- 11 Apr 07
He has strong views on Republicanism, Israel, George Bush and Steve Staunton. But, as a TD for Dublin South Central, Michael Mulcahy also reveals how much he loves Fianna Fáil – and how he wouldn’t mind a coalition with the Greens.
JASON O’TOOLE: With your father having run various publications in the past, and now the satirical magazine, Phoenix, did you ever consider getting into media?
MICHAEL MULCAHY: I was never interested. I wanted to get stuck in myself. I characterise myself, rightly or wrongly, as a doer not as an observer.
Did your father play a major influence in the development of your political aspirations?
Yes. My father, John Mulcahy, had been involved in a current affairs magazine called Hibernia, so I grew up in a household where public affairs were talked about all the time. He’s a republican, a nationalist – he’s not a Fianna Fáil supporter, nor particularly a Fianna Fáil sympathiser.
You must have been a bit of a rebel growing up?
No, I wasn’t a rebel, but I was always impatient. I wanted to get things done. I have always had a sense of civic responsibility. Even though I am a Catholic, I was on the executive committee of the Church of Ireland Youth Council – the first Catholic ever, which a lot of people found very strange. Through that I got involved in the National Youth Council of Ireland, and I became vice president of that, and I was chairman of the international committee – I represented Ireland abroad at many youth international things. Then I went to Trinity and I got involved in politics. Putting my interest in public affairs, together with my father’s nationalist influence, (pauses)…joining Fianna Fáil was the logical place to go.
Does Fianna Fáil’s description of itself as the Republican Party make any sense in 2007?
There is a job to be done and that is the unification of this country. That’s our agenda. That’s my agenda, but by peaceful means. I don’t believe in blowing up people to achieve that. I believe that people should make love not war.
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are starting to look very similar.
The differences may appear at one level to be superficial but, actually, they are totally different parties. Fine Gael does not have the same imperative towards a united Ireland that we have. Yes, if you want to accommodate different traditions on this island, you must compromise. But for me that does not involve the compromise of principle. I don’t recognise the English sovereignty over Northern Ireland nor does our constitution. Ireland is the island of Ireland, and it should be united.
We said through the Anglo-Irish agreement that the status of Northern Ireland would never change until a majority of the people of Northern Ireland wanted to change that status. And we support that. We hope that by persuasion that one day it will be united, and we’ll work towards that. When we have cross-border co-operation on economics, and cross-border cultural events, that’s working towards it. When people from Northern Ireland come down here to live, and visa versa, that is working towards it. But as a republican party that is number one.
According to the “Red C” survey, in the Sunday Business Post, Fianna Fáil has lost support, down to 36%. That could mean dropping between 15 and 20 seats in the general election. What’s the problem?
Why are we not top of the pops? It is a very, very good question because Ireland is the envy of Europe. The proof is everybody wants to come and live here, and yet people here appear to be very unhappy about traffic, about crime, about the health services. They are right to be unhappy. People should always want more and that is healthy in a democracy. You are never going to solve every problem. There are problems with the health system in America. There are problems with the NHS in England.
Is there not a historical culture of sleaze in Fianna Fáil that militates against someone like you being taken seriously?
Obviously, nobody is happy about that. We set up and supported the tribunals. Most of this stuff occurred in the 1980s, early 1990s. It is not fair to say there has been any improper behaviour in the last few years. All the Liam Lawlor stuff is really 1980s, first half of 1990s. Come on now, this is 2007. Let’s move on.
What about Haughey, Burke, and Lawlor. Were those people treated unfairly by the media?
I am really not one of these people that blame the media. I do have criticisms. The media love to report bad news stories, and they love to report sexual scandals. They don’t report enough of the good things because that doesn’t sell newspapers. So newspapers are inherently one-sided towards the sensational. If you had several pages in hotpress writing about a new factory opening in Tipperary you mightn’t get a lot of people to buy your product. A new factory opening with 500 new jobs is a lot more important to people than whether a politician was caught doing this or that.
All the evidence is that the HSE is failing – and that Mary Harney’s tenure as Minister Of Health has also been a failure.
I think the opposite. I think it is too early to see the fruits of her work, but she is circling the right direction when she says there must be a public only consultants’ contract. It is totally unacceptable to me that consultants divide their time between public and private patients. I want consultants available around the clock, paid for by the public purse, giving fulltime attention to public patients. She is absolutely right about private hospitals. Why? Because at the moment you have private patients in public beds. So if you get those private patients out of public beds you automatically free public beds for public patients. I think the HSE is working very well
But the fact is that MRSA is rampant. People are still being kept on trolleys for days. Is this not the ultimate indictment of the Government, in a time of unprecedented prosperity?
