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'The only objective was to get Enda and Fine Gael back in and it's done'

Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes is working on a committee investigating the controversial Panama Papers.

Image: PA Archive/Press Association Images

LAST NOVEMBER, MANY people within Fine Gael believed Enda Kenny should snatch the opportunity to hold a quick election, believing he could ride on the wave of (a newfound) popularity.

The Taoiseach resisted. He believed his party could duck and dive through any choppy waters of the final days of his first term.

But as November faded into December and the new year arrived, the waters became gnarly. And Fine Gael weren’t prepared for a near-wipeout.

Since 26 February, the Director of Elections – the person tasked to lead the campaign – has conceded the party underestimated how unpopular it had become.

However, speaking to TheJournal.ie this week, Brian Hayes is still slow to admit there was even a semblance of failure in his campaign (despite losing 20 seats).

“My objective was to get Enda back in as Taoiseach and to get Fine Gael back in government and that has been achieved,” he said.

The party’s mantra during the election was “Let’s keep the recovery going” – which received a lot of criticism for refusing to acknowledge that a lot of people were not feeling any sort of recovery.

Last week, the Ireland edition of The Times reported that tweets sent from the official Fine Gael account during the final days of the general election that referenced the party’s ability to “keep the recovery going” have since been deleted.

With the party explicitly turning its back on the slogan, would Hayes go back and change it if he could?

You can always say you could do things differently, but Sinn Féin used the saying ‘a fairer recovery’. Both of us were talking about a recovery.

“I always said it was going to be difficult,” adding that it is easy to talk about do-overs or remaking history. Or to think about what you should have done differently after the event.

The only objective was to get Enda and Fine Gael back in and it’s done,” he repeats.

Fine Gael's Minister Bruton, Coveney and candidateSource: RollingNews.ie

When the sojourn in Ireland came to a disappointing end, Hayes was making his way back to the day job: a sitting MEP for Dublin in Brussels.

A well-known face in Irish politics when he was a junior minister in the Department of Finance, he made the somewhat surprising move across calmer waters two years ago.

While removed from the daily rigmarole of Leinster House, Hayes tries to keep himself relevant to Ireland and Fine Gael, and keeps abreast of all Oireachtas business.

With the Dáil finally getting into the swing of things in recent weeks, what does the Dublin man make of the new political landscape and does he think it can last?

I think it can last… It is a huge change for the opposition. We need the opposition to get measures through. There are a lot of new, serious people, so I hope they can make their mark and their will be an end to Punch-and-Judy style politics.

Graduate PRSI Contribution Scheme Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

He said the “juvenile” antics in the Dáil now have to “come to an end”.

While the newly-formed minority government settles in and starts the job of legislating at home, Hayes – who is a smaller cog in the Europe-wide wheel of governing – is attempting to involve himself in issues with international scope.

France Offshore Accounts Investigation An activist displays a newspaper headlining on f the 'Panama Papers' revelations during a banking managers meeting in Paris. Source: Francois Mori

The former Dublin South-West TD is a member of the new European Parliament inquiry committee set up to investigate the recent Panama papers revelations.

The Panama Papers involved leaks of 11.5 million files from the database of the Panama based law firm Mossack Fonseca.

The leak revealed how some of the world’s wealthiest people had benefited from secretive offshore tax regimes.

Hayes has called for the Mossack Fonseca firm and the Panamanian government to appear before the committee to answer questions.

The Fine Gael MEP said the question to ask is how any of the 28 member states allowed tax avoidance to take place through Panama and to investigate the scale of it in Europe.

Fallout for Ireland from Panama Papers

The investigation might unearth Irish involvement, which Hayes is adamant will not be shied away from.

Names have been bandied around but Revenue will ensure that people properly pay their tax and if there is fallout for Ireland, the Revenue will go after them and look for that tax to be paid.

He hopes the committee can reach a conclusion, ideally within 12 months.

“Ultimately, if any tax is not being paid in the European Union as a consequence of going through Panama, we need to expose those people and get tax from them.”

He said there is a responsibility “to shine a light on dodgy tax practice”.

“Quite frankly, I am fed up of Ireland being called a tax haven,” he said.

“We have cleaned up a lot in the last five years.”

Hayes believes this investigation could throw up information about other EU member states – ones bigger than Ireland – that are falling foul of tax law.

It’s not only white-collar crime that has Hayes talking about Ireland in Brussels though. Dublin isn’t the only hub that the Kinahan and Hutch gangs are working out of – and Hayes is banging on doors, trying to hatch a European-wide solution to drug cartels.

Freedom of movement of criminals

The recent spate of gangland violence in Dublin has sparked his calls for an EU-wide Criminal Assets Bureau.

In Ireland, CAB can confiscate assets and to get them back they have to prove they did not get them from criminal activity, but it is different in Spain, where they can only confiscate assets after a conviction.

Hayes said he has been discussing this with his Spanish colleagues in Europe.

If my country was shown as where criminals are based and are allowed flaunt their wealth, and sully the reputation of the country, I’d have something to say about it, and they should too.There is a EU-wide responsibility here. The directive on the Freedom of Movement in the EU doesn’t mean the freedom of movement of criminals.

But even with these hefty challenges and lofty ambitions, as with all things in Ireland, we’re always surrounded by water.

And Hayes’s MEP status hasn’t kept him clean and dry from the Irish Water debacle of 2014 to 2016.

Last week, the European Commission published its view that Ireland is no longer exempt from water charges – this coming after the new government had promised to suspend Irish Water bills while a review of the new utility is undertaken.

As someone who is based in mainland Europe –  in the hub of where these directives emerge – what does he make of the controversy?

“The commission has made itself clear,” says Hayes, who is of the opinion that charges are important both as a tax widening initiative as well as for conservation reasons.

“Water charges are going to happen, one way or the other. It would be better to do it now.”

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