Stephen Donnelly is an accidental politician. There he was sitting in front of his TV minding his own business, watching the news pictures of IMF officials striding the streets of Dublin. He saw the threat. “I’m trained in this stuff – what happens when the IMF arrives in your country, the mistakes that get made, and how to protect people in a context of painful economic correction”. He had a sense, from watching the government make mistakes, “that our political system was missing some key skills. I couldn’t just sit by and watch it happen”. A whirlwind election campaign saw the new deputy take his seat in the Dáil. Endearingly, his first day he mistakenly went to the gate of the next-door National Museum in search of his new place of work.
The 2011 election “created a politburo”. A huge majority in the Dáil was controlled by a cabinet that was ruled by four people. This “consolidation of power” made for a highly dysfunctional Dail with parliament effectively “sidelined, left with the role of observer to critical decisions affecting millions of people”. Donnelly was unimpressed with his initiations in the Dáil. “I, and many other TDs, invested a great deal of time and effort in drafting amendments to proposed legislation and then spent hours debating them, only to find that none of them were ever, ever accepted”.
It is not easy to break into politics in Ireland. You need to be family, you need to be part of the party machines and you need resources. Irish politics has been unique, with economic crisis and austerity merely nudging politics to the left without any real change in personnel or direction. New faces and new ideas are scarce. Donnelly stands out in this regard. It’s not easy to start a new political party in Ireland. Donnelly gave it a go, but came a bit of a cropper. Ambition, however, will not hold him back.
He is an enthusiast for the ‘new’ politics. He is unforgiving of the “jaded commentary” that asserts “this Dáil is a mess”. “Parliament is relevant for now. Parliament has a role. It is working”. “I’m talking with TDs and Senators across the political spectrum who are flying. This Dáil provides them with the opportunity to make progress on issues they care about and that matter for the country. That is what good politics should be about”. This could go in the future but “once you empower people it is hard to revert back”. TDs who have never been “remotely happy with their role on the sidelines” are unlikely to allow a return to the dysfunctionality that was a feature of previous majority governments.
Tax avoidance by vulture funds costs the State between €10bn and €20bn, according to Donnelly. He offers treatment of this issue as an example of the ‘new’ politics in action. He raised it at leader’s questions a few months ago but the government had no position on it. He then talked to politicians across Fianna Fáil, Labour and even Fine Gael and prepared a policy paper on the issue. Fianna Fáil then announced they would not vote through any Finance Bill that did not address the issue.
Michael Noonan presented an amendment to address the issue. Donnelly prepared a technical note on the amendment, pursued the matter further through the new Budget Oversight Committee, and met Michael Noonan privately on the matter. A further amendment was put forward by the Minister. Another detailed technical note issued from Donnelly: further change was promised.
This new-found efficacy, he allows, may reflect the fact he’s a more experienced legislator in his second mandate. However, his case is that this is the ‘new’ politics in action. This would not have happened in the last Dáil. “TDs can now raise issues, co-operate across party lines, and have some confidence that the executive will respond. TDs have greater and more varied forms of leverage open to them. They have more possibilities for engagement on issues. More responsibility leads to better outcomes. My hope is that is what we are seeing now through this ‘new’ politics”.
He comes across as somewhat unforgiving in his first responses on issues. He is not patient with popular disaffection. If we are not happy with our political system, we need to be aware that: “the political system is a manifestation of the country. If it has faults we need to remember we get to choose those who run it”. If we are not happy with our economic system, we need to keep in mind that: “we live in one of the most prosperous countries in the world. We have high quality public services compared to most countries”. However, conviction gives way to further reflection and nuance when he is pushed. This is what makes him an interesting politician.
“Are we short of political vision? Yes. Do we need more political vision? Yes. Would the public respond positively to this? Yes”. It gets more interesting when he suggests politicians “need to get better at laying it out”. We don’t do much political vision and the bit we do, we don’t do very well. That last element is missing from most commentaries, but it could be the real stumbling block. Still he doesn’t let go. “We have an awful habit here of blaming the supposedly lazy or self-interested politicians for everything. That’s a trap and it disempowers us. If we want to see change, we have to stand up and make it happen”.
Donnelly’s political vision is set out in neat frames. We should be building “a country where every child grows up with opportunities and everyone can live with dignity. We have a fantastic country but we’re still a long way from achieving this”. If we are to pursue this goal, we need first to secure “sustainable exchequer revenues”. That means “backing SMEs and Foreign Direct Investment, stopping unwanted tax avoidance, and responding well to Brexit”. Secondly, we need targeted investment “looking at short-term and long-term projects by both state and non-state actors”.
