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Cracking the Whip: Regina Doherty talks disloyalty, Trump, and why she and Mary Lou no longer speak

Fine Gael’s Chief Whip has had a big year. In a wide-ranging interview she tells us of her punishing schedule, spats with Sinn Féin, and why Christmas time always means home.

6/5/2016. New Cabinet President Higgins, Regina Doherty, and Enda Kenny following the latter's re-election as Taoiseach in May 2016 Source: Sam Boal

FINE GAEL DIDN’T have the greatest 2016.

Hammered at the general election losing a grand swathe of the seats it had earned in 2011, a recovery message that went down like a lead balloon with the electorate, and to cap it all Fianna Fáil effectively standing guard over the keys to the kingdom via their ‘supply and confidence deal’ with their old rivals – it’s been a year to forget in many ways.

But it hasn’t been all bad.

Enda Kenny became the first Fine Gael leader to be returned as Taoiseach twice in succession in May. And for the staunch Kenny loyalists in the party, the rewards were there to be reaped.

Regina Doherty is one of those beneficiaries. As successor to Paul Kehoe as party Chief Whip, it’s been a rapid rise for the Meath East TD, who was only first elected to Dáil Éireann at the 2011 landslide.

As TheJournal.ie sits down with her for a Christmas interview, we learn there’s a bit more to Doherty than just loyalty.

‘Disloyal’

She may be a Meath TD, but Regina Doherty was born and raised in Finglas on Dublin’s northside. A mother of four children, prior to her political career she ran a software business with her husband Declan, one that went south during the dark days of the recent recession.

That led to the company being liquidated in 2013, something which saw her private life dragged through the media earlier this year, an experience she has acknowledged as being far from pleasant.

But the Chief Whip is a no-nonsense sort of person who has said in the past that she finds the slow burn of politics frustrating at times. If there’s any hard feelings she isn’t sharing them.

One thing’s for sure, seven months into her new role, she knows on which side her bread is buttered. Back in June, a slightly impolitic interview with local Meath radio station LMFM, in which Doherty said she thought a timeline for Enda Kenny’s departure should be mapped out, led to something of a brief political gale. Lessons learned.

Was that backbench revolution a difficult time for a newly-minted Chief Whip?

12/9/2016. Fine Gael Think Ins Source: Eamonn Farrell

“Only because I was put in the bloody middle of it by the stupid boob I made on the radio,” Doherty says.

I think there is too much read into relatively benign comments, not just by me but other people also. Nothing happened, so benign comments of what people might see or think might happen in the future shouldn’t be manufactured into what the media would love to see which is a full blown crisis.
We don’t have a crisis in Fine Gael, we have a leader, we’re very, very happy with him, there’s a lot of external stuff going on that is far more important than Fine Gael and our leadership. It’s a non-story.

Ah yes, Enda Kenny. Will he still be here in 2018 (as he is now claiming) we ask? “I have to say I’m very hopeful that he stays, and if he does I’ll be stuck right to his left shoulder,” is the reply.

She doesn’t see the Taoiseach as someone who blindly rewards loyalty regardless of ability.

“I often used to wonder how you would pick a team to go around you in government,” says Doherty. “I mean why can’t you pick somebody based on their talent and their loyalty both? Of course loyalty has to be somewhere in the mix, but if you look at Enda Kenny’s 2011 cabinet – well there certainly were some disloyal people put around that table and given some serious powers. That tells me he’s more interested in ability than what person is doing the job.”

A party whip is essentially the sergeant major – the person who makes sure everyone is happy, knocks them into line if they’re not, and most importantly, makes sure everyone is voting the way they’re supposed to. She’s no shrinking violet, but it’s hard to imagine Doherty barking orders at people all the same.

“Well, there’s an old saying that you catch an awful lot more flies with honey than vinegar,” she says. For her, the role seems to involve an awful lot of talking. She claims to speak to every member of the team of 59 TDs keeping Fine Gael in power at least once a week. That sounds exhausting.

“Obviously I see the members of Fine Gael every day. It’s the other people that facilitate government that get more attention. My relations with people in Fianna Fáil would be very good, the same for the rural alliance. I put a lot of investment into the other parties, the Greens and Social Democrats as well. They may not have a grá for Fine Gael or our policies, but they recognise that there’s a government in situ, and that people have to do business and they help me,” she says.

