What is seldom is wonderful, we are told. Given the treacherous nature of political life, politicians who are willing to give a straight answer to a straight question are as rare as pigs flying in the sky. writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell.
This week, two interviews given by junior Independent Alliance minister John Halligan in Hot Press magazine and on RTÉ Radio have caused quite the stir.
This is primarily because Mr Halligan, the Waterford TD, unloaded honestly on a host of controversial issues, including backing assisted suicide, voicing support for legalising prostitution and revealing that he would like to see Simon Coveney succeed Enda Kenny as leader of Fine Gael.
Taking those issues one by one, Mr Halligan said he supported the legalisation of prostitution and that he didn’t support laws that would see people criminalised for buying sex.
He said that not legalising prostitution would be cruel. “My fear is this, that this will drive [prostitution] further underground,” he said. Not all people in prostitution are exploited. They want it regulated, they want it monitored, they want health checks, they want to pay their tax and PRSI, they want it unionised.
Mr Halligan said many people would call buying sex “an arrangement between two consenting adults” and, in that sense, it should not be made illegal.
“It’s probably against the moral code, it’s probably against the religious code,” he said.
“But are we seriously saying to consenting adults… on that basis because someone is paying… that this is a criminal offence. Why?”
He said that gardaí would be forced to constantly monitor brothels in order to catch people “engaged in the act” and that it would be a waste of Garda resources.
Mr Halligan added that trafficking of women into prostitution is a big issue, and that Garda resources would be better spent tackling this head-on.
Such a call has not been greeted with a warm welcome by his Government counterparts in Fine Gael, who most certainly do not share his view.
Neither does Ruhama, the welfare advocacy group which worked with more than 300 prostitutes last year.
Sarah Benson of Ruhama says buying sex should be made illegal, and that methods of legislating for prostitution in other countries have failed.
“The sex trade is one that does not constitute normal work,” she said.
“Regulation has been tried, it was a laudable effort, but it has absolutely categorically failed to help or assist or reduce the instances of trafficking or exploitation.”
Ms Benson said that, in places such as Germany and the Netherlands, a “parallel” underground sex trade exists next to the legal one.
In probably his most radical comment, the former Workers’ Party member also spoke about a bill he was planning to introduce to the Dáil in order to legislate for assisted suicide, saying he would break the law in order to assist a friend to die, if the person asked.
“I myself have it in my will that if I am diagnosed with a terminal cancer or some disease that will inevitably kill me, I don’t want to inflict suffering on my family or my friends,” he said.
He also said that if a friend came to him, he would help him to die. When asked if he would break the law, Mr Halligan said: “I think I would. There have been some very close friends of mine… if one of them came to me [and asked for help]… I think I would probably help them, yes. I think even by saying this to you it’s illegal for me to do that.”
Crucially, he added: “But what the heck, I believe in it”.
Having also expressed his view as to why Mr Coveney should be the next leader of Fine Gael, Mr Halligan defended his forthright views to Keelin Shanley on RTÉ saying: “I tend to answer a question directly and straight. If you ask me a straight question, I’ll give you a straight answer”.
While I, for one, welcome this no-nonsense attitude from someone who is now a senior politician, many others have sought to dismiss Mr Halligan and his fellow Independent Alliance colleagues as flaky headless chickens who are not fit for office.
The manner in which a succession of Fine Gael ministers rounded on Mr Halligan and super junior minister Finian McGrath on their decision not to pay water charges spoke volumes. Mr Halligan, in typically blunt terms, told the very same ministers to “shut their mouths and leave Finian and me alone”.
Mr Halligan, Mr McGrath and Shane Ross were also eviscerated by Fine Gael and their cheerleaders for not toeing the line and opposing Independent TD Mick Wallace’s bill to permit abortions in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, rape, and incest.
Having warned their Government colleagues for several weeks that they were not for turning and that they were likely to support the bill, the matter was allowed to grow into a crisis because Fine Gael felt they could bully the trio.
Ultimately, it was the Taoiseach who blinked first and the trio voted against the Government — and yet the sky did not fall in. But it was a clear sign that all is not well within Government.
Again this week, Mr Halligan spoke clearly about how difficult it is for him as an Independent TD to be in Government with a right-wing party like Fine Gael.
As a self-confessed radical and Marxist, you must be extremely uncomfortable being in Government, Hot Press asked,
“Yes, of course I am (laughs)! They won’t like me saying that! For Christ sake, I’ve had more rows with them already on the fatal foetal abnormality and other issues. Am I comfortable with Fine Gael? No,” he said candidly.
The truth is that Halligan and Co have seen what happened to the Labour Party, which repeatedly tucked its tail between its legs and was eaten alive by the electorate as a result. While many accused them of near treason for daring to question the legal advice of the Attorney General, Marie Whelan, on Wallace’s bill, they realised a stand needed to be taken.
And they were completely right to do so.
That row was of Fine Gael and Enda Kenny’s making, not the Independent Alliance. All of the Independent Alliance have taken a real gamble in propping up a Fine Gael-heavy Government, with many of them already feeling a chill wind from their supporters, who would always prefer them to be in Opposition.
Mr Halligan’s willingness to speak as candidly as he did is a welcome departure from the overly cautious manner of most Irish politicians. His desire to break from the norm and raise controversial issues for debate is exactly what we should expect from our political leaders.
While seldom and wonderful, such frankness would be a lot more welcome if we saw it a lot more often.
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