sadness should have to leave our shores to get the support they need.
What is your reaction to women in Northern Ireland being charged for the use of abortion pills? Would you want women here to be charged in the same way?
I don’t want to see our criminal justice system being used here to prosecute women who make a choice like that. What the North do is their business and I’m not going to comment on that.
What are your thoughts on euthanasia?
It’s something that I am personally uncomfortable with. But, again, for the very small number of our citizens who found themselves facing unimaginable prospects of not being able to live their lives in any way, I can understand why they would want such a choice open to them. And for me, what is important is making sure that we have the right legal framework to support the families and the individuals and the medical staff who find themselves in that situation.
It’s a horrible scenario...
It’s awfully difficult. I think sometimes one of the traits you have to have in political and public life is the dimension of empathy – trying to imagine for yourself what it’s like to be in the shoes of somebody and using those springs of empathy to try to influence how you legislate. And, of course, my imagination finds it difficult to confront what it must be like for somebody facing such life-diminishing and life-altering illness. I guess that’s one of the reasons why it is a difficult matter for jurisdictions all over the world to legislate for. But I do accept that for families and citizens and for medical staff, who find themselves having to deal with this situation, we should have a better framework available to them than we do now.
So, reluctantly, out of compassion, it’s something you’d be open to the idea of debating?
Definitely debating. And also accepting that we need to have a better framework in place to deal with this than we do now.
What’s our stance on the legalisation of drugs?
I’m not in favour of the legalisation of drugs, but I do believe drug policy does need to evolve in Ireland in two areas. I’m strongly supportive of the development of medically supervised injection centres. I believe that we have members of our community for whom the current services don’t work. And what is now happening: they are using drugs in our laneways, in our streets, in our public places, and they’re harming themselves and they’re posing a risk to others. We need to change that. We need to reach out to these people in a different way to how we’re doing now.
What’s the second thing?
I’d like to see greater use of civil sanctions, or greater use of fines for people who are caught in possession of drugs, as opposed to it being immediately a custodial or criminal sanction. This is something that I think could be looked at in our national drugs policy.
So something like the Portuguese model?
I’m not sure that’s a model that’s fully appropriate for Ireland. But I do believe we should have a look at models that work elsewhere. I don’t support the decriminalisation or the legalisation of drug use – but I do (believe) in those two areas, that’s something that a policy should evolve and change.
Would you support the idea of a Lord Mayor who could actually run Dublin city?
I would, but I don’t believe that it is possible to devolve everything to a Lord Mayor of Dublin in the same way that has been possible to devolve many powers in the United Kingdom to elected Lord Mayors.
We don’t have the same scale that the UK has. So, if you look at what they’re doing now in the United Kingdom they are considering devolving decisions in relation to health spending, in relation to social investment, to elected lord mayors. I just don’t believe that it’s feasible in Ireland because we don’t have the scale of spending that the UK has, because we’re a smaller country. But I would like to see an elected Lord Mayor for Dublin and I would like to see that Lord Mayor take on more of the powers that currently the City Manager has. But, again, that can only work if the person who’s elected takes their responsibility seriously – because the reason why City Managers have many of the powers that local politicians have in other countries is because local politicians haven’t made wise use of the powers that were available to them – and those powers have been gradually removed.
What do you mean when you say “take their responsibility seriously?”
I have this terrible sense at the moment, across many parts of the world, that politics is some kind of reality game show, that it’s some kind of entertainment – and it’s not. It’s a deadly serious business and occupation. And we’re now seeing the consequences of what happens with people who are elected who believe that they’re involved in some form of theatre – whether that be (Nigel) Farage, (Boris) Johnson or (Donald) Trump. And they look for things to happen and lead campaigns – and when the consequences of these campaigns become obvious, they exit the stage. Politics isn’t an entertainment business. It’s not a reality TV show. Political choices, and who you vote for, have consequences that matter for your life and for the journey of a country – and we’re seeing that very clearly now in the UK.
It sounds like you wouldn’t be a fan of Boris Johnson
I think Boris Johnson is a charlatan. I think he led the country down a path that he believed was the right thing for the United Kingdom and now he doesn’t have the conviction of dealing with the consequences of his choice. I feel very differently about politics.
Scotland is talking about becoming an independent State and rejoining the EU. Isn’t that something that could happen with Northern Ireland, that they’d want independence too?
I think it’s a very important point you’re making. I think the greatest risk we face in our political planning for what could happen is that we assume that the future is the current European Union structure, minus the United Kingdom. There are many, many other scenarios that could develop.
But would you be supportive of the idea of Northern Ireland becoming independent?
That’s a matter for the people of Northern Ireland.
Do you think a re-run of Brexit referendum would be the right course of action?
Look, that’s a matter for the British parliament and for future British governments. I said earlier on, you never know what’s around the corner in political life. And maybe in a few years time in the United Kingdom we might have a very different United Kingdom. We might have a political party that doesn’t exist at the moment! And were such a government in the future to make such a choice we’d certainly have a lot of experience here in Ireland regarding such matters – I’m sure we’d be happy to offer our thoughts to them.
You just said a political party might not exist? Which one are you referring to?
There is no guarantee that political parties or entities that exist now are going to exist in the future. It’s unlikely that we’re going to see change in the nature of the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom, but I think it’s possible – if things continue with the way they are in the Labour Party – that we might see a new organisation being created out of current Lib Dems and out of different strands of the parliamentary party of the Labour Party. The spirit of Roy Jenkins and the Social Democratic Party in the UK might yet come back again.
Looking at what is happening in France with the air traffic controllers, and the LUAS drivers getting a huge pay hike, is there not a danger that we are going to have a free-for-all here among public servants?
