- 30 Jan 17
With no background in politics, and a paltry five weeks to canvass, he was first elected to the Dáil in 2011 as an Independent. Since then, he co-founded and then left the Social Democratic Party. Throughout all of this, he has retained a boyish enthusiasm and a sense of humour – which is unusual in Irish politics. So what lies behind the cheerful demeanour and liberal attitudes of the TD for Wicklow? Well, he’s a long-time fan of Hot Press for a start…
Stephen Donnelly is happy as Larry, as he sits down at his desk in Leinster House to kick off this interview. I initially wonder if it’s because the weight of the world has been lifted off his shoulders, since he announced his bombshell resignation as co-leader of Social Democrats.
The truth, however, is more mundane: Stephen is tickled pink by the fact that he’s finally going to appear in Hot Press.
“It’s kind of a sad way to make Hot Press though, isn’t it?” the 41-year-old laughs. “You know yourself: you’re 14/15/16/17 and you think, ‘One day I could be a famous, cool rock star. Maybe one day I’ll get into Hot Press’. Because when you bought Hot Press as a kid, you were using all your cash, right? So, it was a big deal when you’d think to yourself: ‘Maybe one day.’”
With perfect comedic timing, he turns to self-deprecating mode. “If someone had said, ‘Listen, here’s the gig: you’ll have no hair, glasses and you’re going to be interviewed because you’re a politician,’” he laughs, “I’m not convinced that would’ve inspired me as a 17-year-old, you know what I mean? Anyway, it’s still great to be asked.” Stephen mightn’t have made it as a rock star, but he’s certainly shaping up to become a serious political player.
The father-of-two, who lives in Greystones, studied mechanical engineering at UCD and then headed Stateside for his post-graduate degree in International Development, at Harvard Kennedy School.
Stephen had a cushy number in the private sector, but was so incensed by the IMF bailout that he decided to get involved, by running for the Dáil. “It had been suggested to me at a rugby game and I was turning it around for weeks and eventually my wife said, ‘If you don’t run, I never want to hear you give out about an Irish politician again!’ And I thought, ‘I can’t let that happen’, right?”
Stephen only announced his candidacy five weeks before the 2011 general election. He turned to an old pal from Harvard, who just happened to have run Barack Obama’s election campaigns in Toledo, in the key state of Ohio.
“He was only the person I knew who had anything to do with politics,” Stephen recalls. “He just shook his head. He said, ‘You have no party. You have no money. You have no policy platform. You have no organisation. You have no public profile. You have no hair! You have basically no chance of getting elected. So, you’re going to have to do it differently.’”
Heavily influenced by Obama’s campaign strategy, Stephen miraculously pulled it off. “I got in by 57 votes in the end,” he recalls, laughing. “Looking at it now, it was borderline delusional. But sometimes that’s what’s it takes, you know?”
Jason O’Toole: Tell me about your background?
Stephen Donnelly: I grew up in Dundrum, on the south of Dublin. I had a very happy childhood. Mum was a teacher. My father worked in retail. We moved out to Delgany when I was 10 or 11. I used to live right beside the Irish Management Institute. We used to go in there and light fires with dry leafs, leg it and get chased by the gardener. The Mint, where money is printed, was on the other side of the wall we played football against, but we never figured out a way in! Their security was better than the IMI’s (laughs).
Were you into sports growing up?
I played a lot of sports. I wasn’t very good at several of them. I played a lot of GAA – and I was rubbish. They used to put me on religiously for the last five minutes. I got co-ordinated when I was about 12. I was quite a tall 12-year-old, but then I kind of stopped growing (laughs) and everyone else kept going. I did basketball, volleyball, life saving, sailing, horse riding, rock climbing, white water canoeing, a lot of hiking and stuff with the scouts. I took up Taekwon-Do and got a first-degree black belt.
So, you can handle yourself in a fight?
I used to be able to. I wouldn’t fancy my chances now (laughs)! It gets you out of fights more than anything because if you’re being punched in the face repeatedly, three times a week, there’s no machismo about it. It chills you out. Also, you’re not afraid of getting a smack. So, if you do get into a tense situation, whoever is starting on you knows you’re not scared of them and they tend to walk away. The stupid kind of pub fights stuff: if you’re calm and you’re like, “We can do one of two things: you and I can go outside and we can fight. And regardless of what happens, I guarantee I’ll hurt you! Or I can buy you a pint?” They tend to say, “Get me a pint.” That’s the real advantage of martial arts.
