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Catherine Murphy interview. Channelling anger into questions, and vision.

By Michael Smith.

I interviewed Catherine Murphy, Independent TD for Kildare North, in a sunny Dáil coffee shop on May 5th. She was accompanied by her advisor Anne Marie McNally. They were both friendly, informed and irreverent. Though she was due on the Ray D’Arcy show Catherine Murphy appeared relaxed. She used the term “we” a lot, rarely “I”.

I asked her how she would describe her political philosophy. “I’m in the centre, which has shifted, a social democratic. I believe in a more equal society, good public services. I’m passionate about good-quality institutions. We’ve never been good at institution-building. I’m an admirer of [Aneurin] Bevan [who spearheaded Britain’s post-war National Health  System]. He said: ‘the whole point of power is to give it away’. You’d be picking up bits of Chomsky”.

So how important is equality and what does she mean by it? “It’s equality of outcome very definitely. Great levels of inequality preceded all the great crashes. I’m not saying things should be perfectly equal”. I push her as to how much inequality is acceptable and she says that’s a harder question than she can answer. “The idea of bankers not getting out of bed for half a million a year is on the Richter scale end of it. In Switzerland they’d a referendum to ban anyone earning thirteen times anyone else. I’d go lower”. She won’t say how much lower. “It can’t be in the begrudgery area if someone has spent  a lot of money and a long time and become expert. But the returns can’t be so great as to be offensive”.

What’s the first thing she’d do if she were Taoiseach? “Who said I wanted to be Taoiseach? I so don’t. My political priorities are widespread. For example, on this island we’ve got to deepen democracy, put institutions in place based on subsidiarity. Regional government is a must”. But national development priorities can’t be scattergun or ‘one for everyone in the audience’. “We need three cities outside, and as a counterbalance to Dublin: Cork, Galway and to some extent Limerick – competing. They need to attain a critical mass for public services and transport etc”. She says she has strong ideas on planning, transport, transparency, institutional reform and technology.

Why did she go into politics? “My motivation was to change things. I’d been moaning to the  editor etc. There’s no point moaning unless you’re willing to step up to the plate and do something. The first time I was elected was after the water charges campaign in the early 1980s. It can be both frustrating and rewarding, probably more frustrating.  I can be quite solitary. I like to do my own research before I open my mouth and that can be an asset – but it can also be bad: you can do 95% of the work and someone else gets 70% of the credit.  I’m at my best when I’m angry but containing it”.

What does she think of the Labour Party and its performance in government? “I don’t notice them. I wish I did. It looks like a Fine Gael government. A huge disappointment. I was in them [Labour] but it wasn’t a happy experience”.

How has she fared in the technical group (she’s its whip)? “We exploit it to the maximum – private members time, committees, speaking time. It critically opens up the diversity in the group. People may have expected more of a coalition but we’re too diverse for that ever to have been possible”.

Is she interested in a new political party? “I don’t dismiss that though I value and am comfortable with my independence. I wouldn’t like to be controlled by a press office. The person you elect should be who you see in Parliament. Put it this way I am talking to people, though nothing conclusive. A number of things are happening. What’s happening with  the unions the other day [a Mayday gathering of 200 political, trade-union and community activists organised by the Communications Workers Union in Dublin] is particularly interesting. I was interested in the Podemos guy from Spain there. You have to look at where the people are, though you have to give some leadership within that and have an idea of what you want to achieve. I’ve always seen the positive. I think this is a great country, despite the political and administrative institutions!”.

What was the alternative to austerity?  “I’m angry about the debt. Admittedly the tax base collapsed because of the  change in the  take from the building sector. We had to balance the books but we were sold out on the debt. I’m particularly angry about the promissory notes being turned into a sovereign debt and the amount of money thrown at unsecured bondholders. We’re spending the same servicing the national debt as on the education system.

We need a debt conference. There are debt problems all over Europe not just in the programme countries. We need to see where we need physical expansion and in particular deal with climate change”. She doesn’t accept that most important reason for the increased debt and tax burden was the collapse in construction-driven taxes, rather than the banking implosions and bailout. “Some of the things we did were stupid. We had cuts instead of reform. We didn’t look at who was leaving the civil service”. She thinks benchmarking when comparisons are made with other countries is good especially with similar European countries but it’s more expensive to deliver services when you’ve a dispersed population. She’s sceptical about its value if the comparison is within Ireland.

What are priorities in her constituency? “Housing. We need a rental model that’s attractive to people across the income divide and funds are available for this from the European Investment Bank. Planning. We’ve been quite good in Kildare because some of us have been a thorn in the side. I’m not against development if it can be linked to services and decent public transport, if it can provide local jobs, but we’re doing it backwards: not co-ordinating services. And you have to prioritise and not be all things to everyone”.

Meath, Wicklow and Kildare have done poorly in terms of distribution of services but she doesn’t agree that there’s been too much sprawl into the hinterland of Dublin. Surprisingly she agrees, she says, with IBEC that we need to double the population. Kildare itself has the lowest ratio of police to population, high class sizes in schools, disability services are not distributed fairly around the country based on demographics or any evidence. She won’t say if she thinks North Kildare is well represented by its TDs. That’s for the election to sort out.

