- 15 May 02
MICHAEL NOONAN may be the most follicularly-challenged member of the Fine Gael front bench but he is also seen by some as the party's leader in waiting, the only person capable of bringing about the kind of revitalisation which has so conspicuously eluded John Bruton. Now aged fifty, Noonan was for years known as the man who as Minister for Justice in the mid-eighties exposed the Sean Doherty bugging scandal and ordered the release of Nicky Kelly. More recently, however, he has achieved real fame as a Scrap Saturday caricature. Interview: LIAM FAY.
LIAM FAY: In twenty words or less, tell me what you think of Albert Reynolds' leadership of the country?
MICHAEL NOONAN: Dull. Unimaginative. He has no vision of where he wants the country to be, by say, the year 2000. It's essential that a national leader would have a vision of the kind of nation he wants to create. Albert's problem is that it's only one day at a time sweet Jesus and he just hopes that he can stay in the job.
LF: And what about John Bruton's leadership of Fine Gael?
MN: John Bruton's leadership of Fine Gael at the moment is not getting the kind of results that we would want. We're quite low in the polls. But I hope that it will improve as the government becomes increasingly unpopular.
LF: But hasn't John Bruton proven himself to be a thoroughly unattractive proposition as far as the electorate are concerned?
MN: Well, we came out of the last election having lost ten seats. Morale in the party was low after the election. It takes a while to pick the party up again and that's happening now. There is a commission looking at the party and they will report in October. That report will effectively provide us with a blueprint for the re-organisation of the party as we go towards the next election which the wise heads say will be in the summer of '97. Our re-organisation will begin this winter so we'll have plenty of time.
LF: What will that re-organisation involve?
MN: We'll have to deal with things like identifying new candidates, younger candidates. We need far more women as candidates and the broadening of Fine Gael's political agenda because I think the problem in recent years is that we've been perceived as being too narrowly focussed.
LF: But isn't Bruton himself a fundamental part of Fine Gael's problem?
MN: I think the problem arose as far back as 1985. I would put the benchmark of Fine Gael's decline with the abolition of the food subsidies in 1985. Then we had to take a series of harsh decisions on a whole lot of expenditure cuts at the back end of that period in government.
LF: And, of course, Bruton would be closely identified with those decisions.
MN: Yes, he was. But we all were there in cabinet, you know. I'm not fastening it on John Bruton. What I'm saying is we lost a lot of our support because we were advocating policies which would have medium to long term advantages for the country but for a family on social welfare next week's food bill is all that counts. They're not thinking in terms of five years down the line. So we lost a lot of support at that time and have not recovered from it. The foundation of the PDs also frightened Fine Gael people and it pulled us to the right.
LF: Why did it have that effect?
MN: There was a theory that we should compete with the PDs who in my view are the right wing party in the country. There was a Fine Gael theory that we should move and compete with them on their ground. Now, what I'd do is I'd concede them that little bit of ground they have on the right and I'd move the party back to the centre and I think the cutting edge of it should be left of centre. But I wouldn't use those terms. I think we should be a party committed to social justice and equality of opportunity.
LF: The PDs say that they are committed to those things as well - why don't Fine Gael and the PDs just get together and form one coherent opposition party?
MN: I don't think the PDs say they're committed to those things at all. When they theorise it's done by their ideologues like Michael McDowell and they quite clearly see themselves as free marketeers on the right. They want to run free market systems with little consideration or control.
LF: Don't tell me now that Fine Gael are not free marketeers?
MN: Oh yes, we are on the economic side. But what I'm saying is that our focus has been very close to the PD focus in recent years. That is too narrow a focus for a country like Ireland at the moment with over 300,000 unemployed, a huge young population and a lot of social welfare dependants.
LF: Fine Gael like to portray themselves as being progressive when it comes to the so-called liberal agenda but isn't it true to say that John Bruton's heart isn't in all this liberalism, that he is ultimately a very conservative person?