No, because the Lansdowne Road Agreement is one we have negotiated with nearly all unions here in Ireland – and they’re all committed to the tenure of it. The very reason we have collective wage agreements is to avoid a free-for-all scenario.
What will your approach be to the issue of pay rises?
We now have 23 unions that have voted to be part of the Lansdowne Road Agreement. We do have three representative bodies that are outside of it at the moment. My focus is going to go into respecting the wishes of those who voted to be inside Lansdowne – and continue to engage constructively with those who that are outside of it at the moment. The unfunded wage increases of today are the savage wage cuts of tomorrow. Ireland’s already gone down that path and I’m not going to let that journey begin again in my tenure as Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.
As the Minister responsible, what can you say to reassure the rest of the country that we won’t allow expenditure to spiral?
This is the reason why we want to balance our books in 2018. It is to make sure that we don’t have that risk. As a global, small, open economy we can take advantage of when things are going very well elsewhere, but we suffer more when things go badly. When things go bad for Ireland because of things going wrong elsewhere, they can go really bad – and an essential element of how we insulate ourselves against that is moving to a point where we balance our books in 2018. I am going to move heaven and earth to make sure that the commitments that we have made – to our people and then to the financial markets – about balancing our books, that we deliver on them.
A new report recommends the introduction of student fees and a loans system.
It’s something we are going to have to examine. If you look at our third and fourth level here in Ireland, for something that makes such a gigantic contribution to the social well-being and economic productivity of our country, we do have big issues in terms of how it’s going to be funded in the future. So, we are going to have to look at new funding models. I don’t have a fixed view yet regarding what a new funding model will be, but I know that the current one will not meet the needs of our country in the future.
Fine Gael took quite a hammering in the general election.
Our election campaign didn’t go as well as wanted. We all played our part in that, including me. Obviously, the tone we took as a party during the election campaign didn’t chime with how the country is feeling, and that was a collective decision by the party.
There is general agreement that Enda Kenny put his foot in it with the ‘whingers’ remark – I am sure he’d admit it himself.
Yeah, it didn’t go down well. But this is what happens during election campaigns. Sometimes people imagine that every single word, step and comment is choreographed. I mean, in the era that we’re now in – where there’s good access between politicians and voters and the people who write about political life – you sometimes get asked questions that lead you to say the unexpected and unscripted. That’s what happened then.
Were you not shocked when, live on air, Enda Kenny finally admitted an involvement in the appointment of John McNulty to the board of IMMA – something that he had effectively been denying till then?
The Taoiseach said that he got that one wrong, that he didn’t make the decision in the way Fine Gael should’ve. We’ve made very big changes in how we appoint people to public boards since then, to deal with that and to avoid that happening again in the future.
But were you not shocked?
I was in shock by it because, to my mind, Enda had already said that we, and he, didn’t handle the matter in the way we should. And we made a mistake there. Everybody paid a price because of it – and the only silver lining in what wasn’t a great episode was that we have now overhauled how we appoint people to State boards.
What was the price you paid?
Look, I think people who vote for and support Fine Gael were disappointed by that. And we got it wrong and we acknowledged that.
Is it acceptable for a politician to lie?
I don’t believe that it is. But I do believe there are sometimes decisions that politicians get involved in making in which it’s not always possible for them to tell the full story to the broader country. And there are two examples I would give of that. The first one is: frequently, as a Minister you have legal responsibilities upon you that make it difficult for you to tell the country everything that you know because you have to operate within a particular legal framework. And secondly: sometimes when you’re dealing with matters in relation to the security of the State and very sensitive matters, you sometimes can’t say everything that you know. But that’s not the same as lying. I don’t believe politicians should ever lie.
On the same note, it must be frustrating that you can’t always speak your mind?
Well, that’s just part of the responsibilities that high office can sometimes confer. You have to be very careful that you don’t say things that can make situations worse, and you have to be careful that you don’t say things that can trigger unintended consequences. And because of that, you have to be more careful about how you speak about matters than you would if you were in opposition.
Some Fine Gael backbenchers believe Enda Kenny should indicate when he intends to step down.
I don’t support that view. You look at what happened to David Cameron in the run up to the recent general election: he gave that interview in his kitchen with, I think, the BBC and he indicated at what point he was going to stand down. And whether it’s David Cameron, whether it’s Tony Blair, whether it’s Bertie Ahern, or when there is an American President entering into the second half of their second term, when you get to the end of your term in office your well of political power begins to diminish. And for that reason I don’t believe that it is helpful for the leader of a sitting government to indicate when they’re looking to leave office.
Others say after the budget would be a more appropriate time to discuss this?
That’s a matter for Enda Kenny. I think there are great risks in him laying out the timetable for when he would look to leave office. There’s no vacancy there at the moment and he has my full support.
Who are you going to support for the leadership?
I don’t know who I’ll vote for because I don’t know definitively who’ll be standing yet.
You recently publicly ruled yourself out of the next leadership race, but what about in the future? You must be ambitious.
I’ve said very clearly that I won’t a be a candidate for the leadership of Fine Gael when Enda Kenny decides to step down – that takes care of lots of years ahead.
But what about the leadership contest after that?
Ah, Jason, that’s a long way away. Like, I don’t know what’s going to happen after that. I don’t know if I’ll still be in politics. I don’t know if the people of Dublin Central will still want me! That’s a choice for them.
What about your long-term political goals?
Look, whatever might happen in the future will happen. But where I am now, at this stage in my career, the only ambition I have now is to be in this department for a number of years and to put in place budgets that can make a difference to having a just society – and an economic recovery that benefits everybody. That’s at the heart really of how I’ve answered those questions about, ‘Do I want to be leader of Fine Gael in the future?’ I have a huge job now and all the ambition that I have is absorbed in trying to do a good job here.