Kathleen Lynch: ‘I think Labour probably needs a different leader now’

Kathleen Lynch has lost her seat but don’t write the epilogue yet. The outgoing minister of state at the Department of Health talks to Catherine Shanahan about the drama of a 34-year political career, one that may have a few plotlines still left.

Q: How did you handle defeat in the general election?

A: “I’m a great believer in dealing with reality, I’ve done that all my life. I ran under a bus when I was 10 and I could have sat back and said, ‘I have a disability now so this is it, this is my life and this is it for me’.”

Q: Were you badly injured?

A: “Hugely injured, that’s why I still pop in and out of hospital every now and again.”

Q: A lot of people think that is because you are one of the women who received Anti-D (contaminated blood product from the State) and that you have ongoing health problems?

A: “Anti-D? No. Not that, not that at all. Even though Anti-D didn’t help.

“I was 10 when I ran under a double-decker bus in Blackpool. I was coming home from school and I spent the next seven years in hospital... I suppose the first four years continuously... They took everything off one of my legs, left me with a bone. That’s why I’m always fascinated by people who overcome great odds. I think it takes a particular mindset to do it. I had to learn how to walk about three times.”

Q: But you must have been disappointed when you lost your seat?

A: “Absolutely, very disappointed. I mean you wouldn’t be normal not to be disappointed and especially when you’ve put in so much work.”

Q: How did it compare to losing your seat in 1997?

A: “There was no comparison. When it happened in 1997, it was unexpected, completely unexpected. At least we were half prepared this time. Of course, we thought we were still going to do it — always up to the final close of poll you feel you’re going to do it.

“But you get on with it, because when I lost my seat in ‘97, two years later my mother died and that puts it right back into focus. I thought that was the worst thing that ever happened to me until my mother died. And that was a much bigger event.”

Q: What went wrong in the election? For Fine Gael and Labour?

A: “We thought saving the country was going to be the issue. I think we relied too much on the Clinton thing, you know, ‘it’s the economy stupid’, when in fact it was the day-to-day stuff. People didn’t see the improvement in their day-to-day lives despite the amount of people who are back at work.

“I think water was a big issue but I think that was only a catalyst for an awful lot of other things.”

Q: Will you run if there’s another election soon?

A: “I think it’s quite likely that we’re going to have another election very soon, and in that event, I don’t think I’ll have an option. I think as well, I’m always a great believer in choice and I do believe that the people deserve to have a choice.

“Cork is left without any female representation — I think that choice needs to be there. And I think the Labour Party has to be part and parcel of any platform that’s there because I think we have something to offer.”

Q: Is it strange going to Leinster House and continuing with government business when you’ve lost your seat?

A: “Not as weird as when you’re elected for the first time which I think is probably the most daunting thing because you don’t even know where the toilets are.

“I suppose I’ve been through it slightly once before, even in this position, because I was the only one to survive the reshuffle two and a half years ago. And at that time for about almost two weeks myself and Adrian, private secretary at the Department of Health, used to look out the door every morning and say ‘Jesus, it’s like the Mary Celeste’.”

Q: Who will form the next government?

A: “It’s the first time in my lifetime that I have seen people so reluctant to go into government. It’s the programme for government you work on, nothing else. You don’t have to love one another, you just have to work on the programme for government. And they [Fianna Fáil] won this election and it is their job to form a government.

“And this business of its being about reform and ideas — it isn’t. It’s about positioning for the next election. That’s what it’s about. Nothing else.”

Q: Do you think Joan Burton should stand down as leader of the Labour Party?

A: “Then it comes back to — what do you do if she does?”

Q: Is there anyone else?

A: “There’s no shortage of takers. I think Brendan Howlin would be an exceptional leader. I think Seán Sherlock — we have to have a leader and a deputy. Seán Sherlock is very solid, very focused.

Q: You haven’t mentioned Alan Kelly?

A: “Ah yes. But if the leader steps down, then surely it’s incumbent on the deputy to vacate and maybe put himself forward for a different position?”

Q: For example, party leader?

A: “For example, party leader. As I say, there’s never a shortage of takers.”