MN: I think that's to miss the point, to misunderstand the way politics should work. I don't think people are elected to political office so that they can run their own personal beliefs into legislation. I think John Bruton is conservative as a person, yes. But I don't think that's influenced his attitude to liberal legislation. He's a genuine liberal in the sense of wanting reform in the law on homosexuality, wanting reform in the law on divorce and so on.
LF: But you would've been very sceptical of Padraic Flynn saying 'I'm conservative myself but I'm going to introduce liberal legislation', you wouldn't have accepted his bona fides on that one.
MN: I'd be very sceptical of Flynn's bona fides and I'll tell you why. I had to take the first pro-life referendum through the Oireachtas and Flynn was one of the backwoods men who brought his particular version of Catholicism onto the floor of the house and tried to demonise the rest of us.
LF: You obviously have clear ideas on where Fine Gael should be going so when are you going to be leader?
MN: I have never put myself forward as leader of Fine Gael. What I'm arguing about within the party and in public is the way the party should move and the argument is not about who leads the party but what the party stands for and what position it occupies in the spectrum. Any TD worth his salt, especially with senior ministerial experience in this House, is not telling you the truth if they don't admit that at some stage they would like to be leader of the party but I'm not actively seeking it in any way. If there is a vacancy down the line I will contest for that vacancy but I'm not doing anything to seek to cause that vacancy.
LF: You're fifty now, isn't there a danger that after Bruton, Fine Gael will decide to skip a generation and go for someone like Ivan Yates as the next leader?
MN: Yeah, that could happen. But I'm still young enough. Fifty isn't old in politics and I have a lot of experience. I've spent four and a half years as a Minister. I think I have the credentials to become leader but, as you say, time may pass me by. Politics is an uncertain business.
LF: You did a bit of a solo run on the devaluation issue - was that because you felt Bruton was talking the currency down?
MN: I didn't but I felt that John Bruton was skating on thin ice because the government had developed a kind of phoney national consensus on the issue and by Christmas it was clear that they couldn't hold the line. And once they couldn't hold the line they were going to be looking for scapegoats and the first significant person to break the consensus would be the scapegoat. So my position on John Bruton's devaluation stance wasn't that he was wrong but it was the politics of it, because he allowed himself to be scapegoated by Fianna Fáil when they devalued four days after.
LF: Did Bruton reprimand you for doing that?
MN: We discussed it later. He wasn't happy but neither was I, you know. Neither of us were happy but time moved on. In the best of relationships you have periods of unhappiness.
LF: What did you think of the fact that the Attorney General and Reynolds' daughters all bought flats in the controversial sale of the Mespil complex?
MN: I think it reinforces the notion that there's a golden circle in the country of privileged people who are the real beneficiaries of any extra wealth that is created by the state. It's not conducive to a cohesive society and I think it's bad for democracy, very bad for democracy.
LF: You were Minister for Industry and Commerce during the mid-Eighties with responsibility for areas like export credit insurance. So you're in a perfect position to tell us who's telling the truth and who's lying down at the Beef Tribunal?
MN: I was the Minister who abolished export credit insurance to Iraq. What's not generally known is that during the election campaign of '87, I came under a lot of pressure from the meat industry to restore it.
LF: What sort of pressure?
MN: Phone calls. People writing in, that sort of pressure. Politicians are always at their most vulnerable during election campaigns.
LF: Specifically who was exerting this pressure?
MN: Various people within the meat industry. And this pressure mounted on me. I was asked to review it again so I broke from the election campaign, went back into the Department, took advice and, a week from polling day, refused to re-open export credit insurance to Iraq.
LF: So why would the subsequent Fianna Fáil administration choose to do differently?