I will put the question back to you. Do you think we would solve it, if we doubled the amount we spent on health? No. It is a management thing. We have hugely increased the amount of funding but there is an issue about efficiency.
Would it be better for Fianna Fáil to consider any party other than the PDs when it comes to forming the next government?
My own preference is the Progressive Democrats because I think it has been a very, very successful combination for this country by bringing down taxes. We have made this economy very dynamic. Sometimes, I think we get very complacent about this and I really resent that. I am in politics since 1985 and I remember when Frank Feely, the Dublin City Manager, came up to us in City Hall and said, ‘The photocopier has broken down. We don’t have enough money to buy one, we will have to rent one.’ That was what it was like. In 1986, we let go several thousand employees from Dublin City Council. We didn’t have the money. Dublin was bust. Ireland was bust. At that time, Ireland had very high taxation and because of high taxation it had high unemployment, it had high emigration, it had a high national debt. By bringing down taxation – not just personal but company and corporate taxation – you have got a great dynamic into the economy and because of that unemployment is over. There were several hundred thousand unemployed and nobody ever thought we would get out of that. And we did. Quite frankly, if the other shower get in, we will be back to that.
A lot of Fianna Fáil TDs must be upset to see the extent to which the PDs have been over-represented in the Cabinet?
They have their correct proportion. I am not hung up about the PDs. I wouldn’t mind agreeing coalition again. I’d also be very happy about coalition with the Greens. I have a track record on two green issues; one is urban noise – I am a long-term campaigner on that, since I was Lord Mayor – and secondly, genetically modified food. Our government, including this government, does not have a great track record on that issue. So I have a lot in common with the Greens.
Surely you’d be better jumping ship and being elected as a PD? If there is a FF/PD coalition, that way you’d be guaranteed a place at the Cabinet table.
Maybe yes, maybe no. Look, very few people from Fianna Fáil jump ship to the PDs. We love our party. It is the best party. I love Fianna Fáil. Fianna Fáil is the best political party in Europe, if not the world. It is a very loyal party. We stick together. We are all very idealistic. We have done this country proud. Everybody wants to come live in Ireland – that’s no accident.
The PDs must be a far less attractive coalition partner with Michael McDowell rather than Mary Harney at the helm?
It really doesn’t make any difference. As long as we are happy with the policies, the personal isn’t that important. It is like your in-laws, you don’t choose your in-laws’ personalities but you live with them (laughs).
Are Labour not the natural coalition partners for Fianna Fáil?
I have no objection to it, but it is not my preferred option. If that other shower (the Rainbow Coalition) get in, there is going to be a recession because they can’t control the economy. They will say yes to every vested interest. They will raise taxation, no matter what they say, and we will have unemployment again.
If Fianna Fáil fail to retain power will the party elect a new leader?
Well, the Taoiseach said he would retire at 60 – or, in the event that he is not Taoiseach, on the other side of the general election. I don’t know whether he will stick to that. I am a great fan of his. I think he has been a huge success. People like Bertie Ahern. He is the most popular politician since Daniel O’Connell in Ireland. I would not be in any hurry to see him go.
Surely if you fail in the election there’ll be a new leader?
Jason, we never contemplate failure. You should know that.
Who’s next in line to lead the party?
There is no vacancy yet. You know, politicians hate to speculate (laughs). But there’s talented people like Micheál Martin, Dermot Ahern, Mary Hanafin, Brian Cowan, Noel Dempsey. There are several excellent candidates.
Would you like to be Taoiseach some day?
Oh, yeah. Of course, you would like to be at the top of your profession. Anybody who says that they wouldn’t like to be is basically telling a fib. It is a possibility for every TD. But if it is realistic is a different matter.
Would you be fearful of losing you seat in the upcoming election?
No. I will accept what the people (pauses)… I have no problem if they don’t elect me. I have no problems leaving politics. I am hugely passionate about politics, but I am passionate about everything I do. If the people say they don’t want me, well, I’ll go and do something else.
You have the advantage of your father owning Phoenix. You’re probably never going to get ridiculed in its pages.
My father is not the editor anymore. Paddy Prendeville is the editor. Everyone who has made it in Ireland politics appears there sooner or later. It is a compliment.
Do you have any skeletons in your closet?
I have lots of skeletons in the cupboard, but we all have. I am no different from anybody else.
