Wednesday, July 12, 2006


Words on Wednesday...with Feargal Quinn

Feargal Quinn Welcome to another edition of Words on Wednesday 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 Irish Senator and founder of Superquinn Feargal Quinn.

I'd like to thank Mr Quinn for kindly agreeing to be interviewed. With that being said, let's begin:

What initially attracted you to political life?

This takes me a long way back – because it's not generally known that I made my first attempt to get elected to the Seanad back in 1973, a full 20 years before I actually succeeded.

I think that what drove me to put myself forward was a feeling that the political process should be able to benefit from the experience of a wide variety of people with different backgrounds, and at that time there was nobody in the mix who had my kind of business experience.

Added to that, I suppose, was a strong sense that we all have a duty to give something back to our community. Between that first attempt and my eventual election in 1993, I had the opportunity to experience public service in a different way, most notably as chairman of what became An Post for 10 years.

You are an Independent Senator elected by the National University of Ireland. Talk us through a typical day in your life.

Is there such a thing as a typical day, I wonder? Part of what I find exciting about life is that every day is so different, with its own challenges. When the Seanad is in session, I will usually frame my day around the sitting – beginning with the Order of Business that starts off the day.

I have two offices – one in Leinster House and the other in Sutton, and both myself and my super-efficient personal assistant shuttle between the two.

I usually speak in the House a few times each week, and of course a lot of preparation and research goes into what I say. I have a range of business interests which make inroads into my time, and of course I am in constant demand as a speaker both in Ireland and around the world.

For relaxation, I usually play golf with close friends who are prepared to keep the secret of just how bad I am at it.

You are of course famous for founding the supermarket chain Superquinn. How does life as a politician compare to life as a businessman?

It's not all that different, as a matter of fact!

I have always defined management as "getting things done through other people", and it's much the same way in politics. In both situations, you have to bring people along with you if you want to get things done. I was never the kind of boss who barked orders and expected people to fall into line.

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

(1) I would eradicate educational disadvantage, so that every young person has the opportunity to develop his or her potential to the full.

(2) I would seek to create a fairer society, so that who your family is or how much money you have has no influence at all on what happens to you.

(3) I would like to make people aware of the fact that they must plan for a changing future, and not expect that today's situation will always continue.

What are your thoughts on a United Ireland?

I see it as a challenge, and perhaps an opportunity for this generation.

What should be done to improve the situation in NI?

I think that we need to give much more attention to the basic underlying problem, which is how to persuade the two traditions in the North to find a way of living together in harmony and paying each other the respect that is due to good neighbours.

Achieving that is not something you can do simply through political institutions, though they may provide a framework within which it can happen. I was impressed recently that the two sides in Ballycastle (I think it was!) came together to erase the sectarian paintings on the footpaths and the walls of the town.

I understand that your father is from Down and mother is from Armagh. You must have found the worst years of The Troubles quite hard since your roots are in the North.

In spite of my Northern connections, it still seemed that it was far away until the night I got a telephone call informing me that my brother-in-law had been shot dead, leaving my sister with 7 children. I certainly can understand how slow wounds will be to heal, after the terrible time that so many people have been through.

What are your thoughts on allowing MPs from NI to speak in the Oireachtas, perhaps in the Seanad? Would you welcome such a move?

I think the idea is premature, since at this stage it is very likely that only those from one side would participate – which would send all the wrong messages.

I think that in recent years we have made much useful progress on an informal basis through the mechansim of the Taoiseach appointing some Senators from the North. Looking at it purely from the South's point of view, we certainly benefit from listening to people from the North – but how exactly we go about doing this is something that needs to be approached with care and sensitivity.

I interviewed another Senator, Joe O'Toole, who likewise represents the National University of Ireland, and he said that the Seanad was "unrepresentative and undemocratic and needs to be reformed". Do you agree with his assessment?

I do, and so would every other sitting Senator on all sides of the House.