Q: Who would you prefer? Brendan Howlin or Alan Kelly?

A: “Brendan Howlin. I think Alan was a good deputy leader in the circumstances but I think Brendan would be a better leader.”

Q: Do you thing Alan Kelly would be a bad leader?

A: “I’m not certain that he has the experience to be a good leader.

“Now I always believe as well of course that the people we least expect to perform best usually do perform best and the people we have very high expectations of can’t possibly live up to them.”

Q: Is it something you would put yourself forward for?

A: “In the event that I was re-elected — I would certainly sit and say ‘What exactly can I bring to that table?’ I would be interested. But I would be realistic enough, I hope I would be realistic enough to recognise maybe greater ability in somebody else.”

Q: Did you consider Joan Burton to be a good leader?

A: “I think Joan did very well in Social Protection. I thought that she was a good leader at that particular time. I think we probably need a different leader now.”

Q: Within the Government, who was the most difficult person to work with?

A: “It wasn’t Alan Shatter, he was actually very easy to work with and myself and Alan got on very, very well. And he was the most progressive... And I do think sometimes people sort of fix on him as being the most difficult and actually he wasn’t.”

Q: So who was?

A: “I prefer not to say.”

Q: Who was the easiest to work with?

A: “James Reilly was actually quite easy to deal with... he would give you credit — there was that kind of inert decency about him.”

Q: Compared to who?

A: “Compared to other ministers for health who are so obsessed with publicity.”

Q: Do you mean Leo Varadkar?

A: “Compared to other ministers for health.”

Q: How do you find Leo Varadkar?

A: “I think we can often be blinded by the visual.

“He’s a very good communicator, he’s an excellent communicator. He has a vision for the health service, he really has a vision for the health service, I’m just saying in comparison with James Reilly, James was far more likely to give you credit for all you had done. That’s really all that I’m saying.”

Q: I wonder would Róisín Shortall say the same thing? [about James Reilly]

A: “I found James very easy to deal with. I suppose recognising that you are not the minister for health is very important. He has overall responsibility — you have responsibility for your section.

“I suppose if you’re a minister of state in any department, the first thing you have to know is that you are not the minister. Some people never get that.”

Q: Are you saying Róisín thought she was the minister?

A: “Or wanted to be.”

Q: Could you see Leo as Fine Gael leader?

A: “I could actually... But I think Frances Fitzgerald will get it... I think she’s less overtly grabbing about it. I think she’s stable. To a great extent she exudes the kind of confidence Angela Merkel exudes.”

Q: Would she get the support for it?

A: “I think she probably would.”

Q: What did you make of Enda Kenny?

A: “He had an enormous grasp of detail which always surprised me. You would sit down and go through your papers before you went in [to meet him for a twice-monthly briefing] but he would ask you about something and you would think ‘How could he possibly know about that?’.

Q: How would you categorise him?

A: To a great extent he was a very steadying figure in times of great crisis, and there were enormous crises. And he doesn’t sell himself well... It’s not as if he doesn’t have a personality, he does.”

Q: What was the low point of your career?

A: “Trevor Casey, that whole thing coming down on top of my head and on top of people around me who cared for me as well and they were very distressed.” (Kathleen wrote a reference on behalf of the parents of Trevor Casey which was read out in court by the judge at Casey’s sentencing hearing when he was jailed for 14 years for the rape of two sisters when they were in their early teens.)

“Do I regret writing that letter? Yes, I do. If I had my time over again would I have written it? No I wouldn’t. I would have changed my mind because of the odium it placed on his family. And because at the end of the day you shouldn’t interfere in any process that’s before the courts.”

Q: What about giving your husband the job of being your personal assistant?

A: “My husband has always been my adviser and has always worked for me all his life, he just happens to be paid for it now. But for most of my political career he had done all of the work for me without being paid.

“Did I think it was the right thing to do? Yes, he knows the job, he knows it very well, he runs the office, he runs it very efficiently, works longer hours than anyone else.”

Q: What about your budget as mental health minister? People are sceptical about the €35m allocation. Does it actually get spent or subsumed back into the budget at the end of the year?

