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sunday interview

John Halligan: 'If I could bring in legislation to goddamn jail landlords, I would jail the bastards'

The new minister for state for training and skills has strong views on what should be done to stop rising rents that are forcing people into homelessness.

29/3/2011. Dail debates Moriarty Reports /Photocall Ireland /Photocall Ireland


He’s angry that families are being forced to live in hotels. He’s angry that people on decent wages can’t afford homes. He’s angry at landlords for upping the rent on good people and he’s angry the country was allowed to get in this state in first place.

Landlord speculators driving people into homelessness… if I could bring in legislation to goddamn jail them, I would, for doing it. I would jail the bastards.

It’s rare to hear such colourful language from an elected TD, but it’s also refreshing to hear a bit of passion about a subject matter such as this.

The difference between his anger from this year compared to last is that he now has a seat in government.

The new Minister of State for Training and Skills told this new government, with all its talk of “new politics”, faces big challenges ahead.

Sitting in the sun outside Leinster House, there is a sense that the country has moved on from the darkest days of the recession and is entering a new phase.

Landlords and rising rents 

Halligan doesn’t offer any quick-fix solutions, but he does say this government can’t let the country go back to where it was.

We allowed developers and speculators to wreck the country and we still have developers and speculators wrecking the fucking country, upping rent, outrageously upping fucking rent.
It is outrageous. I would fucking jail them if I could, bring in legislation to do it, the way they are treating human beings, asking exorbitant prices.

The new minister of state had a visitor to his new office this week – a girl on rent supplement who gets a maximum of €475 per month. The cheapest one bed apartment she can find is €592.

The government will say if we put that [rent supplement] up, landlords will put the properties up. Well, stop them. Bring in legislation to stop them.

It will be interesting to see how we deal with it. But immediately, I would get a view from the Attorney General, from the Supreme Court, the best barristers, can we bring in legislation to stop landlords right across the country for another five years.

The Waterford man and father of three has been in politics for over 15 years and is well used to being in opposition.

15/2/1992. Workers Party Special Ard Fheis Workers Party Special Ard Fheis. L to R. Cathal Goulding, Des O'Hagan, Sean Garland and John Halligan at the Special Ard Fheis in Dun Laoghaire, 1992.

He was elected to Waterford City Council in 1999 as a member of the Workers’ Party, but resigned in 2008. He ran as an independent the following year and topped the poll. He was elected as a TD in 2011 and joined the Independent Alliance in 2015.

Through a strange series of happenings this year, Ireland found itself with a minority-led Fine Gael government. With Fianna Fáil refusing to play ball, Fine Gael had to woo the other side, and a number of independents signed up – including the Independent Alliance TDs.

Becoming a minister for State

So, is being in government what Halligan expected it to be?

I don’t know what I expected it to be. I was never in the position before as a minister for state. I have never been part of government, I never thought I’d be part of a government. Not sure I wanted to be part of a government, but as it transpired, that is what happened in the negotiations.

Halligan says the electorate should reserve their criticism for the moment, saying it got to the stage where Ireland was probably going back to the polls.

What essentially we would have been saying to the country is, we don’t like how you voted, would you vote again.

We decided to give it a go and see what we can do and that’s what we done. Will it work, I don’t know.

14/4/2016. Dail Scenes Sam Boal Sam Boal

Earlier this week, his Independent Alliance colleague Super Junior Minister Finian McGrath said government is “not an easy place for me to be”, pointing to tensions in Cabinet between Fine Gael and independent ministers. Halligan says he agrees with McGrath.

It’s not an easy job. You are dealing with a different ideology. It requires trust and sensibility, if you like, and recognition that we have to be able to talk to one another without feeling that one is superior than the other.

If that doesn’t work, then it won’t last. Anybody that knows me, I just say things straight. If trust breaks down — we have to make sure it doesn’t break down — but if it does break down, then that’s it.

Fine Gael needed the independents

Halligan said his Cabinet partners in Fine Gael need to realise that they needed the independents to form a government.

They needed to recognise, whether they did or not initially, they did need us. I was easy about it, if I wasn’t going into government, I wasn’t going into government. It didn’t bother me. Did I expect to be a minister? No, I didn’t.

The Waterford TD said there has to be a change in politics with mutual respect across the board, regardless of party size or legacy.

If they treat us with disrespect and mistrust what’s going to happen is next time around, independents are going to be like, ‘I’m not going in with them, I’m not even going to talk to them, look at what they done to the last crowd.’

During the negotiating talks, Halligan was painted as promoting ‘parish pump politics’ and pushing to get his local issues sorted, namely the Waterford Regional Hospital cardiac unit.

Parish-pump politics

Whether it was the baking sun or the question, Halligan looked uncomfortable and frustrated when asked if that was the case. It’s a question that has been put to him many times over the course of the election. Were his local problems red line issues that held up the show from getting on the road?

“I have issues myself, with the hospital, Finian had issues with mental health [services], Shane had issues too.”

The issue in Waterford is not a Waterford issue. It is a south-east issue affecting 560,000 people where you had a hospital designated a primary intervention cardiovascular service hospital but not having the same service as designated to other hospitals.

