Coalition has time on its side, insists Halligan

Junior Minister John Halligan in Waterford City. Picture: Patrick Browne

Juno McEnroe talks to Junior Minister John Halligan about the potential of our space technology sector, the future of the Coalition, and his relationship with Leo Varadkar

Like a fish out of water, John Halligan signed up to the Fine Gael coalition government despite being one of the most left-wing politicians in the new Dáil.

Sometimes bolshie, always frank and fiercely passionate, the former workers’ party politician and now independent holds polar opposite political views to his government colleagues.

Working inside the Independent Alliance, the Waterford TD maintains it is tough being in government. His explosive views set him apart. A published poet, Halligan supports radical changes such as the legalisation of prostitution, drug use and the right-to-die. And while some critics might argue some of his venting is hot air, those alternative opinions can matter when you wield power as a minister.

In past interviews, he pulled no punches on the topic du jour. He thinks US president Donald Trump is a “head banger”, a “brute” and “misogynist” and that landlords here are “exploiting people for a fast buck” amid the housing crisis.

While he has a portrait of Cuban
revolutionary Che Guevara in his home in Waterford, Halligan refuses to be pigeonholed as a Marxist. Instead, he speaks of the heroics of the Greek Spartans and the bravado of war. But he doesn’t deny he is a socialist operating inside a conservative government.

Sitting in his plainly furnished office on the first floor of the iconic Department of Jobs building on Kildare Street, the junior minister addresses a range of issues from tax reform to improving the school curriculum to housing and of course life and work with the new
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

So how is the truculent minister, overseeing training and skills, faring after over a year in office? Isn’t it very comfortable being a well-paid minister with all the benefits?

“It is tough. It is different. I knew speaking to other former ministers that this is a different ball game, your time is gone. Day after day, seven days a week. Your briefs, I’m working with nearly 13 portfolios between education, department of jobs and enterprise, I’m dealing with Solus [an education agency], with construction and development.

“I’m dealing with the European Space Agency, I’m dealing with universities, with school transport, a massive 114,000 children, twice a day, 100m miles of road networks, 5,000 vehicles, 12,000 special needs, massive. It is all consuming.”

Halligan is a huge proponent of space technology and research and would probably have Ireland involved in a space race if he were Taoiseach. But he makes strong arguments as to why this sector matters.

“There are 60 companies here in Ireland dealing with the European Space Agency at the top of their game. We underestimate the importance of it.

Having travelled to Japan and South Korea, the junior minister has seen for himself what the future holds for technology jobs and the potential for Ireland there.

“I’ve met a number of these
companies, they are all saying that jobs will double in Ireland. If we have the
researchers and developers and we have the technicians that are working with these guys sending stuff into space and dealing stuff with satellites, the space station, how good are they going to be on earth with companies. We need to invest, we are at the top of our game across Europe on that.”

A key ambition for the alliance member is to add research and development to the school curriculum, which he says would arm the next generation. He intends to bring proposals to
Cabinet soon on how this could come about after consulting with parents, teachers and schools.

“You and I would have gone to school. Science subjects in school would have been biology, physics, a little bit of chemistry, maths. That’s not good enough anymore — we should have
research and innovation.”

Changes he suggests could include introducing what are known as stem subjects, such as technology and engineering, in the junior cycle.

Nonetheless, bringing about political change requires co-operation. So how are relations, sometimes seen as
fractious, between the alliance and their Fine Gael government partners?

“It is difficult because we are a small party in the bigger realm of things in government. The history of small paries in government hasn’t been great when it comes to the electorate.”

Halligan is not ignorant to the ways other minority parties, such as the Greens and Progressive Democrats, went after entering government with larger groups.

“I think we did [step up to the plate] go in with Fine Gael, with grave difficulty, which may affect us. But we are holding well in opinion polls still. We are at about 5% the whole time.

“It was difficult in the initial stages. I think we are treated with a lot more respect than we may have been initially, as it was difficult for Fine Gael. Their preferred option would have been a
majority.

And what about suggestions the alliance is really just some ‘Shane Ross show’, a group run by the Dublin-Rathdown TD and senior minister?

Ross is usually front and centre of any row or proposal, often causing more grief than gain for his colleagues over controversial matters such as
judicial appointments and drink-driving laws.

“If I thought that I would say it here and now, and I’m a friend of Shane Ross and he would have to swallow or vomit on it. That is not the case. We meet once a week, we are always in contact by phone, any issue that comes out.

“There is no diktat coming from one individual in the Independent Alliance, this is the way we are going to push
forward. Of course we have differences on abortion, I have been coming on the issue of right-to-die, fundamental
differences on that, differences on the drink driving.

And so will the alliance last at least another year with their political
bedfellows, despite the sometimes tetchy relations and opposition calls for a snap general election?

“Right now we need stability. I’m not saying that just to stay in government as a minister.

“I think there is another year in it. I don’t think that anybody would want to destabilise the economy and the political system for another year until we see what happens with Britain, including the alliance.”

This is lukewarm enthusiasm for the coalition’s survival, but it seems more optimistic than our last interview when Taoiseach Enda Kenny ran the government. For the moment, Halligan likes his successor, Leo Varadkar.

He gives an surprising endorsement of the Fine Gael leader — despite coming from the other side of the
political spectrum.

“I like him, I think he is straightforward. I have his mobile private number, I can ring him if I want to.”


Lifestyle

Want to be cultured this Christmas? From TV to podcasts to books, Ed Power has the definite list of everything you missed this year - so you can curl up on the couch and catch upThe definite list of everything you missed this year

Artist Ciara Rodgers teaches older people how to rediscover their creativity and regain confidence, says Rowena WalshBrush with art: Discovering your creative side in later life

Furniture, paintings, jewellery and silver are on offer at James Adam in Dublin, writes Des O’SullivanAll set for home run: See what's on offer at the James Adam sale in Dublin

It’s not too late to hunt out a unique gift. Des O’Sullivan previews sales in the lead-up to the festive seasonA flurry of auctions in Munster sets the scene for Christmas

More From The Irish Examiner