Minister of state for health Finian McGrath tells Political Editor Daniel McConnell how the balance of power has shifted within Government since Enda Kenny’s departure
ALONG with Shane Ross, he is one of the most unlikely ministers this country has seen in a long time.
Finian McGrath, the super junior health minister with responsibility for disabilities, is an informal, gregarious character.
He, too, has sat around the Cabinet table for the past 15 months.
In a rare interview, conducted in his office on the ministerial corridor between Leinster House and Government Buildings, Mr McGrath provides a fascinatingly frank insight into what life was like when former taoiseach Enda Kenny was at the helm, and how the now-departed leader used to drive him and his Independent Alliance crazy.
An ardent Leo fan, Mr McGrath speaks openly of how the balance of power has shifted within Government to the new Taoiseach and his new finance minister, Paschal Donohoe.
I ask Mr McGrath what he thought of Enda Kenny. He isn’t exactly forward in his praise of the man who led Fine Gael for 15 years.
“There is two sides of Enda,” he says. “There is the personal side of him and would you go for a pint with him, and the answer is yes. On a political level, he had that old Fine Gael attitude, arrogant, talking down to the little people — these Independents — so there was that element of that. He used to get up our noses, sometimes that would cause dissent, particularly in the early few weeks.”
Ouch. So how did he and Shane Ross feel about the prolonged manner of Mr Kenny’s departure? He confirms that the delayed departure did impact on the work of Government, which led to high levels of frustration.
“I do know that some colleagues at Cabinet were holding back business which did bring a bit of instability,” he says. “To be honest with you, we were relieved when Enda announced that he was going and then we could focus. After the election, we couldn’t wait to get in and get the new taoiseach in place and get on with the job. We are now in that space.”
He insists the new team of Varadkar and Donohoe is far more of a double act than what went before.
“Basically, the axis of power is Leo and Paschal, whereas before you had Kenny but you’d listen to Michael Noonan for the serious stuff,” he says. “You listen to Leo and you listen to Paschal, there is a strong double act. They don’t mind disagreeing with each other.
“The previous taoiseach would get a bit tetchy. Leo gets told, like we all do, to wait and see, but all done in a nice way.”
I ask him what he felt about the political departure of Mr Noonan.
“Yeah, I used to call him the Clint Eastwood of the Government,” says Mr McGrath. “He used to come in and calm us all down and then still get his own way.
“In fairness, during the talks for example, in rows about ministers and if there was a log-jam, he would find out what the problem was and always find a solution. When we were fighting for an extra junior ministry, he listened to us and came up with the idea of the rotating ministry and we all walked out of the room, problem solved.
“The same in Government and on policy issues, he was very supportive and tried to understand us. When Shane and I used to go off on our rants at Cabinet, and the rest of them would be highly offended, he would always have the calming effect, see what we were saying and then help us find a compromise.”
What is life like with Mr Varadkar at the helm?
“We are now also fortunate to have a Taoiseach that encourages diversity within the Cabinet and that is something in the previous cabinet that wasn’t there,” says Mr McGrath. “The current Taoiseach is far more into people speaking their minds, but then a decision is taken.
“The previous taoiseach was very nice and courteous, but he would shut you down and he didn’t let people have space. Leo gets the whole idea of diversity, that the Government is made up of Independents and Fine Gael and we are a section of the Government and we have to be listened to.”
I ask him what he thinks his own major achievement in office has been.
“The first thing I am proud of is the medical cards for the 10,000 children who were on the domiciliary allowance,” says Mr McGrath. “Ten years I was campaigning for that. Now they have it as a right and that is in the bag.
“The second thing I was delighted with was the return of the €1,700 carers grant and with thousands more families getting care, that helps them access respite services. I also have set up the taskforce on personalised budgets and they are coming back before Christmas. This means that the person with disabilities has the budget to access the services they want.
“The two other things I was proud of, emotionally, was that within three months of being in Government I got an extra €31m for disability services from Paschal Donohoe.
“When it came up to my first budget, I can still see, €1.654bn for disability services nationally and it was an extra €92m — an increase of 6%. They are my achievements, the main ones.”
As we look to conclude the interview, I ask him how stands the Independent Alliance from its time in office. Is it battered and bruised? There are reports that Mr Ross and Seán Canney are barely on speaking terms, on foot of a personality clash.
“The five of us, the glue that keeps us together, we are very different but what keeps us together is that we agreed on our own programme and I often say this to the Taoiseach, we get on very well personally,” he says. “I am very good friends with Shane personally. We kill each other sometimes on political issues, but personal relationships help greatly.”
I ask him about Ross and Canney. A smile crosses his face, a clue to suggest there is something to those reports.
Are they close, I ask. Would they be close personally or socialise together? “No” comes the reply.
So who is he friendly with around the Cabinet table?
“I have to say Shane Ross is my favourite,” he says with a large smile.
“There are ministers who deliver and then there are those who are good craic.
“I get on very well with Simon Harris; we work well together on disability issues and he has delivered lots of things for me.
“I have a lot of time for Regina Doherty, the new minister. She has delivered lots of things for me.
“As for nice people, it has to be Eoghan Murphy. We would be good pals and I get on great with him. That goes back to the time of the formation talks. He was one of the guys who really reached out to us, and tried to understand where we were coming from. He spent a lot of time with us and was very supportive of us.
“I would also be great palsy walsy with Heather Humphreys.”
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