What type of music did you like growing up?
It was very varied: The Cure, The Housemartins, U2. It changed in college. I got quite into the Irish scene. There was a great time when we had The Stunning, Something Happens, Hot House Flowers: those bands used to gig in the UCD bar and I really enjoyed that. And then I eased into electronic music, be it Fat Boy Slim, Orbital, Underworld, or whatever. Before I came over to you, I was listening to Mary Anne Hobbs’ Mix on Soundcloud. I guess for driving in my car, I’ve got Jamie XX’s latest album and Moderat’s latest album. So, nice chilled electronic is probably where I’m at, at the moment.
How important was chasing women and sex for you?
It was very important – though I wasn’t terribly successful at it (laughs)! Having a big mop of red hair and a big mouth did not necessarily equip me the best. But, yes, obviously, as with any other teenage boy, it certainly occupied a reasonable amount of my brain.
How old were you when you lost your virginity?
I was in Scotland and I was 19.
Was it all you hoped it would be?
Yeah, yeah. It was actually. It was lovely.
Someone told me that you and your classmates in UCD were lucky that you weren’t expelled.
In first year in engineering in UCD, we were horrific. I’m surprised the entire class didn’t get expelled, to be honest. At the time, it was great craic. But looking back – and having done a bit of teaching in a college – we were completely out of control. I don’t know how it was tolerated.
What type of pranks did you get up to?
At one of our lectures in Earlsfort Terrace we’d turn broadsheet newspaper into paper planes and get a line of them at the back with lighters and then someone would turn all the lights off and we’d launch a set of paper aeroplanes – on fire! – down over the theatre. So, there was an awful lot of messing and not a lot of learning. They clamped down the year after us. I think they brought in security. It got out of hand. But what we were learning was very boring (laughs).
Brian Cowen told me that he smoked marijuana at UCD. I presume you’d be in a similar boat?
I have smoked, yes.
Did you enjoy it?
Yeah. Most of the time, yeah.
Have you ever tried anything else?
I have, many years ago. I have, but that’s all the detail I’m going to go into.
I was going to ask if you ever tried cocaine?
I’m just not going to go down any of those lines, Jason, if that’s okay.
There’s a pun there: “I’m not going down any of those lines!”
Indeed, a poor choice of words!
What’s your view on legalising marijuana?
I’d like to find a way to decriminalise small quantities of weed. If a grown adult wants to grow a herb and then smoke it, and there are no negative consequences for other people, then they should be allowed to do that. However, any such approach would have to be done in the context of medical research showing that smoking weed as a minor can lead to longer-term mental health challenges. It would also need to be done mindful of ‘drug tourism’ – a la Amsterdam – which is not something we want here.
What about other drugs?
I’ve mixed views. If you’re doing something that’s not harming anybody else, it’s hard to see a legitimate role for the State in prosecuting you for it. However, this ‘victimless world’ isn’t the reality with a lot of drugs, because there is crime, there is violence, there are health effects. So, it’s complicated.
So, you’re basically saying if an adult is caught in possession of coke they shouldn’t be arrested for it?
I’m saying that I’m very open to an evidence-based conversation about it, but the ‘victimless world’ likely doesn’t apply with coke.
It’s an ugly drug. You don’t tend to see someone smoking a joint and then heading to Whelan’s to start a fight during a gig! But you do see young fellas coked up in bars, causing fights and intimidating people. I don’t think it’s as prevalent now, but certainly during the Boom you’d see it: guys who were clearly coked up and very aggressive. It was a very uncomfortable vibe. Talk to any Garda who works in the city centre about the heads they deal with on coke. Add to that the social consequences in the producer countries, which are catastrophic, and the individual and social consequences in consumer countries: it’s highly addictive and destroys lives. Decriminalisation is unlikely to lead to better outcomes. Maybe Class A drugs need to be dealt with case-by-case.
But what about the Portuguese model?
