Wednesday, May 17, 2006


Words on Wednesday...with Pat Rabbitte

Pat RabbitteWelcome 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 I'm pleased to say is Labour leader Pat Rabbitte.

I'd like to thank Mr Rabbitte for his cooperation and for very kindly agreeing to be interviewed. With that being said, let's begin:

What initially attracted you to political life?

When I was a young boy I wanted to be, variously, a football player, a cowboy, and a priest. However, it was when I first went to university in Galway in the late 1960s and became active in the anti-war and civil rights movements that I became involved in politics.

It was a dynamic time in student life. Students across the board, from Berkley College in California to university College Galway, were revolting. It was hard not to be caught up in it and I found university a merciful release after the strictness of school.

After college I became President of the Union of Students Union of Ireland for two years. Then I was headhunted by the ITGWU which later became SIPTU. I was elected to Dail Eireann in 1989 to represent the rapidly growing constituency of Dublin South West.

You are the leader of the Labour Party. Talk us through a typical day in your life.

No day is typical. The demands of the Dail itself, receiving organisations that want to lobby on an issue of concern, responding to constituents, meeting colleagues, and the internal and strategic requirements of the party.

When the Dail is sitting I try get to my office in Leinster House for 9 o’clock – though such is the congestion on the roads in from my home in Clondalkin that I very often arrive much later. Dail business, including Leaders’ Questions to the Taoiseach, the daily Order of Business, and debates on legislation will take up most of the day – both preparing for them and speaking.

Then there are Committee and internal Labour Party meetings, as well as meetings with interest groups, visiting politicians or ambassadors. At the same time I have to attend to constituency queries and also media requests in response to the issues of the day.

When the Dail is in recess I try to do as much work in my constituency as possible. Again this can involve meeting community groups and attending to local issues. I also use the opportunity to visit different parts of the country to meet local Labour organisations, election candidates, community organisations and interest groups. This usually involves public meetings and local media events.

There is a General Election looming here in the Republic. Are you confident that your party will end up in Government?

I am. Ireland badly needs a change of Government, and there is an unmistakeable mood for change. By next year Fianna Fail will have been in power for almost 20 years unbroken, with only a brief two-year interregnum. That is not healthy for Irish society or our democracy.

Nor has the present Government made the best use of the unprecedented resources available to them.

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

1. That as a society we need to adjust to wealth creation without undermining traditional values of community, solidarity and inter-dependence. Aggressive individualism, reckless nationalism and ‘the devil take the hindmost’ risk us losing what made us different and destroying the environment in the process.

2. That the coarsening of Irish society be arrested. Human life has become cheap, firearms easily available and resorted to. Drug abuse has become endemic, and anti-social behaviour is torturing some of our neighbourhoods.

3. Mayo football. 55 years since our last All-Ireland. Its time that changed.

You are the Labour Spokesperson on NI. What should be done to improve the situation in the North?

Simple answer: the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. I think this can best be achieved by the DUP agreeing to share-power with the SDLP and Sinn Fein, and by Sinn Fein signalling their support for the PSNI. Then, parties in the North by working together can begin to address issues such as sectarianism – the real cause of division in Northern Ireland.

What are your thoughts on a United Ireland?

I am in favour of a united Ireland in the sense spelt out by James Connolly. Without the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement a united Ireland remains an aspiration. Therefore, the full implementation of the Agreement must be the priority.

But the unity of the island that I envisage would be done through a coming together of people from different cultures and traditions in a mutual acceptance and respect for the different traditions that exist on this island. Key to this is persuading unionists in the North that a united Ireland is in their best interests. That is not going to happen overnight.

Recently there was a military parade in Dublin honour of the Easter Rising. What are your own thoughts on the Easter Rising and were you pleased with the parade which marked the event?

I attended both the laying of the wreath in Kilmainham Jail and the parade on O’Connell Street on Easter Sunday. I was proud to do so. I think it is important that we mark such a seminal event in Irish history. That is why the Labour Party launched our own ‘Liberty Project’ to interrogate the meaning of 1916 and its relevance in modern Ireland.

However I was unhappy about the manner in which Fianna Fail sought to exploit 1916 for partisan political gain. For example, the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis was not the appropriate platform to announce the initiative. That left the impression that the parade was not so much motivated by the need to mark the anniversary of 1916 but was a party political exercise designed to suit Fianna Fail exclusively.

An issue which I was pleased to see you take an interest in was in relation to the British and Irish government's proposed On-The-Run legislation which has since been shelved. What are your thoughts on the OTR legislation and have we seen the last of this issue?

I sincerely hope we have seen the last of the Hain Bill and our own Government’s plans to grant an effective amnesty to those responsible for the 1800 unsolved murders relating to the Troubles.