MN: When the election was over and we lost - we were still in government for another couple of weeks - I took a memo into government on the 14th March 1987, the last cabinet meeting of Dr FitzGerald's administration, and I got the cabinet to agree the decision I had made during the campaign. Three weeks later, Albert Reynolds came in and he began to reverse that decision. I think that Albert Reynolds' decision was extraordinary by any standards because I know what was in the file that I left behind. I couldn't find any reason, commercial or political, for reviewing it.
LF: So are you saying it was pure political favouritism?
MN: I don't know. It's up to the Tribunal now to decide. The question is why did Reynolds restore export credit insurance to Iraq three weeks after I left office when I had left a very thick file behind which explained chapter and verse why this shouldn't be done. The Tribunal must establish was this merely incompetence, a bad call, or was there more to it than that.
LF: You've often been described as a very able parliamentary performer - it must annoy you then that there are so many incompetent chancers alongside you in the Dáil.
MN: I wouldn't say that there's a lot of chancers in the Dáil. People get elected for different reasons. Some people get elected because they give a very good constituency service, others because the electors think they'll be good legislators, others again as kind of protest candidates. But, by and large, I would say TDs are shrewd people.
LF: But there are a high number of incompetent, nonentities on the Fine Gael benches.
MN: It's how you measure competence is what I'm questioning. Some people can appear to be very incompetent in here as debaters or on television but they might be good at representing their constituency interests. I see it as my role to represent Limerick in the Dáil but also to represent the Dáil in Limerick. Any TD who flies on one wing is in danger. Probably the best debater in here is Pat Rabbitte. He's a very good performer, well-prepared, on the ball, witty, bright, articulate and not really ideological. He's an intelligent fella who you'd think any constituency would return with enormous votes but he nearly lost his seat in the last election. There's a lesson there. Being a good parliamentarian is not enough.
LF: Fine Gael TDs, Godfrey Timmons and Frank Crowley, came at the very bottom of The Sunday Tribune's assessment of parliamentary performances during the lifetime of the last Dáil - that's not very impressive is it?
MN: Frank Crowley is in the Council of Europe so he was doing his speaking over there. He wasn't really attending the Dáil during that period so the criticism is unfair. Godfrey Timmons is around here since 1969. He must be doing something right if he's been here for twenty-four years.
LF: There are a lot of incredibly heavy drinkers in the Dáil, aren't there?
MN: There's a lot of people who drink in the Dáil, yes. But you have to distinguish between late night drinking and heavy drinking. Frequently a fella would start to drink here at a point when everyone else has gone home for the night, simply because the Dáil must go on until the debate is finished. But there isn't that much heavy drinking goin' on here. When I first came in '81, there were far more people doin' far more drinking in the Members Bar than you'd find now.
LF: The perception is that Fine Gaelers aren't as good drinkers as Fianna Fáilers. Bertie Ahern, for example, has boasted about how he can down a gallon of Bass and still walk a straight line.
MN: (Laughs) I don't think the capacity to drink is one of the distinguishing features between the parties. I enjoy a few pints myself but I don't put it on my election posters. I don't think it's a major political attribute to drink a gallon of Bass. I've been known to drink a gallon of Guinness but I don't boast about it.
LF: Your party colleague, Brendan McGahon, has become to a large extent the public face of the anti-homosexual lobby during the current decriminalisation debate - what do you think of that?
MN: I'd prefer if he didn't. In any party, there's give and take but there must be a party line to be followed. If one person breaks and takes up an extreme view then it makes it difficult for other people who for constituency reasons or personal reasons find it hard to go along with the party consensus. But the issue doesn't give me any problem. I think that the 1861 Act should be amended and that homosexual acts should be decriminalised.
LF: If Sean Doherty can be used as a symbol of the dubious culture of Fianna Fáil, doesn't Brendan McGahon represent the Fine Gael tradition of right wing arch-conservatism?