How could something be a local issue where 560,00 people on Friday evening in any of those areas – Wexford, Waterford, Kilkenny, Dungarvan, Lismore, Cappoquin, Tramore – that there was no service available? Sure that was intolerable and it was the huge big election issue.

What am I to do as a politician? This was an issue, the electorate made this an issue, they made it an issue in the election before that, any of the TDs that lost their jobs will tell you ‘John, I got murdered on the hospital’. What was I supposed to do? Say ‘Sure I’m not going to bring that into the negotiations’ – but sure that would be silly stuff. So I did.

So, what was the reception in the room when he brought up the hospital?

Well, the reception wasn’t great, they felt as though we should just go into government and see what will happen and we said no, we’re not going to do that.

You need to show us that you mean business. I felt it was being dealt with and it is being dealt with at present.

25/1/2012. Anti Banks Protests TD's Thomas Pringle, John Halligan, Luke Ming Flanagan and Richard Botd Barrett pictured at a protest organised by the Campaign Against Household and Water Taxes outside the ex headquarters of the now defunct Anglo Irish Bank IN 2012. Laura Hutton / Photocall Ireland Laura Hutton / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Halligan says he’s not about local issues, saying he is on the Dáil record as bringing up controversial matters like the 8th Amendment, rape, the right to die, poverty and Syria.

 I’d say if I had spoke on local issues it would have been only a few times.

The minister of state says the independents achieved a lot, though the talks were not easy.

“There was heated debate, terrible heated debate with the Alliance and Fine Gael, there is no question about that, on issues we thought were relevant to the country.”

Our charter for for government, the charter on judges, the appointment on state boards, the whip system – we insisted that be part of government. We probably don’t get the credit that we should get in initiating a new system in the Dáil where the whip has been removed.

For us it is votes of confidence, it is the budget , it is the programme for government. I have a bill coming to the Dáil on dignity in death, there won’t be a whip on that, so chances are I will get votes that I wouldn’t have gotten before.

19/5/2016. New Junior Ministers Sam Boal Sam Boal

Becoming a minister was also not a sticking point during the talks, he said.

People seem to think they were an integral part of the negotiations, they weren’t that came in the last hour or two.

We wanted parity. If you are going to say we are going to be part of the government, you better make us part of the government, with ministers and ministers of state, but that wasn’t  a prerequisite of going into government.

‘I am pro-choice’

Halligan says he doesn’t have to vote with government on all issues. One issue close to his heart and one he has spoken about passionately in the Dáil is abortion.

He said he made it clear during talks with Fine Gael that he is pro-choice.

It didn’t go down great, but let’s see what happens over the next few months – will they bring this commission and what it’s made of.

I will vote any way I want to vote on that too. I will be voting to repeal the Eighth Amendment. It is not in programme of government from what I can see. And out that will go. I am not obliged to vote with the government on that, so that doesn’t impact on my principle on that.

Forcing women with fatal foetal abnormalities, and women who have been raped and traumatised go through nine months of pregnancy is “outrageous”, said Halligan. “It is inhuman and I haven’t changed one iota on that.”

Since entering government, the independents have already succeeded in getting a few controversies under their belt. The Minister for State for Health Finian McGrath put his foot in it defending smokers’ rights, while Halligan got heat for his views on Irish Water.

12/6/2012. Dail Scenes Laura Hutton / Photocall Ireland Laura Hutton / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Halligan said he was astounded by the controversy about him not paying his water charges and not supporting the Sinn Féin motion to abolish Irish Water.

Why he voted with government on Irish Water

He said he signed a programme of government that promised a motion would be brought to the Dáil to abolish the charges.

“The charges will  be gone for nine months [and] a commission will be set up to investigate Irish Water, look into it and come back to the Dáil. That is then outside the programme of government and I will vote to abolish Irish Water – minister or no minister – and that is what I will do and that is what will be done with legislation.”

Controversy also surrounded the Waterford TD when he said he had not paid his water charges, but later clarified that he is not liable to pay and is not registered.

“I haven’t paid. I have been upfront about it. I am not registered on the property. I made it quite clear, I wouldn’t pay, and I am not going to pay until it is all boxed off.”

Some criticised Halligan for his stance, but what would he say to customers now. Should they continue to pay their water charges?

“I have never advocated for what people should do, even when I was addressing marches… I personally wouldn’t pay, because I think Irish water is a completely failed entity and it has to be scrapped, put out of existence and start afresh.”

It’s 2.30pm, the sun is blazing, we’re about to get heat stroke and you can hear the Dáil bell ringing in the background. Time’s up and the newly appointed minister of state has to run.

Just before he hurries away, I manage to ask him if he still has time to write his poetry in his new role. In 2013, Halligan published a book of poetry based on his experiences in politics.

He says there is a volume two on the way. I suggest a working title for the book: The Talks.

“That’s possible, I have some nice ones on that, I can tell you.”

Read: Coveney to miss 100-day housing plan deadline as ‘people are not focused on work in August’>

Read: Healy-Rae talks up candidate’s mass-going record as TDs attempt to elect deputy chairman>

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