If there are models that have decriminalised and that has led to sustained lower usage, then I’d be very open to studying them. What I’ve heard anecdotally is: it’s worked well in Portugal, drug-related crime is down, harmful use of recreational drugs is down. But I’ve never seen an official report on it.
What about injection centres?
I’m broadly supportive of them. I’d like to see us looking at addiction not as a criminal issue but as a healthcare issue. What are the causes of addiction? Poverty, lack of knowledge, hopelessness, stress, mental health – let’s deal with them. People in a good place in their life don’t tend to become addicted to drugs. If we address it as a healthcare issue then it stands to reason that you’d have clean, safe injection centres.
Some members of Social Democrats told me you resigned because you were unhappy that the party didn’t go into government?
I believe we should have gone into government, but what bothered me far more was a refusal to even enter talks about government. Our election position was clear: we would talk to any party or group interested in social democratic policies. I gave that assurance to over a million people on the Leaders’ Debate. Call me old fashioned – or naïve – but I take that sort of thing seriously. So yes, it was a contributing factor, but by no means the only one.
Was there any major arguments or tension between you and the party’s other two co-leaders?
Can you expand?
Starting a political party is difficult, so naturally there are going to be tensions. The party chose, when I left, to engage in some snide nonsense, but that was their choice. My choice was to stay quiet.
Did you not know from the start that the Social Democratic party was a fiasco in the making?
The idea was solid. The idea was, ‘We’ve got to have a credible, progressive social democratic force in the country’. There were a lot of good people involved. There are still a lot of good people involved. But it didn’t work at the top. And with the benefit of hindsight, one could have called that earlier. It was a bloody good idea. But, unfortunately, it was no longer a viable option for me.
Why didn’t it work at the top?
Different working styles, different priorities, different tolerance for compromise, and lots more. Ultimately, in order for the party to grow, the top team needed to be highly effective: it wasn’t.
Do you think, in retrospect, that it was a bad idea to have three co-leaders?
Having three leaders was the only possible position. Would the party have done better in the election with just one leader, including getting more people elected? Probably.
Catherine Murphy told me that she’s left wing and you’re on the right.
Catherine is certainly left of me. I know where I am. But it is described in different ways. I was talking to one very experienced political correspondent, who described me as right wing on the front page. I said to him, ‘You have seen me consistently for six years advocate progressive social policy and responsible economics. That’s not right wing’. He said, ‘But you’re pro-business!’ I said, ‘I am unashamedly pro-business. But that’s not what right wing means. Right wing means smaller government and less focus on public service’. And he said, ‘Ah, yeah, but you’re pro-business’. In truth, I am socially left, socially liberal, and unashamedly pro-enterprise.
Have you been approached by any party to join them?
No. The process of leaving was a very difficult process. It took a while to step back and breathe. I spoke to a lot of people around Wicklow and said, ‘What do you think?’ I didn’t know how people were going to react to me leaving the Social Democrats because I asked them to vote for me and for the party. And the overwhelming majority of people I spoke to said they’re glad I left. I was really surprised by the reaction.
Why were they glad?
They said it had never really made sense to them – the top team. I had one lovely moment: this nun approached me recently and said, ‘It’s lovely to hear you voice again’. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘I didn’t hear much from you for two years and it’s lovely to hear you out fighting on behalf of the people again’. And she wasn’t picking that up on The Journal or Facebook, right (laughs)? So, yeah, people were relieved that I left.
Did you talk about joining another party?
People said, ‘Take a few months. Get your breath back. Just go back to doing what we elected you for’. Which was, you know, like the vulture fund work and the commercial property work that we’re doing. It’s been very healthy to just get back to why I got into politics. It’s been a really good few months. I’ve a great team; everyone is energised.
But you wouldn’t rule out joining a party?
Was it a problem that Catherine Murphy had become a kind of nemesis for Denis O’Brien?
I saw Denis O’Brien’s reactions and I believe he was badly advised by somebody because it was never about him. Catherine Murphy had received information that there were serious concerns about the Siteserv deal. So, she submitted multiple parliamentary questions. Minister Noonan, as far as I’m concerned, misled the Dáil in his responses. It is a very serious thing if the Minister for Finance is asked repeatedly by a member of parliament, ‘Do you have any concerns about this sale?’ and he has a report listing grave concerns – and he doesn’t respond, ‘Yes, a report has been sent.’
