interviewed by Michael Smith
Councillor Mary Fitzpatrick, 44, was born and raised on the Navan Road in Dublin’s North Inner City, one of four children of Tom Fitzpatrick, a doctor and dentist who became a Fianna Fáil TD, She went to St Dominick’s in Cabra and to UCD where she studied politics and then Italian and German which she thought might get her a job. She emigrated in the eighties, she worked in France, Italy and the US after getting a Green Card. She worked in international sales for a subsidiary of the Associated Press By 1992 she was selling broadband capacity to the Chicago Board of Trade and others, first in the US and then back in Dublin until 2006, serving the whole of Europe. She says the key to sales is “know your product and sell its strengths”. She now lives in Glasnevin with her husband Seán and three children. Her first election was the locals in 2003/4 and she has served as councillor – always in opposition since then, currently as Fianna Fáil’s Council leader. She is most famous for being shafted by Bertie Ahern in a mutually unedifying tit-for-tat of leaflet drops which in the end secured election for his unprepossessing buddy, Cyprian Brady, ahead of her in the 2007 General Election. Brady got elected on Ahern’s transfers though he’d secured an excruciatingly small number of first preferences. Throughout the interview she is engaging, good-humoured, balanced and disconcertingly charming with an infectious laugh.
She had been interested in politics from her childhood, working on her father’s campaigns and got involved with Fianna Fáil “To make a contribution for my community”.
She considers herself “a centrist politician, republican, democratic republican politician, my motivation I suppose is equality and equality of opportunity”. I ask if she is open to equality of outcome – to in effect compensate some people in circumstances where people get off to such a difficult start that it’s difficult for them to explore the opportunity she emphasises. She says education is the key, ensuring people have a decent start in life, a decent home. If we could get those two things right, we would be making huge strides towards equality”.
Would she describe herself as a socialist like her Nemesis Ahern? “I think in its narrowest and strictest definition it’s a failed political philosophy and it just doesn’t really exist here”. She thinks the Socialist Party are not really serious about socialism.
Unusually her hero is Abraham Lincoln: “he really battled through and made real changes, and had personal courage”. Anyone else, anyone in Ireland? |”Not particularly”. What class would she describe herself as? “I don’t”.
Does she think that Fianna Fáil has been of service to the country? “Yes absolutely. I think the value of Fianna Fáil hasn’t been what it should be and we need to do better and we’re all committed to doing that, but I think if you look at the entirety of Fianna Fail’s service to the country, absolutely we’ve been of service. But we need to restore value to the brand”. Okay, how would she assess the last Fianna Fail/Green Government? “I can’t answer that question because…Can I come back to it? Later she comes back with “challenged”. Kind.
As to what she thinks of Ahern and Cowen, and Martin: “Bertie was your quintessential campaigning politician. Cowen I didn’t know well. I’ve met him a handful of times and he struck me as a very patriotic individual. Micheál Martin, a politician with real determination and real vision to see Ireland recover”. How would she describe his vision in a word? “Ambitious”.
How many times has she met Bertie Ahern, and Micheál Martin, roughly (I don’t have a clear picture)? “Well, I must have met Bertie a good number of times; I can’t say. Micheál a good number of times as well, I don’t meet him on a daily basis”. Does she believe Bertie Ahern’s evidence to the Mahon Tribunal – on the digouts for example? “Do I have to answer that question, I don’t want to”. Who owns Bertie’s former constituency den, St Luke’s? “Talk to the General Secretary, Seán Dorgan, he’s the person dealing with it. I don’t use it, but my understanding is the ownership of the property was transferred to Fianna Fáil Headquarters”. Ever met Denis O’Brien? It’s a querulous No. Just asking.
Just what sort of bank guarantee does she think was appropriate? “I don’t think they’d any option and obviously we’ve to await the outcome of a properly independent banking enquiry”. I note there have been a number of reports : “There was a number of reports, but there needs to be an independent one or we’re never going to learn from those mistakes”.
Could they not have curtailed it in terms of time or left out unsecured bondholders? “I don’t think any of us know if that was even an option for them”.
The current Government.