A: “Think about it for a minute. Just towards the end of last year, we rolled out on the southside of Cork City a community mental health team. We have one on the northside of the city, it works extremely well, 24/7. And now we have one on the southside. That team is at least 14 people. And who pays for them? Where does that money come from?

“The new acute mental health unit in Cork University Hospital — in order to open that, the revenue costs, we had to put extra staff in... So that all comes out of the €35m. Perinatal developments, the new beds in the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS)...”

Q: So you are basically saying the money was spent as intended?

A: “Yes.”

Q: I met Catherine Clancy [former Labour city councillor] out canvassing with you. Someone made the point that she had given the party years of loyal service and that she deserved a seat in the Seanad and not Máiría Cahill who was not Labour Party. Why was Máiría Cahill chosen as the party’s Labour candidate?

A: “If someone said to me ‘What are the values that you hold dearest?’, I would count loyalty as one of those and yes, I would have put someone like Catherine Clancy in, someone that you know is going to work for the party, someone that you know is going to have the same values as you have. And I’m not saying Máiría Cahill doesn’t.

Q: So why was Máiría Cahill chosen?

A: “I have no idea.”

Q: Would you run for the Seanad?

A: “No, I wouldn’t. Firstly, I think it’s probably the most gruelling campaign that you could put yourself through. And secondly, I think that the electorate in the Seanad is too narrow, the focus is too narrow, I’ve always believed that.

“I do think that the franchise has to be broadened. It’s elite.”

Q: What do you think of Michael McDowell returning? [to contest the Seanad election]

A: “Look, you have to know when to go, don’t you? And there’s some people who just have a bigger ego than others. And I mean I like him. I worked with him. And he’s very bright and he’s very intelligent and he has a lot to offer. But like, time to go.”

Q: Would you encourage your kids to go into politics?

A: “I wouldn’t encourage any of them to go into politics... I think that politics has changed and I think that those around you are probably more hurt than you are about the things people say about you.

“And I wouldn’t like my children to be subjected to the kind of abuse that you now see on a daily basis from people who feel that they can say whatever they like because there are no consequences... these keyboard warriors they can say whatever they like, press send, and then no consequences.”

Kathleen Lynch is outgoing minister of state at the Department of Health with special responsibility for primary care, social care (disabilities and older people) and mental health.

In her own words

On re-entering the fray:

“I think it’s quite likely that we’re going to have another election very soon, and in that event, I don’t think I’ll have an option.”

On whether Joan Burton should continue as Labour Party leader:

“I think we probably need a different leader now.”

On who should replace Ms Burton:

“I think Brendan Howlin would be an exceptional leader.”

On Alan Kelly becoming next Labour Party leader:

“I’m not certain that he has the experience to be a good leader.”

On the possibility of herself becoming Labour Party leader:

“I would be interested. But I would be realistic enough. I hope I would be realistic enough to recognise maybe greater ability in somebody else.”

On the most difficult person to work with in government (or not):

“It wasn’t Alan Shatter. He was actually very easy to work with... And he was the most progressive.”

On the easiest person in government to work with:

“James Reilly was actually quite easy to deal with. He would give you credit. There was that sort of inert decency about him compared to other ministers for health who are so obsessed with publicity.”

On Leo Varadkar:

“I think we can often be blinded by the visual. He’s a very good communicator, he’s an excellent communicator.”

On Róisín Shortall:

“If you’re a minister of state in any department, the first thing you have to know is that you are not the minister. Some people never get that.”

On Enda Kenny:

“He was a very steadying figure in times of great crisis, and there were enormous crises. And he doesn’t sell himself well. It’s not as if he doesn’t have a personality. He does.”

On who might be the next leader of Fine Gael:

“I think Frances Fitzgerald will get it. I think she’s less overtly grabbing about it. I think she’s stable. To a great extent she exudes the kind of confidence Angela Merkel exudes.”

On why Mairia Cahill was chosen as a Labour candidate for the Seanad:

“I have no idea.”

On Michael McDowell’s plans to contest the Seanad election:

“There are some people who just have a bigger ego than others. And I mean I like him. I worked with him. And he’s very bright and he’s very intelligent and he has a lot to offer. But like, time to go.”


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