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'It's like Jesus, they're back': Alan Kelly on FF's return, Coveney's garda car 'shame', and advice for the Greens

Labour’s Alan Kelly now finds himself in opposition – and he seems to rather like it.

ALAN KELLY HAS been vying for the top job in the Labour Party for years.

He made no secret of it. On television, Kelly even put a time limit on when the former leader Brendan Howlin should depart from the role.

The Tipperary TD’s time came this year. So, is being leader all he imagined it to be?

“It’s better,” Kelly told yesterday.

Kelly has served in the Seanad, he’s been an MEP, a TD, a minister and now he’s one of the leaders of the opposition. 

Having sat around the Cabinet table, Kelly is well-placed to know what is going on behind the scenes on week one of a new government. It’s been a bumpy week for the Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael- Green Party coalition.

There have been drink-driving revelations, as well a lot of fallout from Micheál Martin’s ministerial choices. 

As sits down with Kelly in the temporary new home for the Dáil, the Dublin Convention Centre, the Tipp man hits out against Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney’s demand for a garda car, the government’s slow start in getting the health service back up and running, as well as the new Education Minister Norma Foley’s first tweet in the new job.

“Fianna Fail are back. It’s like when you were growing up, Dynasty and Dallas were on television, and then they disappeared for a long time, and then they come back.

“It’s like Jesus, they’re back.

“And all that comes with it, the drama that comes with it. But the interesting thing is sequels are never really as good as the originals, and that’s the same here. It’ll die off again soon I think. Fianna Fail’s positioning in Irish politics is in a very poor place at the moment.

“I think going into government Fine Gael, it is quite obvious that the bigger beast is Fine Gael,” he said. Fine Gael is the “cuter beast”, adds Kelly.

However cute they are, Kelly thinks Fine Gael has already put a step wrong this week with the former Tánaiste Simon Coveney seeking to retain his State car and garda driver.

There is no automatic entitlement to a garda driver and State car with the Department of Foreign Affairs position. The Taoiseach Micheál Martin, the Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and the Justice Minister Helen McEntee all get a state car.

Kelly said Simon Coveney looking for car “is embarrassing”.

“In the middle of a pandemic it’s bloody well embarrassing. He should be embarrassed and ashamed.. it’s a joke. And in the middle of a pandemic and economic crisis,” he said.

“I think the idea of 20 junior ministers in the middle of economic crisis is morally wrong,” added Kelly.

Barry Cowen

Another man who has also had a bad week is Fianna Fail’s Barry Cowen. He made an apology in the Dáil this week after it was revealed he had been banned from driving following a drink-driving offence.

“I think what Barry Cowen did was wrong. Obviously. But he’s done his punishment. The only question I think Barry Cowen needs to clarify in relation to it is did he have a licence or did he not? I mean, if he did have a licence, that’s fine. If he didn’t have a licence for a long period of time, that would be an issue,” he said.

When asked if has had any brushes with the law in terms of driving offences, Kelly said he had no drink-driving bans or offences in his past.

“I got penalty points years ago, and I probably got penalty points years before that, but I don’t think I’ve ever had more than three. I probably got a parking ticket sometime somewhere,” he added.

Giving ‘Frankie’ a chance 

Labour has always been progressive when it comes to Ireland’s drug policy, with Aodhán Ó Ríordáin rigorously campaigning for a injection centre to be opened in Dublin.

The new junior minister Frank Feighan in charge of drug policy got himself in hot water this week when he alleged that people in RTÉ are “snorting cocaine all over the place”. Is Kelly worried that Feighan might not be of the same mindset as his party?

“The minister deserves a chance, he’s only been appointed. He obviously, from the basis of current comments, needs to read up a lot. But one thing in fairness to minister Feighan, as I’ll call him now, Frankie, he can at times surprise you. So maybe he’ll surprise us and I hope he does. And if he does we’ll support him, and hopefully he’ll read that comment and take the required action because he is the type of fella who has surprised people in the past in relation to some of his commentary, so I wish him the best of luck. I’m not going to judge any minister at this rate,” said Kelly. 

Having said that, the Labour leader admits: “I’ve found some ministerial appointments very strange.”