MN: There are elements of truth in it that he does reflect a trait within the party but it's certainly not the dominant trait in Fine Gael. You also have to remember that Brendan McGahon is not central to Fine Gael in the way that Sean Doherty is to Fianna Fáil. Sean Doherty was a former Minister for Justice in Mr Haughey's cabinet and he seems to be one of Mr Reynolds' key men now. In Mr Reynolds' own constituency, Longford/Roscommon, Sean Doherty became the favoured son, nominated to take the Reynolds' transfers. He's part of the Reynolds household cavalry so he's a far better carriage with which to convey the Fianna Fáil culture than Brendan McGahon would be for Fine Gael, a man who is on the fringes of the party and has announced already that he's not running again.
LF: Does the idea of two men engaging in anal sex cause you the same kind of personal distress that it obviously does McGahon?
MN: (Laughs) I'm in favour of the decriminalisation of homosexuality. I think that since no cases have been taken under the law for a long, long time that the law is no longer relevant and I don't believe there's any point in having redundant law on the statute books. I remember when I was Minister for Justice, it came to my attention on a number of occasions that because that law remained on the statute books various members of the homosexual community were afraid of blackmail. Because it was still a crime they were vulnerable to attempts to blackmail them.
LF: We're obviously talking about prominent public figures here.
MN: No, I'm not going to name names at all.
LF: But they were prominent people?
MN: Everyone is prominent if they're being blackmailed. I don't want to get involved in the personalities of it.
LF: Sure, but the fact that these cases came to the attention of the Minister for Justice would suggest that the people involved were in positions of power and authority.
MN: A lot would come to your attention when you're Minister for Justice. But it wasn't coming to my attention in any prying way or reasons of personality. It was coming to my attention because of the issue and the vulnerability to blackmail that certain people felt. And there were situations where they were subjected to blackmail. There was also a fear and I think it was a fear which was grounded that in circumstances where a crime occurred and an investigation followed, members of the homosexual community were fearful that their civil rights would not be fully respected by the Gardaí Siochana.
LF: What specific case convinced you that this fear was grounded?
MN: There was a particular murder in Dublin which involved a member of the homosexual community and I had a lot of complaints subsequently that, when members of the homosexual community were being questioned by the Gardaí, they felt that their full civil rights were not being protected in the way heterosexuals' civil rights are protected.
LF: Did you do anything about these complaints?
MN: Yes. I made sure that within the structures of the Department and the Gardaí Siochana that it became known that this would be frowned on and that it wasn't to happen. It wasn't the primary reason but it also was on my mind when I set up the Garda Complaints Tribunal which I did after the introduction of the 1986 Criminal Justice Bill.
LF: And to return to my earlier question, do you have any personal difficulty with what Brendan McGahon and co. would call "buggery"?
MN: No. I was in the United States recently and there's a new report out over there about sexual practice. It's quite far-ranging and the sample was much wider across the States than previous samples. It was scientifically founded and I would have no doubt about the authenticity of the report and the bona fides of those who conducted it. And they have moved away from the conventional wisdom statistic that ten per cent of persons are either homosexual or have the homosexual inclination. The latest survey shows that one per cent is the correct figure with another one per cent of males bisexual. Similar surveys taken in France and Japan corroborate that. So the incidence of homosexuality is not all as high as was believed right through the Eighties and early Nineties. I think that the concerns being expressed by persons who are opposing the decriminalisation of homosexuality shouldn't be as strong because the minority is a much smaller minority than they conceived.
LF: And if, as many people would still argue, the percentage is much greater would that alter your own view on decriminalisation?
MN: If there was a greater percentage of people I think it would be an issue of more controversy. I would still have the same attitude.
LF: When you blew the whistle on Sean Doherty for bugging journalists' telephones, weren't you being more than a little selective? Haven't Ministers for Justice been tapping telephones since the foundation of this State?
MN: There was never any question about that. Telephone tapping has always been used but it has been used to protect the State against serious criminal activity and against subversive activity.
LF: But aren't journalists' phones routinely tapped by all governments?