Are you calling Minister Noonan a liar?
I believe Minister Noonan misled the Dáil, materially, on several occasions. These include his responses to Catherine Murphy on Siteserv, and to me on whether the ECB threatened Ireland. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer or Treasury Secretary were found to have misled Parliament or Congress on material issues, that would be considered a resigning issue. Ireland doesn’t really do accountability though.
Was Catherine Murphy unfair to Denis O’Brien?
Not that I can see, no.
Were you uncomfortable about it, because you write for the Sunday Independent?
No, my focus wasn’t on Denis O’Brien at all. My focus was on the government. The point was: State assets were being sold, not secretly but in a completely non-transparent way. Senior department officials went so far as to write a report stating that they had serious concerns. I believe there was a serious conflict of interest in the terms of KPMG being involved in various parts of the sale. So, really my focus was on (a) the lack of transparency and (b) the potential cost to the State if these sales were not being made to the best value for the State.
Catherine Murphy said that Denis O’Brien shouldn’t be allowed to own as much of the media as he does.
Yeah, I think the current consolidation of ownership is unhealthy. It is not just Denis O’Brien. I would like to see legislation brought forward that created more diverse ownership. I don’t think anyone should be put out of pocket for that. I think fair sale prices should be afforded and so forth.
Who’s the most arrogant politician in Ireland?
I know exactly who I’d say, but I don’t think it would be fair. I’ll tell you what I will say: the last government became a very arrogant government. Labour became a very arrogant party – not the backbenchers. But I sat through five years of it and you hear the Labour Party talk about all the reasons why they did so badly and the answer they seem to have come up with is nobody understands how much they did. I’ve yet to hear a senior Labour Party member say, ‘We became arrogant. We turned people off.’
Would you like to be Minister for Finance?
I’d love to, at some point. I wouldn’t have said that four months ago because tax is really boring, it’s really dull (laughs). But we’ve got to make Ireland’s revenue base more secure, and the only way to do that is in Finance. There’s also really interesting stuff to be done in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
That’s exactly what Paschal Donohoe said in his Hot Press interview.
My sense is that other than the Taoiseach, the most critical role in cabinet is Public Expenditure and Reform. For Ireland to prosper, we must have superb public services, particularly in areas like education. But we need to think about it very differently to how we do now. We need to learn to trust public sector workers, to devolve control, and to do the management thing better. I’ve done this sort of work abroad, and the results can be powerful. But on Finance – I’ve spent the past few months looking into tax avoidance by so-called vulture funds, and in the property sector, and what’s going on is gob-smacking.
Take Project Eagle, Nama’s Northern Ireland loan book, sold to a big foreign fund. The fund’s 2015 accounts, recently released, by my reckoning show a profit for the year of around £168million. On that, less than 1,600 quid was paid in tax. That’s a tax rate of 0.001 percent or thereabouts. We’ve made big progress on the so-called vulture funds, and we could be looking at about €15 billion quid to the State over the next 10 years.
That’s a lot of money…
You can build about 100,000 houses with that. Imagine 100,000 high-quality, 1,500 square feet social houses in the right parts of the country, intermixed with private accommodation? That would be a game changer. What the funds were doing was completely legal, but it should never have been allowed – much less facilitated – by the State.
What’s your big worry on the economy?
Our tax base is being eroded. We had in committee recently two officials from the EU commission and throughout their presentation – it was a review of the budget – they kept saying, ‘You’re eroding the tax base. Why are you eroding the tax base? You’re not spending enough money on roads and transport and housing, on R&D. Why are you cutting taxes?’ We absolutely have to have a solid tax base. We’re going in the opposite direction. Now Brexit has happened, that’s going to hurt our SMEs, and exchequer returns from our SMEs.
If you were in the UK might you have sided with the Brexiters?
No, not in a million years.
Things could get worse if Trump gets his way to bring the multinationals back to the US.
The protectionism in the US could affect jobs and corporate returns from the multinationals here. Say Trumps turns around and does what he said he’d do and says, ‘Corporation tax is moving to 15% and you can bring onshore all of these profits you’ve been keeping in the Caymans and we’ll charge you a nominal rate. And you’ve got to bring the jobs back home’. If that happens, it’s likely to be bad news for Ireland.