3/12/2013. Women For Election Reviews Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

So what is the big difference about being a whip? “I’d say maybe people are quicker to talk about me behind my back these days than they probably would have been beforehand.”

But sure that’s okay.

The homeless question

So what issues does the government Doherty care about? She’s spoken out about domestic and sexual violence against women often in recent times. Of the dreaded water charges she agrees they became politically toxic “because we didn’t help ourselves”. She gets especially animated when the subject of women in Irish politics comes up. But if she were to name the two most important issues facing Irish people today, what would they be? One you might guess. The other is less expected.

“We have a homeless crisis and a housing crisis – that’s the single biggest issue we have to tackle right now. And knocking on doors, it’s the biggest issue for the public, the people who come to my clinics. It’s bothering people that it’s not being fixed.

The response from the government, it’s the single most comprehensive plan that I’ve seen come out of Fine Gael in the last number of years.
The best person is responsible for it (Simon Coveney), because number one he’s a workaholic and number two he doesn’t stop until he has fixed something. The problem with it is that for the people who are emotionally upset about it it’s not going to get fixed in a couple of weeks. It’s going to take months and years to actually get around the problem.

She defends the first-time buyer rebate introduced in October’s budget, a move that was widely criticised as being most likely to simply increase house prices further.

“I know people have giving out about the fact that all it’s (the rebate) going to do is allow builders add their extra 20 grand or whatever onto their prices,” she says.

6/10/2016. Homeless Crisis Simon Coveney Source: Sam Boal

But a grant isn’t going to work, the reductions in the Central Bank constraints aren’t going to work, unless we have houses. To get houses we need builders to make money because otherwise they won’t build.

So, the housing crisis, and… what is issue number two?

“Climate change.” Oh. We wonder how this fits in with the recent news that Ireland is set to miss its EU emissions targets for 2016 and 2017?

The environment is entirely different because it doesn’t appear on anybody’s to-do list except maybe a select few. It’s the biggest threat to our global society on the basis of what we’re doing or not doing.

“We’re not doing enough, none of us. Each and every single one of us can help by doing something small, or something medium by sitting solar panels on our house, by sticking solar panels on every single school in the country, on every single GAA club,” she says, warming to her subject.

There are things we can react to by maybe changing our Bus Eireann fleets to having 10% of them being electric buses as opposed to continuing to buy diesel. But unless we make rational, real decisions on how we are going to hit our targets, we’re not going to hit them by 2020, we’re definitely not going to hit them by 2030 cause they’re far more aggressive again. This country is going to be left behind buying credits that we can’t afford, unless we bring everybody on board.
This is the single biggest difference we will make for our children and grandchildren. Will they have clean water. Will they have an economy. All of the other issues facing us, even the Eighth Amendment (she’s in favour of repeal, in case you’re wondering). On crime, we’re making huge progress. Justice, crimes against women, domestic violence, sexual abuse. Stuff is ongoing on a daily basis to deal with all these issues. But can you say the same about climate change? You can’t.

Speaking of the environment, what does she make of the president-elect of the United States, a man for whom climate change tends to mean something different depending on the day he’s asked? “I think it’s going to be a very interesting four years,” is the diplomatic response.

Do I think he going to do a fraction of what he said he would do during the election? Not on your nelly. It reminds me of what Pat Rabbitte said about election promises: ‘That’s what you say during an election’. He’s already starting to roll back immensely in the last couple of weeks.

How about the Taoiseach’s enthusiastic tweeting regarding vice president-elect Mike Pence, a man with some controversial, to put it mildly, views on homosexuality?

The response is guarded. “I don’t think he meant to say what he did the way he said it because I don’t think there is anybody in this country who agrees with Mike Pence’s views, well there may be some people who agree with those views but the vast majority of us do not subscribe to them.”

‘Girl crush’

Two things that can be guaranteed to get Regina Doherty talking – women in politics, and Sinn Féin.

On the subject of female TDs (specifically their increased numbers in the newest Dáil), she comes perilously close to gushing. “I think it’s deadly, I’m sorry. I have a total girl crush on (Independents4Change TD) Clare Daly, although she knows it well at this stage. I think she’s fabulous.”
I don’t agree with most of what she feels or believes, no, but I think she is intelligent, articulate, passionate. You look at other women in the Dáil – Roísín Shortall, Catherine Murphy, in Fine Gael we have Josepha Madigan who just knocks your socks off, you just look at her in PAC (Public Accounts Committee) for the last three months – a young one who has never been here ever before is kicking ass. People like Maria Bailey, Kate O’Connell. These are fabulous young women that any party should be proud to have and the more we get the better.