Surely the truth is that the average TD contributes very little worthwhile during the course of an entire career. You’re either in Cabinet or you’re not...
Sorry, there is nothing more important than the Dáil. The Dail is the voice of the people. How can there be anything more important than that? To be a good TD is as important a job as any minister.
You served as your party’s spokesperson on justice between ‘94 and ‘97. You must have felt bitterly disappointed to be passed over for the Cabinet?
No. I am delighted to be a TD. If I am re-elected, I would like some responsibility in the next term. I don’t hide that. It mightn’t be in the cabinet, but I would like to chair an Oireachtas committee, or else be a junior minister. Attorney General would interest me as well. I am ambitious. I have an active mind. I would like to achieve things. I would talk about that if you want.
Your CV says you have a special interest in foreign – and particularly European – affairs. So you would like to be Minister for Foreign Affairs?
To start with, I would like to be Minister for European Affairs. I have travelled extensively throughout Europe. I am reasonable good at Spanish and French. I have a love of Eastern Europe. When I was Lord Mayor I gave Gorbachev freedom of the city. I have been honoured by the government of Poland. So I have considerable experience in European affairs. I would love to be involved in European politics.
Maybe you should consider being an MEP?
I want to stay in Ireland. I love Ireland. I am not just saying this to be coy. I love European politics but I have absolutely no interest in being a member of the European parliament and spending three out of every five days in Brussels.
What would be your stance on Israel?
I want a Palestinian state. I want Israel back to their 1967 borders. I think the wall is outrageous. It is illegal. It should be taken down. I am totally against Israeli nuclear weapons. I believe they have them. On the other hand, Palestinians need to respect Israel, and need to stop attacking Israel. I am a strong supporter of the Israeli state but within their 1967 borders.
Israel has nuclear capability. Why shouldn’t Iran?
In my view, neither of them should. I am totally against Israel having nuclear weapons. And I am totally against Iran getting nuclear weapons. But I am also against any military intervention to stop Iran from having nuclear weapons.
What do you make of the French government’s decision to ban Muslim women from wearing veils?
I can see where the French government is coming from. They want a secularist society. On the other hand, (pauses)… it is a clash of cultures. I am not sure what the answer is. We have our own problems coming, here.
British airport workers were banned from wearing religious symbols. Surely, this is a restriction on freedom of expression?
There is a very big question looming for all of Western society: how can you marry an egalitarian civil society with the rights of different religions to co-exist within it? To talk practically, The Angelus is a Catholic expression of our faith at six o’clock every evening. Some people may say, ‘Well, that’s on the State television station and it shouldn’t be because I am Muslim.’ I don’t agree with that – if I go to Turkey, or Iran, or a country like that, I don’t mind hearing the noise of the hymns coming out over the air as they do several times a day. That is part of their culture. The Angelus is also part of our culture.
So would it be OK for the Irish government to ban Muslim women from wearing veils?
No, I think it would be excessive. I wouldn’t support it.
Do you think that Ireland, a neutral country, should have allowed the US military to use our airports?
The way the Shannon activists talk, it is as if it is a major military centre. It is not. Ireland is neutral, has been neutral, and always – as far as I am concerned – will be neutral. The US military has, I think, being flying through Shannon for decades. But the assurance we got, which I accept, is that they are simply transporting troops. And they are not supposed to be carrying weapons either. By and large they don’t carry weapons.
But these troops are going to a war in Iraq. This means Ireland has participated in the war?
If I manufacture beef and I sell them to the American army, am I participating in the war? If I sell the American army boots, or bootlaces, you could say I am participating in the war. So it is a question of degree. We are not involved in the war. As far as I am concerned, if the Iranians wanted to land here we would let them. If the Russians wanted to land here we would also let them. We are an open society.
Does moral courage have no part to play in our foreign policy? How can we be neutral if we are allowing foreign soldiers to come through our airport?
American companies employ over a hundred thousand people in this country. If you want to shut the gates on America, you are going to have mass unemployment here again. We have our interests and there are no apologies for that. I am not shy about it – and I am critical of these alleged do-gooders at Shannon who are politically motivated and do not have the interests of the people of Ireland at heart. They have their own interests at heart. I think they should be shown up for what they are.
But surely this makes Ireland a legitimate target for Islamic extremists?
That is a scandalous thing to say. It is talking it up. The Arabs know we are not hostile to any of their countries. Ireland is very friendly with virtually every country in the Middle East. That is talking up the threat for political purposes.
Has the Irish government put its citizens at risk by allowing the usage of Shannon for military purposes?