MN: Not journalists to find out their journalistic activity. People's professions are never gone into. Journalists are tapped, school teachers are tapped, but that's not the issue. It's not selection by profession. If journalists are tapped it would only be to discover information about serious crime or to do with subversive activity.
LF: Subversion is a very broad word. It could be used to justify a tap on anyone who opposed Government policies.
MN: No, I'm talking about terrorist activity. If a journalist or a doctor is involved in the Provisional IRA and they're in regular contact with bomb-makers or they're discussing the organisation or placement of bombs in Belfast, any Minister for Justice worth his salt would authorise a tap on that telephone if the Gardaí requested it. And the rules are laid down. Under the rules of the Department, no Minister for Justice can himself initiate a telephone tap. It had to be initiated by the Commissioner who is in charge of intelligence, it had to go then to the Commissioner who did the first check on it and asked the man who recommended it to justify it, then it had to go to a nominated official in the Department who in turn checked back with the Gardaí and it's only at that stage that it went to the Minister. Sean Doherty reversed the process. He suggested to the Assistant Commissioner that it would be a good idea to tap the phones of Geraldine Kennedy and Bruce Arnold. And according to his own evidence he did so at the behest of Mr. Haughey and he took transcripts of tapped conversations directly to him and showed him them.
LF: To your knowledge, was Doherty telling the truth about that?
MN: I never had any evidence to suggest that Mr. Haughey was implicated. That's what I always said but I believe Sean Doherty's version of events.
LF: He didn't prove it, he just said it.
MN: How could you prove it? How could you prove that we were having this conversation if you turned off that tape? Everything that happened between them was on a one-to-one basis with no records. But on the question of who do I believe, I believe Sean Doherty. What the public don't generally realise is that the Government had no particular interest in what Geraldine Kennedy and Bruce Arnold were saying. The man they were after was George Colley. Mr. Haughey suspected that George Colley was leaking information from cabinet meetings and they were trying to catch him in the act. That's what it was about and that's why it was such a horrible thing to do because he was a Cabinet Minister. At the time, some journalists focused on the crime against journalism but the real crime was against democracy because the target was George Colley, a Government Minister.
LF: Susan McHugh of Peace '93 says that part of the problem on this island is that people in the Republic don't really understand what's going on in the North. Isn't that a cast-iron argument against the continued imposition of Section 31?
MN: I don't think so. I think we know very clearly what the Provisional IRA stand for. I have no doubt at all and I don't think the public have any doubt either. They shouldn't be given the freedom of the airwaves. I'm fully in favour of Section 31 and I'll tell you why. If I'm on television tonight with Brian Cowen who's the Minister I'm marking at the moment and we're debating with Olivia O'Leary, I'll be trying to get at least fifty per cent of the people watching to support my point of view and Cowen will be trying to do the same. What you're playing for is that the majority of people will agree with you, that's the way it works with democratic politicians. Now, a person speaking on behalf of the Provos, whether his label is Sinn Fein or Provisional IRA, he doesn't have that objective at all. He's on a recruiting mission. All he has to is shift a hundred young people around the country to his point of view and he's got a hundred new recruits. That's why I agree with Section 31.
LF: But by saying that aren't you conceding that there would be something compelling enough in Gerry Adams' argument to convince those young people that's what they should do?
MN: No, no, no. There's a recruitment process for the IRA and I don't think a democratic country should allow its national airwaves and media to be used to recruit people into terrorism.
LF: But if you believe that you could handle Gerry Adams in a debate, why are you afraid that he would still be persuasive enough to win support for his cause?
MN: I would've no doubt at all that I could defeat and destroy Gerry Adams' arguments in a debating situation but nobody ever wins one hundred per cent in a television debate. There is always a minority with the other side of the argument and even that minority could provide fertile recruiting ground for the Provisional IRA.
The Provos can get recruits as it is, they don't need television to do so.
They can recruit but not with the same effect. With all advertising, even if you're only selling chocolates, television is the medium. I don't think they should be given access to it.