Thirdly, we need to focus on quality of life. This encompasses “great public services, reducing the cost of living, ensuring decent wages and working conditions, defusing the pensions time-bomb, invigorating community based activity. Critically we’ve got to get smart about sustainability, both ecological and built environment”.
All very neat. But what happens when the focus on sustainability under quality of life suggests that the manner in which you are generating exchequer revenues is from unsustainable economic activity? I detect the merest pause as he points to the “sustainable” in his “sustainable exchequer revenues”.
“You have got to square the circle for sustainability. You have got to be smarter”. He puts a lot of store on the need to be “smarter”. This is his new ideas territory and we certainly need new ideas.
All very well. But not a mention of equality. He reminds you that he has already said that this is about building “a country where every child grows up with opportunities and everyone can live with dignity”. Opportunities and dignity are imperative. However, they are minimal standards when it comes to equality. It all comes across as a bit tame and lacking in ambition at first.
Donnelly’s neat frames seem for a moment to symbolise this former McKinsey advisor in their tidiness. It gets more chaotic and interesting as the thoughtful reflective politician emerges. Let’s go back to the sustainability issue. Surely the political response to climate change reflects everything that is bad about our supposedly ‘new’ politics? Climate change must run a horse and cart through his neat formulae?
Donnelly is irrepressibly positive and nervous of general negativity. The response to: “climate change is not an Irish failure, it is a global failure. It reflects a weakness in democratic systems rather than Irish politics. Political systems are short-term by nature”. Surely there is also a specific failure of political leadership in Ireland? Donnelly falls back on: “the public get the politicians they choose. Sustainability, both ecological and economic, is the greatest challenge and opportunity we face. We either figure it out or ultimately we are dead. Yet, we don’t elect many Green Party TDs. That’s not political failure, it’s public choice”.
Then his innate thoughtfulness gets the better of his innate ‘positivity’. “We should be ashamed of our response to the Paris Agreement”. A tough critique of the Irish political system is bubbling away in the background. “There is a lack of expertise in the political system and in the administrative system. We don’t have a mixed list system and we don’t get experts into politics, we get generalists. We have a highly protected civil service and little capacity to address gaps in expertise. There is very little movement between industry, academia, politics, the public service and civil service, and civil society”.
He has an engagement with issues of environmental sustainability in real life. He wants Wicklow to be the first carbon-neutral county. He enthuses over the “social solidarity and pride” such a move would generate as well as the “economic potential” it would hold. He boldly does so in that order too.
However, what about equality and all this talk of opportunities? He gets a bit testy. He has been clear about “everyone having an equal opportunity to be the best that they can be”. He has evidenced his concern for “community activity to address disadvantage”. But isn’t opportunity just an illusion? We offer opportunities confident in the knowledge that there are whole groups of people that will never be able to take them up. Opportunity is merely a cover for lack of interest in tackling equality.
Upon reflection, Donnelly explains what he means. “Imagine we tracked 1,000 children from Foxrock and 1,000 children from Fassaroe, a disadvantaged area in Bray, and we look at them when they are 25 years old. When I say I want equal opportunity I mean that when we look at these young adults, we would see broadly similar levels of achievement in socio-economic outcomes, happiness, and empowerment between the two groups”. “It wouldn’t matter a damn where you are from, how wealthy your parents are, how many letters they had after their names”. This is closer to a vision of equality of outcome, way more ambitious.
This equality requires: “massive additional investment in education that is needs-led and targeted at disadvantage. We need to direct resources, intellectual capital, and new ideas into disadvantaged communities and disadvantaged families in other areas”. Equality of outcome does require such positive action, but why is this not happening? Donnelly becomes passionate, convinced and thoughtful. “We have paid lip service to this issue. Have we taken it seriously? I am not sure we have”. He does not hold back now about politics “lacking vision, lacking capability and lacking leadership” when it comes to addressing inequality. He still emphasises his thoughts on the laziness and danger of “politics bashing” just to be sure.
Donnelly has always been an advocate of equality budgeting. It is a passion that invariably throws those who would pigeon-hole him as economistic and right-wing into a bit of quandary. He is currently working with Katherine Zappone to advance the commitment in the Programme for Government for equality and human rights budgeting. In the debate on this approach on the Budget Oversight Committee he stood out as one of the few members who actually understood what it was about. If this approach to the Budget was to be effectively put in place it would offer a new and unexpected foundation for a more equal society. That would be no mean measure of a ‘new’ politics.
Stephen Donnelly ends the interview with a suggestion that this is really the point from which we should have begun. He is engaged and thinking and ready for more, despite being thirty minutes late for his next appointment. I don’t know what his next appointment thought of all that, but I was impressed. He asserts that he is “full of hope and ambition for the country”. I borrowed a bit of that and left the encounter with a spring in my step. We need a bit more of all that in our politics.
Interviewed by Niall Crowley