‘He better deliver

Stephen Donnelly is a management consultant with experience in change management and health organisations, Kelly points out.

“So he better deliver. Because if he doesn’t, then it’s hypocrisy. He’s been very quiet since he became minister,” added Kelly

Does he think Donnelly will get a shock in the new job?

“No, because he’s super qualified, he couldn’t be getting shocked.”

“He needs to deliver and he needs to deliver very quickly. I’m going to give him a chance and in fairness, he is only there a couple of weeks, but I did stay on as health spokesperson when I saw him appointed.”

Fianna Fáil’s Norma Foley, now Education Minister, also faced criticism this week when her first tweet as minister was about new funding for a school in her constituency of Kerry. What did Kelly think when he saw the tweet?

“I thought it was a sign of Fianna Fáil are back. I retweeted and asked where’s our plan for reopening schools. At this moment in time, I am not confident that the Department of Education as I know it, given their handling of the Leaving Cert, will reopen schools to the scale needed in September, at this moment. I don’t think it will happen,” he said.

“They need to make decisions and schools need to open. You can’t blame teachers, you can’t say to one worker, you have to keep two metres, and then say to a teacher that doesn’t apply to you. So, that’s their equation, they need to solve it,” he said.

Hit criticised commentators who have come out to say the schools have to be open and that “teachers just need to suck it up”.

“They’re not living in the real world. Let them suck it up, would they put themselves in that position. So that equation is to be solved and it needs to be solved in the health service as well,” said Kelly.

Non-Covid deaths 

One issue that concerns the Labour leader as the public health emergency continues, is the slow reopening of non-Covid health services. 

“Simon Harris initially said seven or eight weeks ago said it would be out in a week. I have huge fears in relation to non-Covid related, preventable deaths. I believe the non-Covid preventable deaths are now ahead of Covid deaths – people who didn’t go for scans, people who didn’t go for appointments, people have not had their elective surgeries.”

Kelly said the new health minister was critical of the last government for the slow progress in resuming cancer screening. He said Stephen Donnelly said it needed to be brought back a lot quicker.

“So, where is it, minister? How clinically can mammograms and BreastCheck go from three years to two years… where is the clinical evidence for this decision change,” he asked.

The rules around best practice when it comes to screening “didn’t just disappear”. He said just because home-testing kits for colon cancer are not being sent out during the pandemic “doesn’t take away from the fact that people could have a health issue”.

“I do believe that there are people who, unfortunately, because of this position we’ve been left in, and the catch up taking too long, are going to get cancer who may not have,” he said.

Advice for the Greens?

Having been a junior partner in government, Kelly knows what it is like to deal with the likes of Fine Gael at the Cabinet table. What advice would he give the Greens?

“They need to win the first battle. And if they don’t win the first battle and show teeth they will continuously be rolling over all the time. So we’ll see how they get on,” he said.

“I look forward to the Greens in government. The first big test is going to be July stimulus. I think the July stimulus has to be in excess of five and a half billion Euro. If it’s not, they’ve already failed. I think the Greens are in for a big shock. They better deliver on retrofitting.”

Reflecting on his own party, Kelly said he wants to restate the party’s values in a fresh way. When asked if mistakes were made in the past that have brought the Labour party to where it is today, he said:

“I’m sure there was, what I’d be honest with you, I’m not going to go into it… there’s no political party that wouldn’t change things, but I suppose to learn from it is the most important thing.”

Kelly thinks people are “more fluid in their voting habits” which might be a good thing for his party.

“People don’t necessarily associate parties in the traditional sense anymore. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are in government for God’s sake, I mean, it says it all, the Civil War is over”

Kelly said there are “huge” similarities between Labour and the Social Democrats.

“I hope there is a day when the Labour Party and Social Democratic Party are one. I have great time for people in the Social Democrats. But we’re going to do our thing, and we’ll see what happens into the future,” he said. 

The Labour leader said he wouldn’t rule out talking to any party after the next election. He said:

“I don’t think Sinn Féin will come out as the largest party after the next election.”

Will it be Labour? 

“Who knows… things change in politics quite quickly.”

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