LF: Why do so many southern politicians, especially Fine Gaelers, bend over backwards to be nice about the Unionists. Everybody knows that it is Unionist intransigence which has brought about the current situation but very few of our politicians are prepared to say that anymore?
MN: I don't think that's right. Certainly, it was Unionist intransigence which caused the country to be divided. But if you look at what we did when we were in government, Garret Fitzgerald and those of us who were on the sub-committee that negotiated the Anglo-Irish Agreement, you'll see that if we had a fault it was that we didn't bring the Unionist population on board. And while attempts were made to involve them, when they refused to be involved we went ahead and negotiated the Agreement over their heads with the British government. I think the next phase of the Anglo-Irish Agreement is that the Unionists have to be brought in. I disagree that Fine Gael politicians have been bending over backwards to the Unionists. I haven't seen it. I would be in the Collins tradition of the Fine Gael party. The person who would be closest to my views on Northern Ireland would be Peter Barry and Peter Barry has been expressing the Fine Gael view for seven or eight years now, a strongly Nationalist view.
LF: But why is the simple fact that when the Unionists ran the show they behaved abominably being airbrushed out of history by Southern politicians?
MN: It is a fact that the Unionists didn't behave well when they ran the show. That's been said and said so often. There's no doubt at all that the problem in Northern Ireland is the creation of the Unionists and the British government. But time passes by. The issue now is how do we organise things politically on the island of Ireland so that people in their different traditions and praying to different Gods can be allowed to live their lives in peace and harmony. However, I will say that I think the Unionist politicians are very bad now. The Unionist community is very badly led. They're stuck dug-in the ground. This idea that the Orange card is the one to play is gone now. The Anglo-Irish Agreement finished that.
LF: Do you think things will move when Paisley goes?
MN: I think Paisley is a figure of the sixties. A figure of the bigotry and a figure of the discrimination. I believe that he would now privately acknowledge that what he did was probably wrong but he's so bedded in that constituency that he's incapable of moving. It'll have to go to a new generation before the thing is properly solved. As long as the argument remains territorial it's gonna go nowhere. You could abolish Articles Two and Three down here and it would make no difference. You could trick around with the Government of Ireland Act and redefine it and it would make no difference. What you need is an accommodation for everyone to live on the island and for that there must be a common set of principles to which everybody adheres.
LF: Which sounds fine - but what does it mean?
MN: What I'd be thinking of is a Bill of Rights for the whole island. It could be attached to our constitution and done by statute in the North. This would then be adjudicated on by some sort of court system so you'd need a sort of All-Ireland Supreme Court. I'm saying an all-Ireland Bill of Rights because as long as the Unionist community has veto with the United Kingdom it wouldn't be possible to have a constitution for the whole Ireland but it would be possible to have a Bill of Rights that would apply to both sides of the border. That's the kind of movement forward that you need. I'm an Irish Nationalist. I've never categorised myself in any other way but the kind of nationalism that I'd run with would be the Davis tradition. It's not farms or land or territorial claims, it's the people. There's no point in uniting the country unless you unite the people. And the way to do that is on the fundamental human rights line.
LF: You talk about the Fine Gael Nationalist tradition of Collins and you mention Peter Barry but you didn't mention John Bruton.
MN: Well, he was in the Cabinet which endorsed the Anglo-Irish agreement.
LF: He's seen by many people as a crypto Unionist?
MN: That would be a very exaggerated description of his political position.
LF: But you regard Peter Barry as a better touchstone for Fine Gael Nationalism than the party leader himself.
MN: I'm saying Peter Barry would be closer to my view but I can understand perfectly, in present circumstances, what John Bruton is trying to do. He's trying to indicate that there is at least one large party down here whose leader is trying to understand the difficulties of the Unionist population. Ultimately, the problem will not be solved until the Unionists talk. That's why I'd see more hope with someone like Peter Robinson than with Paisley. I met Peter Robinson in the United States and I found him extraordinarily bright, very capable and very different from what his public image is in Ireland.