The Labour Party has always recognised the need to draw a line under the past. But this should not come at the expense of victims, who would have seen the killers of their loved ones get off scott free, without having to account for their crimes in any way.

Recently I covered the proposals for a 28th amendment of the Irish constitution which would involve ensuring that "those not resident in the State of Ireland but citizens of the State of Ireland" can vote in Irish Presidential elections. What are your thoughts on this and can you clarify if this will allow Irish citizens from NI to vote?

I understand that this is a difficult and emotional issue. There is clearly a need to accommodate the wishes of Irish citizens living in the North and abroad in terms of participating in elections – whether they be for the Presidency or otherwise. However, there are major legal obstacles in the way, and implementing such a measure would be extremely difficult.

In that regard, the Labour Party supports the conclusion of the Seventh All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution Report which stated:

"While a case can be made for the extension of voting rights in presidential elections to citizens living in Northern Ireland, we believe that any decision should be deferred until the Good Friday Agreement has become more solidly entrenched, and until the experience of Northern participation in the Seanad can be assessed."

Staying with NI, the Irish and British governments have been quick to point out that if the North's Assembly isn't restored, there is no chance that their 'Joint Stewardship' of NI will be the same as Joint Authority. Do you believe them though and in your own view is Joint Authority reasonable?

To be honest, I am a little confused as to what ‘joint stewardship’ actually means. It seems to suggest closer co-operation between the two Governments, alongside efforts to re-establish the political institutions in Northern Ireland at a yet to be determined date. A kind of Anglo-Irish Agreement with North/South Bodies as add-ons. I questioned the Taoiseach on this recently but no clarity was forthcoming.

What will another term of Fianna Fáil and the PDs mean for Ireland?

Five more years of chaos in our Accident & Emergency Departments; five more years of deteriorating congestion on our roads; five more years of rising inflation and the cost of living spiralling upwards; five more years of young couples not being able to afford their own homes; five more years of worsening crime and anti-social behaviour; and five more years of the gap between rich and poor growing by the minute.

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

I have always opposed the illegal war in Iraq. The Labour Party has been to the fore in anti-war protests over the past number of years, led by Party President Michael D Higgins. We were convinced that the Allied occupation of Iraq would lead to chaos in the region. That has been borne out. It has also set an alarming precedent for international relations that has led to a diminution of the United Nations and the corruption of international law.

You have had some heated exchanges with the Ceann Comhairle Dr Rory O'Hanlon in the past. What are your thoughts on his performance in the chair?

I do not doubt that the Ceann Comhairle has a difficult job to do, and I have great respect for Rory O’Hanlon. However, on occasion, I have felt the Government has been protected too much. It is getting increasingly difficult to hold the Taoiseach and the Cabinet to account in the Dail chamber. It is enough of a challenge to get a straight answer from the Taoiseach on any issue without the Ceann Comhairle intervening and ruling you out of order!

Fianna Fail’s ‘winner takes all’ approach is inappropriate when it comes to the Chair.

Where should Ireland be twenty years from now?

I would hope that in 2026 Ireland will be a more equal and fair society.

To the largest extent possible I would hope that poverty will be eliminated, that young people will be able to afford their own homes in our major towns and cities throughout the country; that the environment will be cleaner and there will be less reliance on fossil fuels; I hope we will have a world class healthcare system so that elderly people do not have to wait on trolleys for treatment; I hope that the economy will remain buoyant and that the fruits of that prosperity will be spread more equally among our people.

I hope that we will have a society more at ease with itself and one where there is adequate emphasis on positive integration.

I hope that in 2026 Ireland will continue to play a leading role in an expanded Europe; I hope that the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement will have bedded down; and, overall, I hope that we have a fully peaceful, lawful, and prosperous Ireland.

What would you say to anyone reading now who is not sure who to vote for in the next General Election?

I would ask them to consider if they are happy with the type of society Ireland has become. I would ask them to consider if they think it fair that the elderly have to sit on hospital trolleys awaiting treatment in our A&E departments. I would ask them if they think it right that headline crime is rising, alongside thefts, burglaries and break-ins; I would ask them if they believe it fair that children are taught in overcrowded classrooms without the basic materials needed for their education.

I would then ask them to consider that there is an alternative on offer. That that alternative, as represented by the Labour Party, is about creating a fair Ireland, where a successful economy does not have to come at the expense of an equal society.

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 - slick
George W. Bush - goofy
Gerry Adams - mendacious
Ian Paisley - no
Mary McAleese - headgirl
Michael McDowell - hubris
Dr Rory O'Hanlon - order
James Connolly - revolutionary
Pat Rabbitte - me

Next week, Green Party TD for Cork South Central, Dan Boyle, takes my questions. Be sure to keep clicking in to United Irelander for your firsthand look at Irish political life.

Previous interviews can be read here.


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