Wednesday, March 15, 2006


Words on Wednesday...with Damien Blake

Damien BlakeWelcome to the first edition of a new feature that I've entitled Words on Wednesday which will see me interview various figures from all walks of Irish political life.

The first individual to come under scrutiny is Fianna Fáil Councillor and Mayor of Letterkenny, Damien Blake.

I'd like to thank Damien for agreeing to do this and for putting as much effort into it as he did. With that being said, let's begin.

What initially attracted you to political life?

My first real involvement in politics was around the time of the Nice referendum. It was the first time I was able to vote, so it meant alot to me. But many of my friends weren't too bothered about it. I was surprised; as teenagers we talk so much about being ignored and disregarded, but when we got a chance to have our say young people weren't getting involved. I wasn't particularly interested in which way they voted, only that they took the time to think about the issue, and went out to vote to make their point, even if they spoiled their ballots. I pushed my friends to vote, and caught the bug that way.

Like many young people who get involved in political life, there is a family history in politics. Ours is a bit different. My father was a councillor for both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, and stepped down from the council in 1996. Other family members have been on the Council, both as independents and with parties, so their was a real association with it. Growing up around local politics gives you a real sense that it's possible to make a difference; it's politics with a small "p"- the local issues like planning and development rather than the specific national issues.

I was 20 when I decided I wanted to stand for the elections; there was a lot happening around Letterkenny that I didn't like. I intend to spend my life here, and I wanted to help shape the development of the town rather than idly giving out about it. I felt I would be too young to have any success, but two councillors (of the 9) were stepping down, and it seemed like too much of an opportunity to pass. The Fianna Fail party locally were a great help, as were my own extended family and friends. I had 13 young people who canvassed for the first time with me.

Initially, my father was against me standing for election. He felt I was mad, offering to hand over a substantial chunk of my life at such an age. He has gone on the record about it, including on local radio. But when the time came, when I was in the race and needed his help, he was a massive help and did everything he could to help me get elected.

In 2005, you were elected Mayor of Letterkenny. Talk us through a typical day in your life as Mayor.

I know it's an obvious answer, but there is no "typical" day! Local politics is split between immediate/reactionary issues, like filling pot holes and making representations for constituents, and longer term issues like Development Plans. Being in contact is also important. I always try to be near a radio for the 8:30 local news, and if there's a local paper out (Tuesday, Thursday, Friday) it's important to see that early in the day too. I like to have my email dealt with by about 9:30. As a Councillor you're also buried under a mountain of post every day, so it's important to deal with that as effectively as possible.

There's two sides to the role of Mayor. Firstly, you're Chairman of the Council, which takes extra responsibility with it (including extra meetings). Secondly, there's a civic role to it, representing the Council and representing the Town. Most of the Council stuff takes place during the day, and the Civic stuff in the evenings. In an average week, I'll be at either a function or a meeting 3 or 4 evenings, and have another 3 or 4 day time meetings with Council staff. I'm in the council offices most days, dealing with representations that people bring to me.

As a Councillor, but more so as Mayor, you're always on call. My mobile phone stays on all the time, and my mobile number is easy to come by. No two days are alike - there are weeks when you may have no functions or evening meetings, and then there are weeks where you might have 15, with up to 4 on any night.

Being a Town Councillor is a part-time position, as is being Mayor of aTown like Letterkenny. I try to fit in some work around my Council responsibilities, but most of the time the Council wins out. I'm also working on a Masters (by research), so that needs to be fitted in somewhere. I tend to get most work like that done in the evenings, after meetings. There's far less distractions at that kind of time.

If you could change three things about Irish society, what would you change and why?

Irish society is doing fairly well, but we all have stuff we'd like to see different. It's hard to narrow this down, so here's three in no particular order.

Firstly, we need to work on the strength of public debate in Ireland. Too often, we get trapped on tribal matters (whether that be in the North or in the South) rather than addressing the real important issues. There is too much focus on personality, rather than policy, in politics, and I think all parties are guilty of this by times. In the South, we see Fianna Fail leading with Bertie Ahern (as in the last General Election - I have an "I'm Backing Bertie" t-shirt somewhere I think) and the opposition parties attacking the personalities rather the policies. It would be beneficial for us all to see Labour and Fine Gael actually working on policy, rather than Press Releases. The same holds true in the North; I'll never forget watching (I think) a Let's Talk special before the last election in the North, with reps of the four main parties debating before a large audience. Not once did they discuss education, economics or healthcare. This isn't good for politics, and it's clearly not good for the regions these politicians represent. There are many questions in Ireland which need to get proper public debate, including economic policy, migration policy, and our neutrality.