LF: Different in what way?
MN: At that time, he was coming across in Ireland as a quite narrow-focussed Unionist bigot. In the United States, he was an intelligent, democratic politician who had analysed the problems in Northern Ireland and if he could get enough elbow room would do something about it. I met him at a conference in Virginia, sometime in the early eighties, and I was impressed by him.
LF: Is he good crack?
MN: He's reasonable company but it would be intellectual company. I wouldn't envisage him singing songs late at night. But if you wanted to have a cup of coffee and a serious discussion with a guy, he was as good as you'd get.
LF: How do you feel about the nickname Baldy Noonan?
MN: Well, first of all it was an invention of Phoenix , a rival magazine to your own. I have met John Mulcahy a number of times and at the time he invented that I think his son was starting a political career within Fianna Fail. He's now a member of Dublin Corporation on the Fianna Fail ticket.
LF: So you think it was a politically motivated nickname?
MN: Well, you know the way Phoenix carries on. They certainly had a pro-Fianna Fail agenda when we were in government in the early eighties.
LF: Were you ever tempted to wear a wig?
LF: As a proud-to-be-balding man then are you prepared to 'out' the wig wearers in the Oireachtas?
MN: There's a couple of fellas around alright but I think it's up to themselves to confess (laughs). There's a good few of them in Fianna Fail, not so many in Fine Gael but we did have a man who's no longer here, a member of the Fine Gael parliamentary party and he was known by his colleagues as the fella with the slidin' roof!
LF: Do you believe in God?
LF: Are you religious?
MN: Not more so than the average. I go to mass on Sundays. We have five kids and we try to rear them as best we can.
LF: Fine Gael are part of the International Christian Democrats group so Christianity is obviously every bit as important to you as democracy?
MN: To be quite frank, I detest the tags of 'Social Democrat' and 'Christian Democrat'. I think it's trying to impose European formula on an Irish political party which doesn't fit easily into it at all. I'm Fine Gael and I stand for social justice, equality of opportunity and a good dash of self-reliance. I don't need to be defined from outside. I've attended Christian Democrat gatherings in Europe and they go right across the spectrum. It would be as wide a spectrum as from the middle of the Labour party to a bit beyond Brendan McGahon in Fine Gael and taking everything in between (laughs).
LF: You were the Minister for Justice responsible for releasing Nicky Kelly - why didn't you go the whole hog and do the decent thing by acknowledging his innocence, compensating him and initiating an inquiry into how he was put in prison in the first place?
MN: Nicky Kelly was in jail when I became Minister for Justice. I hadn't been long in politics. I was first elected in '81 and I became a Minister within eighteen months. I hadn't been in touch with the whole debate about the Kelly case, the Sallins train robbery and the rest of it. When the civil servants talked to me about Nicky Kelly in the Christmas of '82, the name rang a bell but I couldn't place it. I had to be briefed on it. The reason it came up at all was that thousands of Christmas cards began to arrive into the Department of Justice. They were coming up on my desk by the hundreds, asking me to free Nicky Kelly. They were being sent in by the French branch of Amnesty International who adopted the Kelly case. So I got interested then and I began to read the stuff. But the Minister for Justice is not in a judicial position and if every court up to the Supreme Court says this fella is guilty a Minister needs grounds before he can release the fella and I had no grounds.
LF: Did you think he was innocent?
MN: (Pause) I didn't have to make that decision but the conclusion I came to was that the process which found him guilty would make me very unhappy. When I came to that conclusion then I had a dilemma because in my view he wasn't convicted beyond reasonable doubt yet I had no mechanism for releasing him. Then, he went on hunger strike and I sent all sorts of emissaries down to tell him that whatever chance he had of getting out subsequently he had no chance at all of getting out while he was on hunger strike. The policy has been since the foundation of the State that you don't concede to hunger strikers because the downstream would be that half Portlaoise would be on hunger strike the week after.