So electoral gender quotas are a good thing then? “Well they did it this time. We still don’t have enough. We have, what, 22% women in the Dáil now. Maybe we’ll never get to 50:50, but even 60:40 would be grand.”

To hearken back to the subject of loyalty and ability, Doherty’s colleague Mary Mitchell O’Connor, the Minister for Jobs, has come in for fairly sustained criticism in recent times as to her level of ability in a demanding role (much of that criticism has been anonymous to be fair). Was that excessive? “Yes it was,” is the short answer.

18/7/2013 Dail Goes On Summer Holidays Doherty and Mary Mitchell O'Connor in July 2013 Source: Laura Hutton/Rollingnews.ie

One female politician meanwhile who’s unlikely to be on Doherty’s Christmas card list is Sinn Féin’s deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald. This relates to the handling of rape claims by Mairia Cahill (formerly of Sinn Féin, briefly a Labour senator) by that party’s executive.

“I haven’t spoken to her in a year and a half,” she says of McDonald. “I had huge admiration for her – she was a ballsy, gutsy, intelligent woman, who was well able to deliver downstairs in that chamber, until she became a joke, an antic queen. Every time she wanted to deflect from something that was embarrassing to her she’d provide us with a stunt, and everyone can see through it now.”

The shine has gone off her in her own party because there are so many other credible women in Sinn Féin who are now out shining, so best of luck to her but for me she’s a woman who attempted to justify how long it took Gerry Adams to report his own brother when he was living in Drogheda even though he knew that there were allegations against him made, and I’m sorry, as a woman, as a mother, I don’t know how anybody could live with themselves having done that.

Regarding how Sinn Féin dealt with Cahill herself: “They treated her appallingly and still do. They have an issue in that they have an awful lot of skeletons in an awful lot of closets. If somebody is a victim of something, would you not embrace them and mind them and then try and address the crap or the bullshit that went on in previous spheres or generations?”

They alienated her, they tried to discredit her, they called her a liar, they couldn’t have done anything more to abuse the girl twice, three times, fifteen times. They have one mirror that they shine up to themselves and another for everyone else. It’s so hypocritical it’s not even funny.

28/11/2016. Towards a United Ireland Mary Lou McDonald Source: Leah Farrell

Ambitions

Doherty’s punishing schedule has been discussed before – she works on average a frankly-ludicrous 15 hours a day, while also finding time to be a mother to four children.

Have things gotten easier now she’s Chief Whip? “It’s actually worse now,” she says. How does she cope?

“You just do. I just get up earlier. We have a new normal in the house, although it can be hard if you’re doing a radio interview first thing in the morning and you’re telling your family to shush, and then the dog goes mental and suddenly you’re on Morning Ireland with a dog barking in the background. But what can you do.”

Ambitions-wise, Doherty seems genuinely taken aback at the suggestion she might one day be a female Taoiseach (“no-one’s ever asked me that before!”) – but one job she has never made any secret of her desire for is Minister for Children (currently occupied by independent TD Katherine Zappone).

“We have had a scourge of physical and sexual abuse of children in this country and we need to step up and make people not hide in the closet,” she says. “To be a woman as a children’s champion with regard to global climate change and its effects, I think that would be wonderful.”

It’s a job I feel I could really contribute to. That’s not to say if you offered me something else I’d say no. But there you go.

8/12/2015. Dail Fashion Shows Doherty on the catwalk at a Christmas charity fundraiser in December 2015 Source: Sam Boal

One interest she may have that’s not well known? “I love singing (this is perhaps less of a surprise for people who tuned into this slightly bizarre edition of the Claire Byrne Show on RTÉ radio during the summer). Singing in our local folk group, that’s something I miss the most about political life.”

Finally, for the time of year that’s in it – how does she feel about Christmas?

“I absolutely love Christmas (she’ll be taking a well-earned break across the holidays). To me, it means home.”

My Mam and Dad come to my house every year, and then my brother and his wife a little later, and we’re all together and it’s lovely.
It’s a bit twee maybe but it’s nice, and we drink too much red wine and that’s nice too.

Read: A day with Simon Coveney: The contender for Taoiseach who has to first fix Ireland’s housing mess

Read: Ruth Coppinger: ‘The TDs who decided women’s destinies in 1983 abortion debate still hold office’

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