It’s a turbulent period in Europe, with Brexit and the far right gaining momentum right across the continent.
We’re entering really choppy waters. Now Renzi has just lost his constitutional referendum, right? We are potentially looking at the Five Star (Movement), an anti-establishment, centre right group, moving into a position of power and running the Italian government. (Marine) Le Pen could get in, in France. If she does, there’s a realistic chance of the eurozone collapsing: we’re then into a real conversation about the break-up of the EU. So, these are really worrying times. We have to plan by assuming Ireland’s going to get hit from multiple directions at the same time. And right now, I don’t get that sense of urgency from the political system.
You got into politics because you were horrified to see the IMF taking control. Surely, things can’t get worse than that?
The risks for Ireland now significantly exceed 2007. In 2007 we were dealing with a banking collapse, but the fundamentals in our economy – or at least some of them – held solid. Our SME sector pushed back hard. Our multinational sector not only stayed but grew. And so, notwithstanding an awful lot of pain and suffering – some of it completely unnecessary – we weathered that storm. But Brexit, Le Penn, Italy, protectionism in the US: they attack the fundamentals of the economy and therefore are arguably much more serious.
What’s the bottom line on the ASTI’s threats of strike action?
I fully understand why the unions that signed up to Lansdowne are furious that the Garda are getting a deal without signing up. But there is an agreement in place: it is the Lansdowne Agreement. It does achieve pay restoration. It goes well towards equal pay for new joiners. It does most of the things that are being looked for. The reality is we’re still borrowing money. So going beyond Lansdowne comes at the cost to services. I would love to see them step back and allow the Garda deal to happen, as one special case, in the interest of the country – until the new pay commission reports back.
We don’t have a dedicated Minister for the Arts? What’s your view on that?
I absolutely believe we should have a dedicated Minister for the Arts. It is a national embarrassment that we have the lowest rate of funding for the arts in Europe. We’re at one-sixth the European average. This government and the last government should be ashamed of themselves. We pride ourselves on being a country of music and theatre and literature – and the reality is we fund it less than anybody else. The good news is that we have such a wealth of creativity in arts and music and literature. We have a growing creative industry, with award-winning companies like Brown Bag. There’s so much creativity and passion for the arts in the country – in spite of the government not really taking it seriously. Imagine what we could achieve if we said, ‘We’re at one-sixth of the European average – now, let’s hit the European average’.
What’s your view of fracking?
It seems to be a pretty dangerous thing that we really shouldn’t be doing.
Should we finally acknowledge that the US planes landing here are carrying military personnel and end the practice?
I think we have acknowledged that they carry military personnel. The issue is around extraordinary rendition, isn’t it?
But we’re meant to be neutral!
Yeah, we are a neutral country. But we still live under the protection of NATO. I disagreed with the motion to a hold a referendum to insert neutrality into the constitution. One of our blackest marks as a Republic to date was not standing up to the Nazis, maintaining neutrality during World War II. Not doing so would’ve come at a terrible cost, but when you are faced with pure evil sometimes that’s what you have to do.
An increasing number of people are coming out against the so-called Swedish model. I presume someone of essentially liberal views like yourself would see it as a load of anti-male nonsense…
You have to start from the point of view of protecting the sex worker, be it a man or woman. Because there’s plenty of male sex workers as well. So, everything has to be driven from that perspective. I appreciate a fully empowered man or woman saying they are making an informed and non-pressured choice to be a sex worker and it’s their body. Fine. But the majority of sex workers are not in that situation. You’ve got the human rights horror of trafficking, and women and men forced into prostitution, mainly women obviously. So, I don’t know what the right answer is. But there’s nothing wrong with sex between two consenting adults? Nope.
Where did this idea that sex should be in the context of a so-called loving relationship come from?
No idea. I don’t think it has to be. That sounds like religious dogma.
Why do Irish people continue to be afraid of the idea of sex as a source of pleasure?
What age are you?
A similar age to you.
I think for you and me (laughs) that’s probably true. We are the last wave of the guilty Catholics. My sense is: if you go a little bit younger they’re a lot less prudish than us. If you look at the millennials, they have very different views on all of this and very different hang-ups than our generation.