LF: And if he had died on hunger strike?
MN: If he had died on hunger strike then I would've been in a serious political position. I'd have to explain my reasons. It certainly wasn't an easy time especially in the context where I had serious worries about the manner in which he was convicted. But eventually we managed to get it across to some of his supporters that they were putting me in an impossible position. The only way that he could give me some scope was by coming off hunger strike but there was never any kind of arrangement or deal done. We talked about it in the Department anyway and then I agreed to go on and do an interview about Nicky Kelly. In the course of that interview I said 'Look, there's all sorts of talk in the media about Nicky Kelly but there's a way of getting out in the same way that there's a way of remitting a fine. You have to put in a formal petition, there's a petition process and I haven't received such a petition'. So, after that, the petition arrived in through his solicitor about three weeks later and I acted on the petition then as if it was reducing a fine. So I found a formula whereby I didn't have to make a quasi-judicial decision. I simply decided that the public interest was no longer served by keeping this man in prison.
LF: But wasn't that a typically Irish solution to an Irish problem - no admission of responsibility, no apology, just freedom by the backdoor?
MN: I let him out, you see. That's the bottom line. Subsequently, of course, the hand-writing and syntax expert in England came up with evidence that there were inherent contradictions in the composition of his confession and it stood up. Immediately, that came out I said now the new evidence has come the man should be pardoned. But, of course, I was no longer Minister, Flynn was.
LF: Would you be in favour of an inquiry being set up into the behaviour of the Gardaí at the time, the sort of inquiry which Amnesty International have called for?
MN: I wouldn't be opposed to it but if I was back in Justice I wouldn't activate it. It's a long, long time ago. Some of them are dead, a lot of them are retired.
LF: The fact that it was a long time ago doesn't detract from the seriousness of what happened.
MN: No, it doesn't detract from the fact that, if what he alleges happened happened, it certainly was wrong. But once inquiries or court hearing move a distance from events the quality of the evidence is suspect. The Sallins train robbery was in '76, the court cases were from about '76 to '78. You'd want a great memory, especially if you thought at the time that everything was gone through properly. To put people up on oath and question them about the detail of procedures carried out sixteen or seventeen years ago in the Bridewell, I don't think it would be possible.
LF: A million pounds has been suggested as appropriate compensation for Nicky Kelly. Do you think that's a sufficient figure?
MN: I dunno, how do you calculate something like that. Certainly, it would have to be significant. I heard a lower figure myself, but if it's a million the best of luck to him.
LF: Do you miss Scrap Saturday?
MN: No, not particularly. It didn't bother me.
LF: Are you aware of people who were hurt by it?
MN: I think Sile de Valera was hurt by it. If you read Dryden's essays on satire you'll get the rules for satire. Satire is legitimate if it's to hold public figures who are in error up to ridicule. The laughter then has a purgative effect, the corrosive laughter of the masses burns out the faults of the public figures. That's the basic theory. So if you're being satirised for something you said or did in public life that's legitimate, but being satirised because you're overweight is not legitimate. Sile was hurt and had every right to be. She was portrayed in a way too which was unfair because Sile de Valera is a very nice woman. I think Scrap Saturday damaged Gerry Collins and it made it easier for Reynolds to dismiss Collins. It had created a public climate about Collins where he was left without a national constituency. It also damaged Flynn.
LF: According to the rules of satire that you mentioned, were the jokes about Charlie Haughey and 'Teasy' legitimate?
MN: I would think that that was legitimate satire in the context of what I've described, yeah.
LF: Do you think that you've been trying to play up to your caricature ever since Scrap Saturday made you famous?
MN: There's been an element of that alright. I've started to horse around more. It's something that could be a problem. I'm going to have to watch it. There's a kind of a thing in the media where they look for the Noonanisms in my speeches and if that's all they report on I'll have to be careful. I'll have to watch the auld one-liners.