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'My stupid mandatory but not compulsory line' - Regina Doherty on the rocky road of ministerial life

From the Public Services Card to initiating a Garda investigation over Twitter abuse, it’s been an eventful six months for the Meath TD.

File photo SOCIAL PROTECTION MINISTER Regina Doherty has hit out at Fianna Fáil as the Government looks set to lose a vote in the Dáíl over the state pension system Regina Doherty Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

THE DEPARTMENT OF Employment Affairs and Social Protection (DEASP) has had a rocky year of it.

Ordinarily, if you’re not hearing about a government department, it’s probably going about its business reasonably effectively in the background. It’s when the offices of state are in the headlines ad nauseam that things get a little sticky – from that point of view DEASP and the Department of Justice (which emerged from its most recent scandal, which nearly brought down the government and caused its minister Frances Fitzgerald to become the latest to fall on her own sword, not exactly smelling of roses) have become poster children for how not to handle a media crisis.

Debutante DEASP Minister and Fine Gael TD for Meath East Regina Doherty has only been in office since early June having graduated from the role of chief whip after Enda Kenny stepped aside, her promotion to the ranks sealed with the ascent of Leo Varadkar as Taoiseach.

Many of the department’s bigger controversies (the Public Services Card farrago, a three-month delay for maternity benefits, Varadkar’s own Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All campaign) happened before she took up her role.

That said, she’s still happy to defend her new office to the hilt.

“I can’t speak for Justice, and I think the last few years it speaks for itself, but I don’t think I’ve ever met a bunch of people (her new staff) who are so genuinely committed to what they do,” she tells TheJournal.ie.

“I know I don’t have huge experience so maybe everyone in the Department of Health is the same but the people I have the pleasure of working with are so helpful and so accommodating.”

The main ideology of the department is that we’re here to help people at the times of their lives where they can’t help themselves.

Controversies

Doherty may not have been around for the birth of DEASP’s major controversies this year, but she has still found herself embroiled within them, not the least of which was the Public Services Card (PSC), which until recently was used merely for claiming jobseekers’ benefits, but which has now been expanded to encompass all welfare services, some passport applications, and the driver theory test.

The card is now a prerequisite for all welfare services (the Minister herself holds one she confirms), leading to Doherty’s by-now infamous declaration last August that it is ‘mandatory, but not compulsory’ to hold one. Does she regret the phrase?

“The PSC has caused some concerns for people this year,” she says. “I probably fuelled that with (that) stupid line.”

Screenshot 2017-12-22 at 03.06.03 The Public Services Card

The Minister repeatedly displays a self-deprecating tone when it comes to discussing her own travails with the media, which you would imagine is endearing to her supporters, and perhaps galling to her detractors. But whether or not she regrets her previous pronouncements, Doherty digs in her heels when it comes to her department’s policies.

The PSC is “doing exactly what it was designed to do – to make accessing public services easier”, while the card is “absolutely” reducing fraud. DEASP has no issues whatsoever with managing the public’s private data (“That (data breaches) has never happened with our department.”). The €500 million figure her department has claimed it saved due to reported welfare fraud in 2016 is “absolutely accurate”, despite indications (including a FactCheck on this site which found the claim to be fundamentally inaccurate) to the contrary. Regarding the latter, when pressed as to its accuracy, she replies that “smarter people in our finance department have come up with those numbers”.

This is something of a recurring theme – Doherty is pleasant and courteous to a fault, but when pressed on policy her answers seem to suggest this government has no bad ones, only miscontrued soundbites or poor phraseology. It’s a relentless barrage of positivity, although some bending of reality also comes into play – when it’s suggested to her that adopted people without an adoption certificate aren’t allowed to register for a PSC, she is insistent that all adopted people have such a document – something which is patently not the case. When asked what the logic is for someone to be able to use a passport in order to register for a PSC, which in future will be needed to apply for a passport renewal, the answer is a bit dizzying:

“Well, first of all, when you come in, you don’t need anything to get anything, the PSC is only an end product of a process, so once you get through the process we issue you with a card. You don’t have to have a card, but what you do have to do is that if you get called in to verify who you are, who you say you are, then you have to come in and you do it, because if you don’t come in and you do it then we can’t be sure that you are who you say you are.”