There is no shortage of proposals to reform the Seanad - what is lacking is a general political will to implement them. It's not helped by the almost total lack of public interest in it. Personally, I believe that the Seanad is worthwhile as it stands and it could be a lot more worthwhile if it was reformed.

I've read comments on your website from speeches you gave in the Seanad about how the methods for teaching Irish have been detrimental to our young people. What do we need to do to help our national language in your view?

I think our major concern should be about how we teach the language in our schools.

Given the vast amount of time and effort that we put into it, the results we get are very disapointing indeed. I agree with spending all the time and the effort, but I believe that we should invest in finding out exactly how and where we have gone wrong over the past 80 years.

We should expect that every young person leaving school is able, at a minimum, to conduct a simple conversation in Irish easily and with pleasure. Until that happens, we should consider that our system is wrong and work to fix it.

Unlike a lot of Irish politicians you have a website which you update frequently and take seriously. Do you think one day soon we will see websites and blogs playing an important role in politics here, as has happened in the US?

If we are to embrace the knowledge society which I see as the key to our future, an essential part of that is that we fully embrace the internet and transform our lives accordingly. At the moment, we have a lot of catching up to do on this one.

In the medium-term, I certainly see us moving closer to the US model, but given the smaller size of our community in terms of both area and population, I think there will be differences too. I am a great believer in the power of the internet to bring the workings of democracy closer to the people, and it is that belief that drives all the effort I put into my Oireachtas website.

Arguably the biggest story of the year so far in Ireland was the death of Charles Haughey. What are your thoughts on the man and should he have been given a State funeral do you think?

I see Haughey as a Napoleon figure, rather than as a Hitler.

On your website you state that you are a committed European and strongly globalist - why?

On the day I finished university, I went to France and spent a winter there. It was the first time I discovered that I was not just Irish but part of a broader community. Also, I have always believed that we can be truly Irish only in a wider context, one that includes Europe as next-door neighbours and regards the entire world as our concern and our working space.

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

As a friend of America, I believe that we should leave the US Government and people in no doubt whatever that we consider they were wrong to go into Iraq the way they did, and that the situation there can only get worse so long as they stay.

Having said that, I believe the Shannon issue is a bit of a red herring. The important thing is that we should not shrink from speaking our mind clearly on these differences that exist between friends – while making sure that at the end of the day we stay friends, which is very much in our interest.

Where should Ireland be twenty years from now?

What I hope is that it will be well established in a leadership role in the knowledge society, which will be a totally different world to the one we know today and which gave us our present prosperity through the Celtic Tiger.

What may stop us from achieving that is the kind of complacency that we are suffering from now. Too many people believe that things will always go on the way they are now, and if we go on thinking that we face nothing short of disaster in my view.

Persuading people of the need to adapt to a very different future is a difficult political task, but one that I believe we simply cannot afford to shirk.

I have to ask, Superquinn sausages - why are they so tasty?

Because we made them that way!

We went into the sausage business because our customers complained that factory-made sausages were pretty well tasteless. So we sought out the old traditional Irish recipes, and followed those in creating an artisan product rather than a manufactured one.

I'm glad you like them...

What does the future hold in store for you?

Well, if I thought that giving up the executive reins at Superquinn would leave me more time, I was wrong! I seem to be busier than ever.

I have just become president of Eurocommerce, the EU-wide lobbying body for the distribution sector, and was recently appointed an adjunct professor of marketing at NUI Galway.

But in the medium-term, I am focusing on putting myself forward for re-election to the next Seanad, and look forward to continuing and extending my work there.

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 - Bass
Mary Harney - Tallaght
George W. Bush - Texas
Gerry Adams - Armani
Ian Paisley - Loud
Mary McAleese - Feisty
Michael McDowell - Gonzaga
Charles Haughey - Free Travel for OAPs
Padraig Pearse - 1916
Feargal Quinn - Who he?

Information on future interviews will be posted soon. Be sure to keep clicking in to United Irelander for for your firsthand look at Irish political life.

Previous interviews can be read here.


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