This site uses cookies to improve your experience and to provide services and advertising. By continuing to browse, you agree to the use of cookies described in our Cookies Policy. You may change your settings at any time but this may impact on the functionality of the site. To learn more see our Cookies Policy.
OK
Dublin: 6 °C Sunday 8 December, 2019
Advertisement

"I do have sympathy for Pat Hickey. A 71-year-old man being filmed naked isn't to my tastes"

28-year-old Fine Gael TD Noel Rock has made a name for himself as one of the harshest critics of the OCI’s actions in Rio.

File Photo Pat Hickey has been arrested in Rio as part of the investigation into alleged ticket sales, Brazlian media has reported. Source: RollingNews.ie

WHO IS NOEL Rock?

Before the Olympic Games, the 28-year-old Fine Gael for TD Dublin North West was probably best-known nationally as either the man who nominated Enda Kenny for Taoiseach after February’s election (twice) or as the party’s youngest TD (he was elected as a councillor in 2014 and has been involved with politics since his college days when he was president of Young Fine Gael) in the new Dáil.

But two things have happened in recent weeks, and combined they’ve raised Rock’s profile no end – the Dáil went on its extended summer recess, and the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) got itself involved in a scarcely credible ticket-touting scandal.

And Rock has been commenting on that scandal a lot. He’s been making more noise than almost any other TD since the scandal first broke in fact, in calling for the OCI and (now former) president Pat Hickey to come before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), of which he is a member, to explain what on earth has been going on in Rio.

He’s been so prominent that he’s garnered himself the new, somewhat affectionate, alter ego Minister for Summer (courtesy of Newstalk’s Richard Chambers).

20160818_154835 Noel Rock Source: TheJournal.ie

TheJournal.ie meets up with Rock in the bar of Buswell’s Hotel across from Leinster House. He’s been on the go since about 5am talking Rio left, right and centre, and he looks tired. The OCI is a story that just keeps on rolling. Good fodder for a young TD on the way up.

A scandal in Rio

For starters the Glasnevin native, a very affable figure in person who nevertheless invariably chooses his words carefully, wants to confirm what he meant when he said last week that the OCI should have its state funding (about €520,000 per year) revoked until some clarity has been given to the situation. If the argument goes that ‘why should the athletes suffer for the mandarins’ sins’, he wants it to be known that isn’t what he had in mind.

“What I said was nuanced,” he says. “It was said with the caveat that it should be done as a last resort, and provided we can get the funding to the athletes via an arrangement with Sport Ireland.”

But revoking their funding is one of the few levers open to us when it comes to getting the OCI to comply with us, or to appear before an Oireachtas Inquiry.

Rock’s “big problem” with the OCI is that even when the scandal was in its infancy (it first broke with the arrest of Irishman Kevin Mallon on 7 August) “Pat Hickey was refusing to comply with us, refusing to give answers, to what were straightforward, mundane questions”.

Hickey himself has seen off manys a Sports Minister in his 27-year tenure at the OCI. It looks like Shane Ross may be the minister to finally outlast him in office however. That’s not a sentence you might have thought of yourself saying prior to the last election.

“In not letting an external person onto any independent inquiry, prior to his arrest at any rate – that was a red flag for anyone interested in accountability,” Rock says.

When it comes to the arrest itself, one of the most surreal of all Irish scandals took a turn for the macabre. Rock will allow that he does feel some sympathy for Hickey’s treatment at the hands of the Brazilian police, which saw him frogmarched from his (well, his son’s) Rio hotel room at seven in the morning, before having his personal effects laid out in front of an incredulous media for perusal.

hickey Pat Hickey being released from hospital in a wheelchair in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday

“I do have sympathy for him. A 71-year-old man, being filmed effectively naked at his hotel room door. Is it to my tastes? I’d have to say no. I think most people would say that on reflection, that it shouldn’t have happened,” he says.

One thing is certain, Brazilian police don’t mess around. They video arrests, they have immediate press conferences, they put evidence on display.
But you have to remember the turbulent time Brazil has had in the last two years (currently president Dilma Rousseff is facing impeachment for financial irregularities during her term) as well in terms of its own corruption within the state, in terms of the contracts handed out for the Olympics, in terms of its president. So these public displays of anti-corruption are kind of the new culture of Brazil.

He argues that this is the reason the ticket-touting laws that have seen the OCI come a cropper are so heavy-handed in Brazil: “They’re probably the strictest in the world, and that’s down to the corruption that Brazil has seen.”

Likewise, he doesn’t mince his words when it comes to Brazil’s data protection laws and due process, or lack thereof, which saw emails to Hickey from his solicitor laid bare for all to see, including an assertion that Shane Ross needed to “be put back in his box”.

“An email was leaked, his passport was displayed, his flight manifest. I mean there’s serious data protection issues there.”

But then Brazilian police act in a decisive manner. It might be different to our culture, but their case is no less legitimate for all that.