Secondly, we need to get back to basics on our education systems. I'm a great believer in equality of opportunity. Ireland's successes, and the Celtic Tiger, were based on the availability of skilled workers and motivated young people. I can't help but feel we've taken our eye off the ball on that one. Funding (and practical support) needs to be increased for third level, post-graduate research programmes. The most important thing a Government can do is ensure that people are educated to the best of their abilities. This includes vocational education, special education programmes and back-to-education programmes. Representation of a number of groups is lacking in third level institutions. More needs to be done to increase the numbers in education. I personally believe that the student support system in the South needs overhaul- for example, I believe the Student Grant should be (at least) tied to Unemployment Benefit. I know I'm talking alot about Third Level education here; that's where I'm at now so it's in my thoughts alot. The problems we see in Third Level are often identifiable in primary and secondary education, so of course I don't mean to ignore them. The education system, as a life-long system to get the best out of people, has the potential to be the greatest enabler of social mobility in the country.

Third, our system of local government needs to be reviewed. It could only be good for democracy if more power was excercised at a local level. It is also important that public representatives receive the training and support to do the job effectively. As a Town Councillor, you receive absolutely no training and are expected to know everything about the job from the day you are elected. My family and party colleagues were extremely helpful, but I can see how there would be real difficulties for Independents and smaller parties. I think there should be less councillors with more power, and they should be remunerated as full time workers. Public life takes a real commitment; I am able to give a lot of time to it as I'm young, don't have a mortgage or a wife and kids, and am self employed. It would be near impossible to give the same commitment while holding down a 9-5 job and looking after a family.

What are your thoughts on a United Ireland?

I think its essential that we can deal with this question as a forward-thinking society. We need to move the debate forward, rather than focussing on the past.

A United Ireland is absolutely essential, and the only way we can continue and extend the prosperity and growth that we have seen in the South in recent years.

The North has suffered hugely, not just from the Troubles but also from a lack of economic progress brought on from the failure of Politics to reach beyond Tribalism. The North is an area with no control over its own destiny, economic or any other way. The North suffers many of the same difficulties as in the South, and I'm sure many of the same solutions could work too. One of the starkest illustrations of these is that, despite constant reference to the North/South divide, both jurisdictions suffer on their own from a substantial East/West economic divide.

We're never going to move the United Ireland agenda forward unless those of us in the Nationalist/Republican constituency reach out to the Unionists and Loyalist, and start to make the case for a United Ireland on the grounds of the massive benefits it could bring to the 6 Counties. Focussing on the horrors of the Troubles, or indeed the Centuries of trauma inflicted on Ireland, will not get us any closer to a United Ireland. All major parties are committed to the principle of democratic consent, so the work now has to move to political campaigning to show the benefits.

On a side note, I think Fianna Fail has an important role to play in this process. I have been an active campaigner for the establishment of Fianna Fail organisations in the North, to see the party participating in politics on a 32 County basis. This is overwhelmingly supported by the members (and leadership) of Ogra Fianna Fail, and has huge support within the wider party membership. We are constantly pushing the Northern agenda as vital to the development of the party and (hopefully) to the development of the situation in the North.

What should be done to improve the situation in NI?

That's a very tough question! It is becoming clearer and clearer that the British Government is running out of patience with the lack of movement in the North. They seem to be looking more for a way out than to secure their control over the North. This is good and bad. It shows that a United Ireland is in reach (at least, more in reach than ever before), but it also means that the failure of the DUP to engage in any real form of politics is unlikely to change.

The Southern Government needs to push the All Ireland agenda, and to work with the British Government to get them back to full implementation again. As long as Peter Hain continues to take the tough decisions for the politicians in the North, it may be difficult to get any movement. For example, the recent rates rise in the North would have been a tough decision for local politicians. The parties need to be forced to work together - for example, a freeze on public sector spending (or capital investment) until local politicians are willing to make the decisions together. I think we would then see the voters on the ground pushing more and more for a return to devolved Government.

A more-cynical suggestion would be to link payments to MLAs to attendance in sessions of the Assembly. I think we'd see them all around the discussion table again very quickly!

What are your thoughts on the European Union?

I'm extremely supportive of the EU. I think the benefits it has brought to Ireland are clearly self-evident, and the stability it has brought to Europe are absolutely unprecedented. That said, it is not perfect and beyond reform.