What type of hang-ups do they have?
Theirs is a less secure and more narcissistic world. Compared to our generation, they’re healthier and definitely better dressed. But there’s a worrying focus on the self. They’re under far more pressure to look good, to look like they’re having a good time, than we were.
In philosophical terms how can you possibly justify the idea that you can pay for a massage of any part of your body, and you can derive pleasure or fulfilment from it – but if someone touches your genitals, then it is a crime?
I don’t know! Is that not just another version of someone in the pulpit telling you it’s a sin?
No, because there are genuinely vulnerable people involved.
How does it make sense to criminalise the buyer and not the seller?
Because the seller is more vulnerable. The power is with the buyer. Now that said, they tried it in Sweden and obviously it drove it underground to some extent and put some women in more jeopardy. So, you have to be careful. I understand there are fully independent, empowered people who choose to do this – but my sense is for the majority of people you’re dealing with very vulnerable people.
Do you or don’t you support the so-called Swedish model?
I don’t have a well-thought through position on this. I’d need to spend more time looking at the evidence.
Is it not completely wrong to enact legislation on this without properly hearing what sex workers have to say?
Oh, yes, definitely.
So you think sex workers’ views should be heard and taken into account?
Oh, yeah, absolutely.
Have you ever gone to a strip club?
Yes. I was a lot younger (laughs).
Did you enjoy yourself?
No, not at all. I found it a deeply uncomfortable experience. I didn’t like the vibe. There’s something just wrong about it. I don’t fundamentally get the concept of a lap dance! I’ve never had one, by the way – and I never would! I just don’t get it. I think men look like awful eejits sitting there (laughs).
What was your reaction to the fact that a pioneering radical feminist like Germaine Greer was not allowed to speak on campus in the UK, because she tried to say that there is a distinction between women and trans people who identify themselves as women?
If Germaine Greer, or anyone else quite frankly, wants to say something – as long as you’re not inciting hatred, the idea that a university would say, ‘You can’t speak because you’re going to offend some people. You’re not going to be politically correct’ – that’s not only wrong: it’s dangerous.
Because we begin to trip into what is more and more people in the US have been reacting negatively to, which is this overly PC world. I mean, that’s essentially censorship, that’s thought-police stuff. So, no. Without prejudice to her idea – I really haven’t thought about it – it seems to me that it’s pretty reasonable to say that there is a difference. But maybe it’s not. But regardless, she should be allowed to say it.
I’m presuming you’re pro-choice and you want to see the Eighth Amendment repealed?
Yes. Absolutely, as quickly as possible. The question is: What do you replace it with? So, for me, there may be no more complex issue than this. Early term, fatal foetal abnormality, rape, incest, etc is unambiguously pro-choice. However, at the other end of the spectrum, like late-term viable pregnancies, for example, I wouldn’t be at all comfortable with abortions in those cases. Ultimately, my view is this is something that needs to be lead by women. Of course, men should have a voice. But really this is something where the country should do what women want to do on it.
What’re your thoughts on euthanasia?
I support it, given certain safety concerns. What you obviously have to avoid is a situation where you have a disgruntled relative, you know? Whatever happens has to be done entirely in the best interests of the person who might have a long-term debilitating illness. If somebody wants to end their own life and they are of sound mind, what right has any one else to tell them that they can’t do that?
Are you religious?
I’m a non-practising Catholic. I would describe myself as spiritual – not in a twinkly bells sense. But I do believe that there is more out there than what we see in the physical world. I do believe that Jesus Christ was around 2,000-odd years ago. Was he the physical personification of God the Catholic Church preaches? I don’t know. I think his message was a pretty profound message. I have huge difficulty with some of the Catholic Church’s dogma around things like homosexuality and abortion and the role of women. And, I think, sadly, they have a lot to answer for. But I do believe that the fundamental tenets of Christianity are pretty damn good: respect each other, respect yourself, love your neighbour, forgive. They’re pretty profound values.
What about other life forms out there, like little green men?
Little green people, Jason! They could be men or women.
Sorry. I’m being politically incorrect here.
(Roars laughing) They could be any colour! I watched a lot of Star Trek when I was younger. I hope there’re spaceships and laser beams and all manner of cool stuff.