Loyalty

On other topics, the Minister is more comfortable. Her reporting of the Twitter persona of Northern Irish blogger Catherine Kelly to gardaí over alleged harassment received on the social media platform (which led to Kelly being questioned by officers at Dublin Airport) is a bit off limits, given an investigation is outstanding. We ask if she had the situation over again, would she have done the same thing? “I would,” is the succinct answer.

Her loyalty for Leo Varadkar, before whom she sported a similar level of devotion for Enda Kenny, has gone through the roof – and Frances Fitzgerald being jettisoned (“I don’t think she had any choice”) hasn’t dampened that ardour in any way.

“I would have more support for him now than I ever did for a number of reasons,” she says of Ireland’s newest leader. “There’s something very endearing about a man who, even though he’s the head honcho of the entire country and government, still asks for advice, still is persuadable when you have a good idea and he tells you no, but he’ll actually sit down and listen to you and argue with you as to why you’re wrong and he’s right.”

The loyalty that he showed Frances Fitzgerald is something that you don’t often see in politics, and it makes me even prouder to be part of his team.

So, that was loyalty, as opposed to a case of arrogantly facing down Fianna Fáil until both leaders suddenly found themselves facing into a senseless general election that nobody wanted?

“Not a chance. He believes that she’s a good woman.”

File Photo Taoiseach Leo Varadkar says he still thinks Frances Fitzgerald did nothing wrong on the Marian Finucane radio show today. ENDS. Leo Varadkar and Frances Fitzgerald, pictured together in February 2017 Source: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

She insists, despite suggestions to the contrary, that the government “do take Maurice (McCabe) extremely seriously”, but that Fitzgerald had no choice but to ignore the now infamous 2015 email which informed the then minister that Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan was attempting to cast doubt on McCabe’s integrity at the O’Higgins Commission.

“Tell me what she didn’t do that you would have done,” she says. “You can’t do that (question the Commissioner’s approach). You cannot interfere, that’s like saying for argument’s sake that Maurice McCabe was going to make a part representation at the tribunal and the Tanaiste didn’t like it, so she should have interfered with his testimony. The reason commissions are established and enshrined in law is so that it’s taken out of the political sphere.”

Sexism

Back to Leo. His Strategic Communications Unit isn’t anything to be concerned about she says (“I sometimes think the media thinks we’re cleverer than we really are”).

Meanwhile, she insists that Varadkar was “taken out of context” recently when he compared Ireland’s inauspicious record on homelessness favourably with the figures seen on the continent, and rather surprisingly suggests she’s “surprised the situation isn’t worse given we haven’t built social houses in 10 years”. Well yes, you might think, apart from Doherty’s party has been in power for nigh-on seven of those 10 years.

What about sexism in Irish politics in the wake of member of the Fine Gael executive council Barry Walsh being forced to step aside over his social media profferings concerning women (including some TDs from his own party), a situation that Doherty was particularly strident about at the time?

“(Being on the executive council) doesn’t make him senior,” she says for starters. “There is sexism in Irish society, it isn’t unique to Irish politics, because it exists unfortunately in every single industry that I seem to know.”

What is good about what is happening at the moment is that for the ones… I’m a middle aged woman, for the first time in my life I am no longer embarrassed or ashamed of having conversations with people about experiences that might or might not have happened me or other women, whereas beforehand for some reason women had inherent guilt built into them that somehow they must have done something wrong.

“What’s happened in the last couple of months has actually empowered women to not only just be able to talk to each other and share, but to actually talk out and say we’ve had enough, we’re not going to put up with it any more.”

There are 15 ministers in Cabinet. Four of them are women. Good enough?

“No. It won’t be high enough until we get to 50-50.”

Finally, is the whole experience of being a minister all that it’s cracked up to be?

“I love it. Absolutely love it. I’m not stressed anymore. There’s a huge volume of of opportunities and things to do in this department,” she says.

It’s deadly. I’m not going to be giving out about it.

Read: ‘I won’t be running a similar campaign’ – Minister drops ‘Welfare Cheats’ approach, but says €500m fraud figure ‘absolutely accurate’

Read: ‘Once the debate starts. Once the referendum campaign kicks off, it’s open season’

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