I think the Euro is fantastic, and its contribution to international trade (and travel) in the Eurozone are at the core of the European Ideal. I also think it's great to see that such a massive project could be undertaken, in a decent time-scale with contributions from so many people. The scale of launching a new currency for so many people in so many countries on the same day is such a huge project, but it passed without issue. That said, Ireland has given over much of our economic sovereignty, most notably surrendering the ability to set our interest rates. The economic implications of this remain to be seen.

The European Union hasn't been in the best of health recently. Things like the growth of Nationalism around europe, the failure of the Constitutional Treaty and the horse-trading over the Services Directive show the need for reform. But I have no doubts that membership of the EU has been hugely beneficial for Ireland, and the region. One need only look at the surrounding countries, and the countries which have recently joined the EU. The former Soviet Bloc countries faced uncertain futures after independence, but the carrot of EU membership was enough to tie them to programmes of economic efficiency, transparency in public life and equality for their people.

What are your thoughts on the Easter Rising and how do you intend to mark the occasion?

The Easter Rising was one of the defining moments in our modern Irish history, and I think it's vital that we mark it. I have written about this on my website, and have had a letter published in the Irish Times on the matter.

In essence, the Easter Rising and the Proclamation set out the roadmap for modern Ireland. In that context, it is important that we take this opportunity to recognise what happened at the time, but also to take stock of how well we have achieved the goals set forth. It's clear we haven't fully achieved them; this anniversary should serve as a reminder to redouble our efforts to achieve them.

As Mayor of Letterkenny, I will be taking an active part in the Celebrations. We are currently finalising our programme of events, supported by the Town Council, County Council, Museum, Libraries and Schools in the area.

Ireland has taken our place among the sovereign nations of the world, and that is something we should be proud of. I support the idea of the military parade in Dublin, as part of the celebrations rather than as the Centre Piece. The Irish military have made a massive contribution to Peace Keeping around the World (Lebanon, Sierra Leone, Liberia etc) and I think it's important that we acknowledge that, and recognise the importance of that role. I don't believe it should be seen as triumphalist, or inflammatory, in an Irish context, particularly now that we see the IRA decommissioned.

What would a Fine Gael/Labour government mean for Ireland?

I don't really know. I don't think they'll have the numbers to stack it up anyway, but they haven't been very clear to date on what they want to do, other than "Give us a go please, those FF boys have been in for ages". Throw the Green Party into the mix, and it will be quite difficult even to prepare a programme for Government, before considering how to implement it. I would like to see an FF/Labour coalition after the next election; I think that's the most likely combination given how the numbers are looking (but it will have to be done without Pat Rabitte), and has been effective in the past. I have a strange feeling we could be seeing a hung Dail, and another election fairly soon again.

There was some anger recently from Sinn Féin at the perceived backtracking of the Taoiseach in regard to MPs from NI speaking in the Oireachtas. What are your thoughts on that issue? A good or bad idea?

Any movements by the Oireachtas to engage with the North needs to address the concerns of all sides of the Community. I know it's unlikely that most UUP/DUP politicians would be running down to Dublin to say their few words, but it would be important to engage with them on the plans anyway. I do think it's a good idea - I'm always surprised when I travel around Ireland to see the lack of awareness of the issues from the North outside of the border region, and anything that could help with awareness would be welcome. There must be an accommodation that can be reached.

That said, I also think it's important all MPs from the North take up their full speaking rights in Westminster. It's laughable that they are unwilling to make use of their access to Parliament, but are more than willing to take the huge funding.

What are your thoughts on the current conflict in Iraq right now and Ireland's position?

This is a very, very difficult question. There can be no doubt that the American occupation (I use the term loosely) has been horrendously mis-managed from the outset. That doesn't necessarily imply that an immediate withdrawal would be beneficial either. The US is now moving to hand more autonomy and control back to Iraq - I'm aware of the irony of giving autonomy to a sovereign state - and that is to be welcomed.

The US used to talk about the "domino effect" - seeing democracy in Iraq leading to improvements across the region. There is now a very real danger of a very negative "domino effect" of radicalism and insurgency. It is well documented that events like Bloody Sunday radicalised young Irish people into resistance against the British occupation of the North. For all the hype about the UK Army being more experienced with gorilla/terrorist campaigns, they should have seen the insurgency coming from the outset.

The invasion/occupation has failed, so there is need for a new plan. Military support will be required, but there should be moves towards engaging other Arab/Muslim countries to take part and to lend their support. I would recommend Irish Peace Keepers, but I am unsure as to how they would be welcomed.