Does she think the government is improving the efficacy of the civil service and the semi-states?
“My biggest experience is what they’re doing with water services and in that respect absolutely not. What we’ve had is a situation where they have taken some of our staff, our property tax – €100 million in Dublin, they’ve spent it on consultants to create an organisation that is accountable to nobody and there is no improvement in the quality of the water service”.
They shouldn’t start taxing water until they’ve sorted out the problems”. She’s not too keen to say how they should pay for the improvements necessary to get up to those standards. ”Maybe they should have implemented real efficiencies”.
“I’m not opposed to environmental charges including water charges – or indeed to property taxes – per se”. She accepts the principle of a local tax to be spent on local services. But “That is not what is happening. Phil Hogan made a public statement to encourage everybody to pay their property tax – that 80% of all property tax paid would be spent locally. He did a complete U-turn on it: we got not one cent in Dublin City. I have no faith in the promises from the Minister. As a consequence, we have no money for public lighting; we have little or no money to spend on housing and housing maintenance. Also, the property tax is completely anti-Dublin, we pay more for our properties in Dublin, we pay more in Stamp Duty in Dublin. You can have in one house an elderly person living alone on a state pension on €200 a week and you can have next door four incomes coming in. Both households are expected to pay the same property tax. And it’s no good as a wealth tax: the value of a property may never be realised if it’s your home. And how can somebody living in a 3-bedroom house in be paying more in property tax than somebody living in a 5-bedroom mansion on a hundred acres outside of Dublin? Land isn’t taxed. It’s unfair, it’s anti-Dublin”.
She says the property tax and the water charges “are crippling families”.
She doesn’t think austerity is being implemented fairly. “I think those who have suffered most are those who are working, those who are most vulnerable, the sick. Elderly people feel very under pressure and very victimised by this Government. Everything from their fuel allowance to their phone allowance. Working families are taking home less pay and paying bigger bills”.
I hit her with a question that should be right up FF’s street: what would she do to get the banks lending to SMEs? “Well the minister removed the target that had been in place for the last 3 years. There’s a big broad economic issue here and it does get back to the whole bank guarantee or the legacy bank debt and we need some solution on that and that’s a matter – unfortunately for the rest of us – for the Heads of State [sic] of Europe, and we need Enda Kenny to go out and really argue our case, on the deal that they supposedly got back in June 2012”.
As to privatisation she certainly wouldn’t privatise water, Coillte, ambulance or fire services or An Post – basic utility services – though she considers it worked wonders in the telecoms sector, with which she is familiar. She’s concerned about privatisation of community services.
Dublin City Council
She says Fianna Fáil on the City Council stand for the provision of good quality public services to the City of Dublin, so I ask how come we don’t have them and she claims that we do have some: “The library service is excellent, the parks service is excellent. It’s important to recognise that labour and Fine Gael have controlled Dublin City Council for 10 years. There’s 6 of us out of 52”.
Her big achievements as a City Councillor are representing her own local community on issues like lighting and flooding and public spaces in general. “There are two pieces of land near us here: one in Mary’s Abbey and one down in North King Street and I have supported the greening of them”, though somewhat unimaginatively she cannot see the quays being greened or pedestrianised. “As opposition leader, I led opposition to the privatisation of the bins which was a deal done behind closed doors that left 40,000 low-income households without any bin-payment waiver, the City Council with 13 million of bad debt and a problem of illegal dumping”. She opposed the waste of €100 million on the Poolbeg incinerator. Since the City Council no longer collects waste, how can it enter into a contract to deliver waste for an incinerator, she wonders.
“Don’t catch me if Tom Stafford or somebody from the last term had some other view on it, okay, but over the last five years absolutely we have consistently challenged that project”. She conveniently distinguishes City Fianna Fáil from national Fianna Fáil on this issue.
“And then I suppose as Chair of the Joint Policing Committee for Dublin Central we’ve rolled out community policing forums which are very effective ways for people to meetthe Garda and their local representatives and facilitate improvements in policing”.