The “condescending tone” of the ‘back in his box’ email likewise rankles with Rock. “It exposes arrogance and a complete lack of respect to a minister, and basic problems with the culture at the OCI.”

We talk about no-one voting on the eighth (amendment, more on that anon) in my lifetime. Well I’ve never known a reality where Pat Hickey isn’t in charge of the OCI!

What can be done about that culture of entitlement? Initially Rock had called to get the OCI before the PAC. That may be out the window now that Hickey is stuck in Brazil for the foreseeable facing three charges concerning touting, illicit marketing, and ‘setting up a cartel’.

“It’s difficult to see how an inquiry can proceed given what’s happened in Brazil,” Rock admits. “There are still questions to be asked in the Irish public interest, but the question is who do you ask them of?”

Public accounts

“I would still like answers, but I wouldn’t want to affect whatever conclusions the Brazilian process end up with.”

So the OCI and the Public Accounts Committee is a match-up that may have to wait.

But then one of the problems with the PAC is that strictly speaking it can’t compel witnesses to appear anyway. Its remit is to account for how public funds are spent. In recent times, however, there has been the impression that the committee has been used to some extent as a purely political soundbite generator – the legal action brought by former Rehab CEO Angela Kerins is based firmly on the idea that PAC members have been going far beyond the limits of their mandate in the search for political capital.

“My goal on PAC is to try to eliminate that kind of grandstanding,” says Rock.

We need to focus on structured questions in terms of finance and accountability, but even in the meetings I’ve attended to date (including the HSE hearing which came in the aftermath of the recent Console scandal) that hasn’t alway been the case. People have been asking questions not for the answer but to get the soundbite.
It goes on a lot on Oireachtas committees. And they repeat themselves constantly trying to outdo each other in getting the line in the next day’s papers. And that’s a pity because it undermines what the committee is there to do.

Rock still thinks that PAC can make a difference however: “Oh yeah. Blowing the lid off the FAS scandal – that was all PAC. And that was all Shane Ross. He knows how to drill down and focus on an issue at hand. That will serve him well as a minister too.”

How about the fact that subjects are becoming less and less likely to accede to appearing before PAC voluntarily given the gauntlet-esque nature of the grillings they face?

“I can understand that. Not everyone I’ve seen so far on PAC has seemed to enjoy the experience.”

pac

We’re not just looking for accountability from those in front of the committee – we need to demand it from ourselves too. We’ve been given legal advice on these matters. We know what we can and can not say. Yet people go over the line anyway.
And that can’t go on, because if we’re attacking people they simply won’t want to appear, and that’s an immediate problem, because we can’t make them. I mean we’ve got Project Eagle and Nama coming up on the 22 September. This is a short-term issue, it needs to be dealt with.

Nominating a Taoiseach …

He may be one of the new guard, but Rock is quite free and easy when it comes to discussing his nomination of Enda Kenny as Taoiseach (we assume the reader, as have we, has tried to banish from his or her mind the torturous process that saw the Dáil take nearly three months to come up with a new government after the last election).

“It’s simple, he texted me and asked me to do it. I saw it as an honour to be honest,” Rock says. “It’s the Fine Gael tradition to have the youngest deputy do it, I guess he wanted to continue that.”

How long can this government last? “Oh two-and-a-half years I’d say,” is the answer. That we were not expecting. Seriously? Surely it’s on very shaky ground with Fianna Fáil holding all the aces from opposition?

“Look the first hurdle is the budget. Fianna Fáil have committed to three of them. We have to take them at their word. I can’t see any problem with the upcoming one,” says Rock.

People will kick up and make noise maybe, but it’ll still happen.

But, what about Enda Kenny’s week from hell, only about a month ago, which culminated with certain backbenchers calling for his head? Surely the Taoiseach can’t last two years?

Well he’s said he won’t lead the party into the next election. So that’s a difficulty because people are trying to guess how long he’ll last. When the election is near we’ll know. Politicians have that sense. What we’ve seen with the backbenchers and the like is more like heebie jeebies, nervousness. There’s no need to be too hasty in this.

And if Fianna Fáil get back in? Will the deal the two parties struck this time round have been worth it?

26/6/2012. Action on Mortgage Crisis Source: Laura Hutton/Rollingnews.ie

“I’d say it would if we can get our objectives done, and if we can show that a minority government can work,” he replies. “Like no party is going to dominate again the way Fianna Fáil once did. So can we prove that a minority administration is workable?”

There’s so many possibilities. It could be that Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil have the numbers next time around, though whether Sinn Féin will ever go in with anyone who isn’t themselves in a mirror… that I can’t say.

So who’s going to be the next leader of Fine Gael?

“There’s three real contenders really, Simon (Coveney), Leo (Varadkar) and Frances (Fitzgerald).”

