Wednesday, May 03, 2006


Words on Wednesday...with Joe O'Toole

Joe O'TooleWelcome to this week's Words on Wednesday feature here on United Irelander, a concept unique to the Irish blogosphere, which sees me interview various figures from all walks of political life.

Taking my questions this week is Independent Senator Joe O'Toole.

I'd like to thank Mr O'Toole for very kindly taking the time to answer my questions. With that being said, let's begin:

What initially attracted you to political life?

It’s the rule of democracy. Always cast your vote. If you are not attracted to any candidate then encourage someone to stand. If you can’t do that then you have a democratic responsibility to stand yourself.

You have been an independent Senator representing the NUI constituency for the past seventeen years. Talk us through a typical day in your life.

There are no typical days. But overall my time is pretty evenly divided as between legislation, casework, international issues and national issues.
So today for instance, I read the REGISTRATION OF DEEDS BILL; dealt with the citizenship rights of a Russian woman who is the widow of an Irish citizen; researched and prepared speaking notes on the Chinese group Falun Gong whom I address on Saturday and consulted with the Irish Craft Butchers on the impact of recent European directives on their industry.

There was no Committee meetings today which is unusual. In the course of each month there are dozens of such meetings. For instance, I serve on the Leinster House Commission and on the Audit and ICT committees of Leinster House. I am the longest serving Member of the Seanad Committee of Procedures and Privilege.

I am also a member of the Joint Committee on Finance and Public Service and of the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business and I am the Chairperson of the Leinster House Co-operation Ireland Liaison Group.

Outside of the House I am involved in a number of areas but am kept quite busy as Vice Chair of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board [PIAB] and as a member of the Irish Audit and Accountancy Supervisory Authority [IAASA].
…. And the list goes on.

From 2001 to 2003, you served as President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. How would you rate that experience?

It was both challenging and frustrating. It was satisfying to make progress on some issues such as workers’ rights and pay but with every agreement there is some element of compromise which is always difficult to swallow. There is no doubt that being an independent politician is easier than a Union Rep.

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

Easy question. Free access to all levels of education. Free access to all levels of the law and free access to all levels of a proper health service.

What are your thoughts on a United Ireland?

I believe that a United Ireland would be in the best interests of all citizens on the island but I do not see it happening in the short term. I also believe that an Ireland united in hope, aspiration, tolerance and culture is much more important than a politically united Ireland.

What should be done to improve the situation in NI?

Both the INTO and ICTU are all-Ireland organisations with membership and offices in both jurisdictions. I learned the hard way representing teachers and other workers in the North that not having normal politics is a disaster. The short period when the Assembly operated and the various Departments were under the political leadership of Northern Ireland politicians was the best time. Until we have an elected Assembly operational again there will be no real progress. This must be the priority. The recent decision of the DUP to participate in the British Irish Bodies is a major encouragement.

I was interested in comments you made last year that Protestant working class estates in NI needed to embrace constitutional democratic politics as well as education to improve their standard of living. How can this be achieved in your view?

It’s a slow process of building up trust and confidence. There is no easy way. Trade unionists are majorly involved in bridging the communities and are not distrusted by either side. The fact that, unlike Catholic and Nationalist communities, Protestant and Loyalist communities tend to have less connection with the politicians who purport to represent them is a problem. Involvement in political life is the way forward.

What are your thoughts on the European Union?

I am fully committed to the European project and have none of the irrational fears about losing identity or culture or roots or anything else within Europe. As regards Foreign Policy I believe that Europe should cut links with NATO and the like but I have no problem with Europe having the right and the army to defend itself. I believe we are not honest about this issue. I believe that the concept of neutrality is deliberately misrepresented by many political groups. Neutrality was never intended to be an "I’m all right Jack" passive position. It must be a principled stand. The neutrality which appeals to me is that of those neutrals who went to Spain to fight Franco and Fascism. On the other hand, those who believe we can be proud of the fact that we stood idly by while Hitler murdered millions of Jews, Gays, Travellers and others are badly wrong. For the record, and to save a million other questions, it is not that I think we could have done anything much about it but we could have done what we do today and speak out publicly against what we saw as wrong. The image of the Irish Head of State visiting the German Embassy to offer condolences on behalf of Ireland on the death of Hitler is quite simply a most nauseating blot in our history.

What are your thoughts on the Easter Rising and what did you make of Sunday's military parade?

I believe that it should have reflected a much wider seam of Irish cultural and civic life. Having said that however, it was important that the democratic army of the Irish people wearing their Óglaigh na h-Éireann cap and lapel badges were recognised as the true successors of the 1916 patriots.

There was anger recently at the perceived backtracking of the Taoiseach in relation to MPs from NI speaking in the Oireachtas. What are your thoughts on that issue? A good or bad idea? Should they be allowed speak in the Seanad?

This really goes back to the first question. A parliament has to be for the representatives of the citizens who elect that Parliament. I do not agree that representatives elected to Westminster should automatically and formally be given rights to be members of the Dáil or Seanad. To me that would be unpalatable and demeaning of our own Parliament. On the other hand I would very much welcome methods and structures giving certain access and involvement and participation to Northern Ireland politicians in Leinster House.

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

I believe that the US and the UK acted illegally in invading Iraq. It now looks like they are shaping up to do the same in Iran. I am against nuclear power but for what it’s worth I wouldn’t trust the Bush Government any more than your man in Iran who has stated that he is in favour of wiping Israel off the map. Though I have been a lifelong PLO supporter I believe that Israel should be recognised as Arafat did.

What do you make of the Seanad? Do you feel it provides a useful service to Irish society?

I believe the Seanad to be unrepresentative and undemocratic and needs to be reformed. See the Report of the Seanad Reform Committee for a detailed outline of what I believe should be done to give all citizens a right to vote in the Seanad while preserving its difference to the Dáil. I am not in favour of giving more power to the Seanad as I believe the Constitution has the balance right. Most people who comment on the Seanad have little idea of its powers or its functions. For instance very few people advert to the fact that in recent years close on half of all new legislation is actually introduced in the Seanad before it is seen by the Dáil. The Seanad function of poring over legislation is a crucial protection to democracy.

Who do you think will win the next General Election and do you think Sinn Féin should be eligible as potential coalition partners?

There’s a lot of nonsense talked about this one. Again it is back to basic principles of democracy. There can be no second guessing of the people. If the people elect a TD or Senator then I reject outright the arguments that such people are unfit for Government. The people decide.

Where should Ireland be twenty years from now?

Not enough space or time.

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 -
Tony Blair -
George W. Bush -
Mary McAleese -
Ian Paisley -
Gerry Adams -
Michael McDowell -
Brian Cowen -
Padraig Pearse -
Joe O'Toole –

I don’t really want to play this game right now except to say that they were all elected to Office. I have had to deal with six of them over the years. Whereas I disagree fundamentally with a few of them I do believe that politics should not be about consensus and that political progress is made through the tension between opposing views. The worst politicians are those who keep their own company and do not test their arguments against their political opponents.

Next week, Immigration Control Platform spokesperson Aine Ni Chonaill takes my questions. Be sure to keep clicking in to United Irelander for a firsthand look at Irish political life.

Previous interviews can be read here.


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