What are her biggest achievements in politics? “There’s a park in Leixlip which was going to be housing estates, that we saved. It’s called St Catherine’s Park! People walk through it oblivious to how it was saved, by politics”. As to national politics she’s very proud of a document she’s produced on genealogy as rapporteur through the Joint Oireachtas culture committee. She’d a piece of legislation on climate change, “a huge issue”, and energy security. I note since it wasn’t passed by the Oireachtas it wasn’t an achievement, and she says just publishing it was the achievement. She thinks the current Climate Bill is so weak it will cause problems. “We don’t have  a great national ambition and the sectoral emission plans will be weak and scattergun”. It’s a favourite word for her.

Does she think water and property taxes are a good idea? “In principle yes but it depends on how they’re constructed”. But she’s not embarrassed to oppose them. She hasn’t said don’t pay water taxes. Irish Water could have been more modest and on a regional level. Some leaks can easily be dealt with. In Kildare there are few of the Victorian pipes which generate most of the problems. Water charges should have been centred on conservation and an amount of free water allocated based on international norms. She’d no objection to charges for waste. If people had realised how much the local government fund had been depleted as part of the Property Tax process they’d have been angry. The property tax should have given people a return, something new,  if it was going to get accepted.

She’d have focused the taxes that were needed after the collapse on the corporate sector – she’d change not the 12.5% rate but the effective rate. She thinks we’ve relied far too much on FDI. We should develop an indigenous industrial base. Even Intel and Hewlett Packard which are in her constituency and which she welcomes suffer for want of raw material in terms of education. So it’s shortsighted even for them to have low taxes. She likes the idea of dedicated taxes. She thinks taxes on fuels for example should be about  retrofitting homes. She accepts that there should be a move away from taxes on labour though she doesn’t get into it. PRSI is not too onerous in international terms. As to wealth taxes, at the moment taxing property is often taxing the gross value rather than the (negative) equity. People paying property tax on a debt should get relief and pay only on the value net of debt.

I move on to Siteserv the focus on which is probably her biggest achievement in politics and which brings together many of the things she claims are deficient in the political process: transparency, institutional weakness etc. It has made her one of the most talked about politicians of the year. What does think of how she’s been treated by Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, and Siteserv?

Siteserv put out a statement saying they were sick of her questions and querying her motivation but she’s there to serve her constituents. She wasn’t impressed by Michael Noonan’s distinction between a parliamentary reply and Freedom of Information (FoI), which he felt required more detail. Parliamentary replies come back with privilege. FoIs do not. She accepts that they’re appropriate for background information. But it’s important there’s maximum information. “We always felt we were right to be asking these questions, even though they were obviously not being answered by Minister Noonan. We need to know more about some of the processes. How was €5m paid to shareholders?”.

Davy Stockbrokers - in her sights
Davy Stockbrokers – in her sights

There may have been an illegality in trading in Siteserv shares in the run up to the announcement that shareholders would benefit, and she’s written to the stock exchange asking it to explain the process between it and the ODCE etc, though the stock exchange is saying nothing. She’s obviously got damning information about the share trading, but she significantly doesn’t think the rest was necessarily illegal. There’s a lot that hasn’t been answered, she thinks, but she’s asking more and more questions. She thinks KPMG are conflicted “all over the place”. Unless they come back with an adverse finding no-one will believe them. KPMG accountants Kieran Wallace and Eamonn Richardson, the special liquidators of IBRC are investigating transactions where IBRC made big capital losses. We’re only an hour from London and Dublin is a small town, she notes knowingly. “There are a lot of Davy linkages”. The terms of reference allows the KPMG investigators to select which cases to look at – a Get out of Jail for them, she considers. It’s also not clear if the €10m threshold for capital losses which may be investigated is before any discount is applied, or after.  She goes on about the extraordinary litany of strange conduct. The relationship between the minister and his officials needs scrutiny, she feels. Turning the promissory notes into sovereign debt and the liquidation of IBRC may have been done in a suspicious rush as a consequence of some of what was going on between the Department and IBRC. Noonan misled when he implied in answer to her questions that relations between his department and Mike Aynsley, boss of IBRC, were good. FoI shows they were not. Noonan said he relied on Dukes’ belief that everything was above board. But his officials were advising an independent review was needed. They should have asked for more information. The officials come out okay from the FoI except that Minister Simon Harris says there was a two-day meeting in August 2011 between John Moran, then head of the Department of Finance, and IBRC, for which there are no minutes but at which Siteserv was discussed. Aynsley and Dukes are contradicting him saying Siteserv wasn’t even discussed.

If it wasn’t discussed it gives the lie to the Minister’s claim that he dealt with the matter by delegating his senior civil servant to engage with IBRC over it.  Once the bidders were narrowed down to around 12 bids they submitted 11-page due diligence but Denis only submitted three pages. Was it known he was going to win, before? In June 2011 Sierra, a Siteserv subsidiary which ultimately won the water metering contract, began hiring in specialist staff for water-meter installation. They were ahead of the game. Did they too know that they were going to get the metering contract? Sierra wasn’t even formed as a company when it got that contract.

The competition authority absurdly looked on the transaction as a media takeover even though it wasn’t. “IBRC said the only reason Siteserv won was price. If it turns out there were other reasons there’s a real scandal on our hands”.

She admits she knows lots of things that she can’t reveal. The bidding process was a figleaf.

Questions. Questions.  Questions.

I ask if she enjoys the job: “Look at, I enjoyed being a county councillor. I’m looking for tangible results on matters that are important to me and the people who elected me. Sometimes those can be for an individual. For example we recently matched up a person with a disability with a journalist, and got a great result. I get a great buzz out of that. Isn’t it nice to feel you can make a difference?”. •