I would have grown up in a tradition where a local was Taoiseach (Bertie Ahern, who went to Rock’s school), so I’d have an interest in a Dublin leader, so the idea of Leo Varadkar would excite me quite a bit.
He was in sport and did well, and that’s proven to be a much tougher station than people thought. I thought he did well in health at a very difficult time when his hands were tied and we couldn’t expand. So I think he’s proved himself. I’d be interested to see what Leo does next.

The Eighth

A couple of months back TheJournal.ie ran an audit of all the country’s newly-elected TDs to see how they felt about any prospective referendum on the eighth amendment. Rock was one of those who didn’t reply, which makes his candour on the issue a pleasant surprise.

“We have to have a referendum, it’s time we voted on it,” is his reply. “I was born in 1987 – we’ve never voted on it in my lifetime. So it’s gone on long enough. It’s getting a bit strange at this stage.”

How would he vote? “That depends on the wording, and on what would replace the eighth if it came in.”

6/7/2015. Pro Choice Protest At Dublin City Hall i Source: Leah Farrell

Not to sound like a man with two pints, but I’ve met a number of women who had to carry to term when they knew their child had a fatal foetal abnormality (FFA). How do you face them with the situation as it is?
In the case of rape, in the case of incest, FFAs, there are arguments to be made.

He’s in favour of an expert commission to look into the details of the constitution and how the referendum would be phrased (“look how well that worked when it came to same-sex marriage”).  ”There’s something to be said for taking a hundred people and really digging deeply into an issue,” he says.

Does he think it would pass?

“It depends on what the question is.” If allowances are made for FFAs and rape, say? “I think there’s a very strong likelihood it would pass in that case, yes.”

But if you’d told me a month before the Seanad referendum that it would survive, I would have put my house on that not being the case. Yet it’s still there. So it can be hard to judge. When you’re in politics you need to be able to see the wood for the trees.

Rock achieves that, in his own words, by spending as much time in his constituency as possible. “You can’t be friends with just politicians, that’s for sure. Or all you’ll ever hear is that which reinforces your views.”

Keeping it local

As we’ve mentioned before, Rock has earned himself a new moniker over the course of the last month. We mention his being the first Minister for Summer; that draws a deep chuckle. No hard feelings so?

“Look August is a good time for getting work done. We (he and partner Dawn Wheatley) don’t have children or anything like that. So it’s a good time to get things done.”

When we mention that he has greater visibility when it comes to the OCI than almost any other politician, he puts this down to others not grasping the gravity of the scandal at first.

“I’ve always had an interest in ticket touting, I’ve spoken on it before. So it was a subject I was comfortable with, maybe more so than others,” he says.

28/2/2016. General Election Campaigns Results Rock celebrates with partner Dawn Wheatley following his election in February 2016 Source: Leon Farrell

Getting back to the local side of things, Rock is the first Fine Gael TD to represent Dublin North West in 20 years. So surely an election any time soon isn’t in his best interests?

“Well it’s one Fianna Fáil would naturally target alright,” he admits. “But I’m six months in, I’m getting together a body of work, and I’m also getting a reputation for winning difficult elections.”

I lost in 2009 when we thought we’d win, I won in 2014 (local elections in both cases) when we didn’t think we’d win,  I earned the people’s trust and built the seat in 2016 at a very difficult time for the party. I wouldn’t be overly worried about another election.

As a councillor, Rock made a point of refusing to claim expenses (“mainly because you didn’t have to vouch for them”), though he acknowledges that is not quite so practical for a TD: “They’re just far bigger.”

He cites housing (“overwhelmingly number one”), crime, investment in education, and transport as the four biggest issues facing his constituency. He can’t say whether an increased Garda presence on the streets has caused the temporary cessation of hostilities in the drug-feuding being seen in Dublin (“I don’t want to be fact-checked on that one”), on Irish soil at least.

“I suspect it may have had something to do with it alright though.” The ongoing gangland war isn’t something he’s overly happy with. “Our street has been used as a getaway route. There’s been a lot of this in my part of the world. You have things like the incident in the Finglas car park with the child being barely missed by a bullet.”

I’m keen that anything being done to curb this is kept, and that anything temporary becomes more permanent.

He thinks new gardaí have a point when it comes to low wages (“100%”) and sees that situation as “one of the most regrettable things about our last period in government”.

As for the action plan on housing announced by Simon Coveney last month, Rock is positive. “Last time we used the Action Plan moniker we said we’d create 100,000 jobs in 2011. And we did.”

The plan is sound. But we have to achieve it to the greatest extent possible. Action is better than words.

And water charges? He doesn’t think the decision of the expert commission on the subject is any kind of foregone conclusion, despite its chairman resigning inside a week of its establishment.

I don’t know where it’s going to go on this. Two things are certain – our water infrastructure still needs to be fixed, and Irish Water can’t survive as an entity.

Read: Pat Hickey has been transferred to Bangu Prison in Rio de Janeiro

Read: Sinn Féin accused of “taking out” Peter Robinson after explosive Nama claims

  • Share on Facebook
  • Email this article
  •  

Read next:

COMMENTS