I fundamentally and completely disagree with that.
Ireland was recently slammed in a report for allowing CIA operatives to bring illegally detained captives back into America via Shannon.
Just to correct you, there was absolutely no evidence that anyone was detained at Shannon or via Shannon. There was evidence that some of the illegal renditions, which I totally condemn, that some of those planes started from America to Shannon and then into Europe, they then left with their captives – they maybe brought a captive from Germany or somewhere like that – onto Egypt. But no captives according to the reports – and I did read them – went through Shannon.
Surely it comes down to this: every fool knows that Shannon is being used for this purpose – except the top brass in our Government.
We have received assurances from the highest level – from the President of the United States of America – that people are not being illegally rendered through Shannon.
Surely the government’s evasiveness on this is about as credible as Dermot Ahern’s infamous trip up and down every tree in North County Dublin in relation to Ray Burke?
I can tell you, if I believed for one minute that somebody had been illegally rendered through Shannon I would be the first to personally protest outside the US embassy. These illegal renditions are absolutely disgraceful. They are a complete breach of the European Convention On Human Rights. We have actually said that to the US ambassador, several times here, that we are totally against it. There is no ambiguity on that. I think America should be ashamed of those renditions.
As Mayor of Dublin during the horrific 9/11 attacks, you helped express solidarity with the people of New York. You unveiled memorial plaques in both Dublin and New York. Since then hasn’t America become much more isolated because of the Bush administration’s crazy decision to invade Iraq?
Yes. President Bush’s foreign policy has been an absolute disaster. Not particularly because of his invasion of Iraq. I think there were serious problems in Iraq even without (pauses)… Saddam Hussein ruled that place through fear and mass murder. But, more fundamentally, his (Bush’s) failure has been to engage with the Arab world, and to treat Iran and Syria as complete enemies, and not to deal with the Israeli/Palestinian (situation). I think Iraq is actually a sideshow. If President Bush had seriously engaged in the Middle East peace process the way Clinton did, then I don’t think there would be this scuffle with Iraq at all.
Was the introduction of ASBOs not just an example of allowing Enda Kenny and Fine Gael to dictate the agenda when none of the stakeholders, including the Gardaí, saw or see any value in them?
Hold on, in fairness to Fine Gael, they supported the idea of the Garda reserve. Occasionally, if not several times, Fine Gael does make decisions that are in the national interest, even when they are in opposition.
Could you see Enda Kenny as Taoiseach?
I don’t believe he is going to make it. But I have no particular criticisms of Enda Kenny. Actually, I think he is a very nice guy. He is a man of great integrity. I happen to admire him.
Your constituency, Dublin South Central, has serious crime and drug problems. What needs to be done?
There is a direct link between poverty and crime. Let’s get straight to that one. If you ever think you are going to stop crime without stopping poverty you’re dreaming. In Ballyfermot, a child has a seven percent chance of getting to third level education; in Foxrock, a child has a seventy-seven percent chance of getting to third level education. Deal with that and you might start tackling crime. Am I a left liberal on crime? No, I am not. I am a conservative on crime. But I am also progressive in that I believe (pauses)…I am totally against third level fees paid for by the State. Niamh Breanach, a Labour minister, brought that in – probably the most regressive step in Irish education ever. That money should have gone to primary and second level education, and particularly disadvantaged areas, to try to redress the imbalances in Irish society.
Surely the best way to reduce drug related crime would be to decriminalise drug use, and take the trade out of the hands of criminals completely?
No, I don’t agree. I think it is a disaster because it would send, absolutely, the wrong signal that some of this drug taking is OK. It is not OK. It doesn’t just destroy the person themselves, it destroys their families and their communities. They just become zombies.
You’re young enough to have a bit of perspective on soft drugs. Is it not a complete waste of vital resources prosecuting people for the use of cannabis?
Look, the users are the victims. It is the gang leaders who make a business out of this – they are the guys who should be got at. Yes, they will always have a market as long as it is illegal and, of course, there is a certain logic to the argument: if you make it freely available these guys go out of business. But they would probably then move on to some other form of a business.
I am not talking about hard drugs here. I am talking about smoking a joint, as you can do in Holland without any legal ramifications. Should we not allow it here?
No. I think about Holland (pauses)… it is not the kind of place where I would want to live. When you see these cafés and they are all stoned out of their heads, I mean…
Are you saying Holland would not be a safe environment to raise a family?
No. It is not. It is not.
What do you make of the hype around teenagers binge-drinking? Is it being blown out of proportion?