Her views on a directly elected Mayor are informed by her experience of New York. “Where you have a directly elected Mayor with a strong local-government system, you can have real power and effective local Government. Environment Minister Phil Hogan’s stance is doomed to failure because he is not combining it with meaningful reform of local Government. Also Minister Hogan is proposing to add 63 Councillors in Dublin in the next local election, a scandal”.
As to why Fianna Fáil didn’t push the mayor issue when in government, she says somewhat coyly she can’t account for the Greens ‘inadequacies in persuading Fianna Fail to do things. If I was in coalition with them, I certainly would have used my position to deliver on my objectives”.
“The single biggest issue after employment in Dublin is lack of housing. I would be pushing more for housing out of NAMA. She thinks the City Council under Labour and Fine Gael for the last ten years years has failed to deliver.
I push her on the quality of private – as opposed to the quantity of public – housing provided over the last generation. This is a big issue where Fianna Fail has facilitated mediocre standards but she’s slow to recognise the issue:
“You’ve got 20,000 people on the housing list and the Government has provided money for 44 housing units this year. There’s people sleeping rough every night of the week, we’ve got 1,600 people in emergency homeless accommodation. We did address the quality issue with a policy which set new higher standards for apartment living, but there’s been absolutely no building since then”.
She thinks there’s room for high rise in Dublin; “absolutely: it has to be well planned, it has to be well built and it has to be in the right place. We’re a modern European city”.
She believes climate change is not being properly addressed. I wonder why Fianna Fáil aren’t hammering that emissions rose in the last few years. She says “it’s not an issue that connects with people. Medical cards connect with people – the property tax, the water charges”. She agrees that future generations “won’t be forgiving of us if we don’t address this”.
On abortion she’s not in favour of a liberal agenda by which she means abortion on demand. She nevertheless notes that the recent legislation failed to deal with issues around foetal abnormalities and thinks we need to address that. As to gay marriage she says she’s well disposed.
She doesn’t want me to print that she’s a federalist or in favour of ‘ever closer union’: “there will have to be significant debate”.
She believes she would have voted for all the European Treaties since 1973 but gets a little jumpy when I worry, on her behalf, about the military aspects in some of them.
As an MEP her priorities would be:
First, to build alliances with MEPs from other small member states to try and renew a sense of solidarity, with the citizen as centre of decisions. Second to be a champion for Dublin. I have a few goes at asking how she can do that as an MEP and she eventually comes down for being, “a strong voice” on the budget, and the President and membership of the Commission. I suggest that she’ll just tend to vote the way the Fianna Fáil bloc (in its grouping with the 75-strong spiffily titled European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party and their alliance, the third biggest) votes and she says she’d assume they’d always vote in a way that served Dublin. I’m not convinced that all the talk of being a strong voice will cut through the overarching dynamic of these groupings.
Third, she wants to support employment creation in Dublin, primarily the small business operators. “As an MEP, I could drive an agenda of reducing red tape on business”.
Is the European Parliament a good vehicle for those policies?
She says it’s increasingly important, that 80% of our laws come out of Europe [ed’s note: they don’t), our budgets are approved in Europe.
As to jobs. “there’s a huge opportunity through the whole Horizon 2020 programme. The commission now wants to see cohesion funding proposals coming from the bottom up. I’ll be ideally positioned to bridge the gap between Brussels and Dublin’s local authorities, but also the local community”.
I wonder if these answers about the role of an MEP are a little vague. Is she lacking the relevant expertise or experience?
“I spent 20 years working internationally in starting and sustaining businesses: I’ve negotiated at all levels. I have spent 10 years on the country’s largest local authority. I have a degree in German and Italian. I’m a mother, I’ve 3 children. I haven’t spent all of my years in the isolated arenas of politics and public administration, I have been involved in real-life experiences and in actually trying to be a voice for ordinary people in our public administration. These are experiences that will allow me to build alliances with MEPs from other Member States and to hold the Commission and the authorities in Europe to account, to drive better policies and better laws and better budgets for us”.
She swears she will serve 5 years: “I think part of the problem with the European role is that its full value hasn’t been realised by others who have taken it before. I will relish the opportunity to spend five years there. Dublin will know they’ve got an MEP and they’ll know who their MEP is, if I’m elected”.