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Trusty Sean Barrett (now Ceann Comhairle) offers a conventional FG rightist perspective in pre-election Village

Interview: Seán Barrett: Still telling it straight.  By Derek Owens

Fine Gael’s trusty Sean Barrett, spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, with 37 years in electoral politics,  champions the market and the European project.

“You cannot make commitments like that to anybody… Governments don’t create jobs”, insisted Sean Barrett. He looked evenly at the studio audience (and particularly at a student, who’d asked how Fine Gael could ensure he’d have a job in four years) as he continued over the interruptions of his fellow Frontline panellists. “They create the environment where people can organise their business and create jobs”. The remark was as close as any candidate on the programme – a special episode devoted to the General Election in the Dun Laoghaire constituency – came to a succinct outline of their political philosophy. It was also the first time many viewers have seen a politician turning to a voter and flatly refusing to make a promise.

Barrett’s performance on the programme was praised, even by sometime constituency rivals, as “assured” and “mature”. Where he stood out from other candidates in what Pat Kenny dubbed the “group of death”, though, was in his willingness to disagree with members of the audience – he had a back-and-forth challenge with the job-hungry student, and seemed to relish outing a different audience member as a supporter of another candidate – even as others fell over themselves to agree with all but the daftest contributions. The approach was distinctly old-school and, strangely perhaps, refreshing.

If Barrett’s style in campaigning seems to belong to a different time, that’s probably because the 66-year-old first entered politics back in the 1970s. Having won election to the Dáil in 1981, he rose quickly in Garret FitzGerald’s Fine Gael to become Government Chief Whip and Minister for Sport in 1982, and held the job through the fractious lifetime of the Fine Gael-Labour Government. When Fine Gael returned to power again in 1994, he returned to the job for five months, before becoming Minister for Defence and the Marine. A sudden retirement in 2002 came as a surprise – so too did his successful return in 2007. Still, he remained a significant player behind the scenes during ‘retirement’, as a party trustee involved in fine Gael’s finances and in selecting candidates. Few politicians have held such influence on a party for so long while flying firmly below the radar of most political writers.

Even in Gemma Hussey’s diaries, a soap-opera account of FitzGerald’s troubled 1982-7 coalition, Barrett is on the fringes of drama, a figure offering solace and emotional support to Fine Gael ministers who, like Hussey, wanted to do “the right thing.” (Most readers would take this to mean imposing harsher spending cuts than that Government actually did – Barrett, who says he hasn’t read the diaries, agrees with this interpretation). By his own account, that Government went through “traumatic experiences”, facing a controversial referendum on abortion and an economic picture that was almost as grim as is today. “It was a very, very tricky period. And an awful lot of good things were done. More probably could have been done in terms of bringing about the correction in the economy earlier”, he says. “Dick Spring had just taken over as leader of the Labour party… He couldn’t carry the sort of things that should have been done in the first year or two, that’s the reality of it. And in 1982, instead of making the savings early in the first two budgets by reducing expenditure and becoming more efficient, we shied away. We increased taxes, and it took much longer to recover as a result”. The Government from 1994 to 1997, by contrast, “was a bit of a cakewalk. The people who were in from 1994 to 1997 were mostly guys who’d been with us in 1982 to 1987. We all said ‘we’re not making the same mistakes this time as we made the last time’”.

If this year’s general election throws up the Government that most people expect – a coalition of Fine Gael and Labour– there’ll be considerably fewer Government veterans around, particularly on the Fine Gael benches. Aside from Finance Spokesman Michael Noonan, Barrett has more ministerial experience than any other sitting TD, making it surprising that he only returned to the front bench (as Foreign Affairs spokesman) in the wake of Richard Bruton’s failed leadership challenge last year. Barrett, a personal friend of Enda Kenny, was one of the few Dublin TDs to support him. “I was in favour of the leader, yeah. It’s a very serious thing to change a leader, and we’ve had a bad experience of doing that as a party,” he says today. “People misunderstand, in my opinion, what a leader should be, or what a leader should be doing. A leader is more than a high-profile individual who gives the impression that they’re in charge of every department. When it comes to the actual day when you’re appointing a cabinet, what you need is a team of fifteen people, sixteen with a chief whip. The Taoiseach is not going to be running over to my department, or your department or everybody else’s department. No, he’s saying ‘I’m expecting you to do the job’. And then, when it comes to a cabinet, you need solidarity – you need to be able to bind people together to get decisions and to keep a good atmosphere, especially where there’s a coalition. And, you know, there are different types of people for those particular jobs. Enda Kenny, whether the people know it or understand it, has been very successful at running a team approach to things”.

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Locally at least, Barrett has some experience of teams breaking down. In 2007, clashes between Fine Gael candidates in Dun Laoghaire were happily relayed by the local press, and sometimes got national coverage. There’s been less evidence of tension this year, though Barrett’s running mate – Mary Mitchell O’Connor – could be fairly described as his polar opposite. The former Progressive Democrat has won over many local activists by sheer force of energy and has plenty of goodwill built up through voluntary work, even if some media appearances have shown a certain lack of polish. The heavy-on-enthusiasm, light-on-guile approach was most in evidence at the constituency’s Selection Convention late last year (according to sympathetic party activists, she sought the nomination against the wishes of headquarters). In her speech, she happily lambasted socialism in general and the Labour party in particular, while also rewriting swathes of set Fine Gael policy. The visiting chairman, Charlie Flanagan, looked on with wide-eyed, impotent alarm, but raised eyebrows from the party’s big beasts when he didn’t prevent local activists selecting her as a candidate.  Barrett’s approach contrasted with Mitchell O’Connor’s: his son John, proposing him as a candidate, read out his CV, while Barrett stuck to conventional Fine Gael points on Fianna Fáil’s ineptitude and the need to cut Government costs, while also making a lengthy case for greater investment in green energy. The latter seemed an odd topic to dwell on given the audience (it’s worth noting that the Stillorgan Park Hotel’s car-park and surrounding side roads were filled with vehicles, with ‘narry a Prius in sight) but Barrett has become a convert to the cause since serving as Chairman of the Dáil’s Joint Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security.

It’s probably this willingness to say what he actually thinks – whether to Frontline questioners, Fine Gael members, or left-wing journalists – that earns him respect. Even in conversation with Village, an avowedly progressive magazine, he reiterated his belief in free-market economics, arguing that the past few years haven’t been an indictment of the capitalist system or light-touch regulation (he attributes Ireland’s collapse to individuals not doing their job, individual greed, and a strange short-termism that’s crept into investment culture). He’ll also describe himself as “a great believer in the European project”, and advances the idea of a pan-European credit-rating agency, at a time when EU institutions aren’t held in particularly high esteem. People who feel that the free market is inherently unjust, or that higher taxes on top earners should prevail rather than budget cuts, will disagree with Seán Barrett. However, at a time when parties across the political spectrum contribute maddening vagueness on many issues and far too prone to pandering, it’s a relief to see a politician still stating what he stands for – whatever people think.