I do think there is a genuine concern about binge-drinking. I am not anti-alcohol. I think drinking is part of the Irish culture. I am a moderate drinker.
Is there not a horrible demonisation of young people going on at the moment?
No, they are not being demonised. It is a serious problem. People should learn to enjoy drink. Drink is a great pleasure and they don’t seem to have any problem with it particularly in Spain, France, Italy, and so on, you know. I think the whole trick must be to put alcohol with food. People should enjoy alcohol with food, and that’s the right context for alcohol. We need to get away from this thing of tanking up on booze.
Do you remember the first time you got drunk?
I remember I was playing in a tennis tournament, I think it was down in Mullingar, and somebody gave me a bottle of rum. I drank a fair bit of it and I never drank rum since because it gave me a terrible headache. Yes, I did get drunk – once! At least once. I now take significantly less alcohol per week than the medical recommendation.
Should same sex marriage be allowed in Ireland, as it is in the North?
No, I am against it. Marriage is between a man and a woman. That’s what God says and that’s what the constitution says. I would give gay couples, or whatever, virtually identical legal and civil rights, I have no problem with that, so they can pass on property, inherit property, all that sort of stuff. No discrimination, but not marriage. I am against gay adoptions as well. The best thing for a child is a man and a woman.
Because it is obvious. I was lucky enough to have a loving father and a loving mother bringing me up, and I can see the benefits of that – to have a mother and a father. I don’t think anybody can plausibly argue to have two men, or two women, bringing you up is as good as a man and a woman. Aren’t we always saying: ‘Whatever is best for the children’? The best practice is for a man and a woman to rear a child. I will gladly take on anyone who counters with a different argument. They are wrong and they know they are wrong.
What if someone was to say that your attitude is homophonic?
They can say what they want. What is the best for the child?
Would you describe yourself as being a religious person?
I am very religious but I don’t go to church regularly. I believe in God and I think of myself as religious.
What would be your stance on abortion?
It is not really an issue at the moment, Jason, so I haven’t given it much thought.
But are you happy that women have to go to England or Europe for abortions?
There are certain categories in which it (abortion) can happen (in Ireland). I just think that I support the status quo basically.
Is it not time that we made provision for abortion – for example in the kind of case that was brought to light in Poland recently where the woman effectively lost her sight?
It is a very complicated discussion. I don’t want to tell people what to do – it is not part of me. I would like to think that I am pro-life, but I am not going to criticise anybody else.
Is it acceptable for a raped woman to abort?
There is a lot of court cases and legislation on this. It is not an area I am particularly involved in.
You are married. Do you have any children?
No, not yet.
Is it not a no-brainer that prostitution should be legalised?
No. It is the exploitation of women and I don’t approve of it.
Should someone who is, for whatever reason, denied sex in their main relationship – as a result of illness or whatever – not be entitled to have a sexual outlet without having to be drawn into an emotional relationship with someone that might undermine their commitment to their wife or life partner?
Look, I don’t want to tell anybody what they should or shouldn’t do. But, at the end of the day, who are prostitutes? They are normally people from Eastern Europe, or from poor parts of England, and they are being exploited. Am I in favour of that? No. That’s the angle I come from. Somebody’s sexual life is none of my business.
What business is it of the Government’s if I agree to pay 100 euro – or 500 euro – to someone to have sex with me? Is it not a nonsense that the State attempts to get in the middle of what is entirely a private matter?
Absolutely, if there is no exploitation. But professional prostitution necessarily implies exploitation. You are paying somebody for sex and you are degrading their body, you are degrading their personality. So, am I in favour of that? No way.
You have a passion for sport. What do you make of the current Irish set-up?
Bring back Jack! I am not hugely impressed with Steve Staunton. I am not after anyone’s blood or anything but Jack had a strategy. I think it needs a strong gaffer.
Do you think it was wise for FAI to appoint a novice?
I think Brian Kerr or Mick McCarthy should have been given more time. They were good managers. They were not given enough time. What was wrong with Brian Kerr?
What type of music do you like?
Irish, folk, and rock ‘n’ roll, and opera. I don’t particularly like U2. Their music wouldn’t appeal to me. I like the more classical… Led Zeppelin, Status Quo, Pink Floyd, that kind of stuff. I love The Chieftains, the Clancy Brothers, believe it or believe it not. I love good Irish singing. The Dubliners.
Who would be your favourite sex symbol?
This is so un-cool. Ava Gardner because her role in Mogambo is just fantastic. And Grace Kelly. I love them both. Yes. Classical beauty.