Ireland's involvement raises numerous questions of its own. Yes, we claim to be a militarily neutral Country, and the support we have given the USA does not tally with that. I am surprised that there has been no large-scale questioning of our neutrality over this - the debate has centred on whether or not this breaches our neutrality, but not whether we should be neutral or not. That would be an interesting debate, and could help shape Ireland as we move towards engagement with the "War on Terror" and the EU Battle Groups.

Where should Ireland be twenty years from now?

Ireland has changed immeasurably in the last twenty years, and I'm sure will change as much in the next twenty. I hope we can continue to be as economically successful, and have succeeded in dealing with the alarming levels of social inequality that have come with our rapid growth. Ireland will be a much more cosmopolitan country, host to people from around the world.

The education system, I have said before, will be absolutely instrumental in this, as will the ongoing infrastructure development programmes. We have come on great strides in recent years, but recent developments (eg Port Tunnell) have shown we still have far to go. As the saying goes, "Alot done, more to do".

And I better have my very own George Jetson-style Hover-car!

What are your thoughts on the recent riots in Dublin over the Love Ulster parade and do you think the marchers should be invited back to Dublin?

I don't really have much to add to the debate on the Dublin riots. They were an absolute disgrace, and have damaged Ireland's international reputation. There is no way possible to condone what happened.

I believe the Love Ulster group - or any other group looking to demonstrate or protest peacefully - should always be welcome. Once they can work with the Gardai to ensure a peaceful and safe event, there should be no problems. I think the Love Ulster group - and others - should have a right to express any peaceful opinion. Public events like this serve to get people interested, and active, in politics. This can only be a good thing, even if you oppose what they have to say. There should also, of course, be access for counter-demonstrations, again as long as it remains peaceful.

There aren't many Irish politicians in the Irish blogosphere. Why do you blog, and do you see more politicians taking it up?

I never really considered myself a "blogger". What I do on the site is really just an extension of what public representatives do. It's a very effective, very quick way of getting information into the public domain and onto the public record. It's also a way for local people to get to know more about their representatives. I try to stick to local issues, only dealing with national issues either when I feel I have something to contribute or when it is an issue being raised locally. Issues that I feel strongly about also get addressed - I think it's important that the people you are asking to vote for you are as informed as possible on your views. Anything that can bring more openness or transparency to public life should be welcomed.

I think we're going to see more and more Irish politicians coming to the Internet, and blogging, in coming years. This should reach its peak in the run up to the next General Election. When you consider how close the election is expected to be, politicians will take any opportunity to get their word out.

I hope politicians will do things properly when they move to the Net. There are a few Irish politicians with websites at the minute, but most of them are either not updating them or just throwing up Press Releases. Politicians should be updating their websites themselves, with their own opinions, and allowing debate to develop from those opinions. I was slow to get comments enabled on my site, but now they are there I think they add quite a bit to the site and it's effectiveness.

What would you say to any Irish people reading now who aren't sure who to vote for in the next General Election?

There's never been as much information available on politicians and the parties they represent. There will be wide coverage in the media, and anyone who wants to will be able to research their local candidates. I'd also encourage people to think about the local issues before the candidates start canvassing, and to ask the questions you want answered. That's the best way to see what candidates really have to say, without any media filters on it.

There is two things to consider - the politician, and the party. For General Elections, it's important to consider who would be right for you in your constituency, and to consider which party you feel would help steer the country.

I would encourage everyone to go to the effort of voting. If you don't want to vote, or feel it is a waste of time, then go to the polling station and spoil your ballot. Many politicians would disagree with that, but I think that a deliberately spoiled ballot sends a very strong message of dis-satisfaction. Spoiled ballots do send a message, and it's a message that does get through to the politicians on the ground. In the Irish system, every box and every ballot is checked in great detail, and a large number of spoiled ballots in any area is a very clear sign of dis-satisfaction.

Finally, I'd like to play a small round of word association. I'm sure you know what it entails. Basically just outline what word comes into your head when you hear the following names:

Bertie Ahern - near-retirement
Tony Blair - slipping
George W. Bush - failure
Michael McDowell - self-assured
Ian Paisley - never!
Gerry Adams - It would take more than a few words to describe my gut thoughts on Gerry - but the first word in my head was "grissly"
Mary McAleese - dignified
Padraig Pearse - visionary
Roy Keane - langer
Damien Blake - after this piece, I think "long-winded" would be accurate!

Next week, SDLP MLA for North Antrim Sean Farren takes my questions.


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