Fianna Fáil’s finance spokesman has had to watch on through nine budgets, but this year might be his first to preside over one, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell.
For nine years, Fianna Fáil’s finance spokesman and Cork South-Central TD, Michael McGrath, has been the bridesmaid, but with a general election likely this year, his wait may be at an end.
That’s nine budgets he has had to critique rather than deliver. Nine years of being the afterthought to the biggest political set-piece of the year.
For the past four of those, the Carrigaline-based McGrath has had to oppose, first, Michael Noonan and, later, Paschal Donohoe, while facilitating their government through the much-hated confidence-and-supply deal, agreed in 2016.
As Donohoe’s main marker, McGrath has taken some internal flack for being too willing to allow the deal’s continuance, when many others wanted it discarded.
Unlike some of his more tribal party colleagues, the 43-year-old McGrath gives credit to the Government when he thinks they merit it and has little or no time for the personalised bickering the Dáil has seen in increasing volume in recent weeks.
Now, with the fourth and last of those budgets done and dusted, McGrath is glad to see the back of it.
He has had to walk the line of being the main opposition party while also acting in the national interest and providing stability through the uncertainty of Brexit. That was a pressure.
“Obviously, not everyone was happy with the decision, late last year, to extend confidence-and-supply. But I think that has been absolutely vindicated as the correct decision by Micheál Martin.
We did it for very good reason, in the national interest, and I think even a lot of our opponents respect that fact, and we see how that plays out electorally.
“I found it very challenging here, at a personal level, because, you know, some people see you as neither being in government nor in opposition. So it has been awkward and difficult.
There are times when you’d love to let fly at the Government, more than you feel you can, because the harder you go in, then there will be more calls as to why aren’t you pulling it down. So, it has been a very tricky tightrope to walk,” hesays.
“So, if I think it has served the country well, given the crisis that we have faced in Brexit, I think it was the right thing to do. But it has been very challenging, and it has not been enjoyable,” he adds.
Why does he think he is ready to be minister.
“I think that we have adopted very sensible, centre-ground economic policies over the last number of years.
"I think we have led the way in calling for fiscal prudence in the establishment of a rainy day fund, for example; in calling out the Government on the risks being taken in depending on corporation tax receipts that could be validated here,” he says.
And what about him?
“I think people know that I am somebody who can be trusted, who won’t make any reckless decisions. I am someone who understands the public finances and, having been in the role that I’m in now since 2011, and having responded to nine budgets. I know the brief inside and out and I am ready for the job,” he says.
Despite his relative youth, McGrath is a father of seven children and has been a national politician for 13 years, entering the Dáil in 2007. He famously shares the Cork South Central Constituency with his party leader, Micheal Martin, though the relationship has been rocky at times.
While McGrath has endured tough election campaigns before, like in 2011, when he barely saved his seat, he fears that the upcoming election is heading to be a particularly nasty one.
He accuses Fine Gael of targeting his colleague, Lisa Chambers, in a “sinister,” personal way, because she is a woman and a first-time TD.
“I would call everyone going into this election campaign to stick to the issues and focus on the things that really matter to people and we know what those issues are, in health and housing and crime and protecting the economy, and so on.
“And not to go after individuals. I think what we’re seeing, from Fine Gael, the tactic of pursuing Lisa Chambers was particularly sinister. Because they know she is one of the star performers on the FF front bench. She’s a newcomer, a new TD, and she’s female, and I think it is completely unnecessary,” he says.
Recent sniping in the Dáil chamber between party leaders, including his own, leads him to conclude the campaign could be vicious.
“I think it would make sense ifthere could be an orderly wind-down of the Dáil. Undoubtedly, proceedings have become more techy.
"Unfortunately, I get the feeling that it’s going to be a nasty campaign, which I don’t enjoy; yeah, I don’t like it and I don’t think the general public really enjoy it either,” he says.