‘Perhaps I’m a little hard on Danny’

‘In Bed with the Blue Shirts’ is the political memoir of former Minister Shane Ross, and it cuts to the bone of Ireland’s political machinations and life in government with Fine Gael.

ritten from the perspective of the political ‘haves and have nots’, the book is a scolding of political elites and ‘pork barrel’ politics. The fact Shane Ross’s persona resembles the antithesis of someone hell-bent on chipping away at the upper echelons of political fiefdoms makes his analysis all the more intriguing.

Chatting with Ross, he talks about how the sneers and accusations of ‘telling tales’ and breaching ‘cabinet confidentially’ (always a good sign of a book when someone is irate) have been hurled at him since publication.

“It [cabinet] confines a great deal. I’m already having difficulties with cabinet confidentiality and getting attacked and abused for not being a team player,” Ross says.

But just what are the people like, those who would, apparently, ‘eat their own young’ to promote the party and preserve the cabal? Those of a Fine Gael persuasion, look away now.

“It [the book] is meant as a narrative from my point of view of what it is like to be in government with a large party that is a tribe,” Ross says.

“What struck me about my early days of cabinet is I think six out of the 12 [Fine Gael members] had fathers who were TDs. That’s incredible. They were deeply embedded in the Fine Gael DNA.

“They are very conservative people and very much part of the Fine Gael family. This can be very hard to deal with as they stick together, just like Fianna Fáil. It’s a mirror image except of a different family.

Ross continues: “They will do anything to promote the tribe. As individuals, I don’t think I had an enemy in the cabinet. But as a group, Fine Gael, they will eat their young and do anything to keep power. It’s not an anti-Fine Gael thing. It’s just to say this is how Irish politics works.

“Even Enda [Kenny], who I fought like hell with at the beginning. I was very fond of him. But when he gets together with people like Charlie Flanagan and all that lot, they move as a tribe and will eat you alive.”

Around these parts, Shane Ross is better known for his jousting with Deputies Danny and Michael Healy-Rae. The controversial drink-driving laws stand out as the spark that lit years of acrimonious crossfire between them.

The book is laced with references to numerous exchanges with the Kilgarvan brothers – some constructive, while other spats border on the bizarre. One line in particular sets the tone for Ross’s dislike of Danny. He writes: ‘Danny remains an embarrassment that Michael needs to overcome’.

“Danny shoots from the hip and is maybe sorry he does it,” Ross tells me.

“He’s somewhat insensitive to the views of others. Perhaps I’m a little hard on him in the book.”

However, Michael fairs much better, and the chemistry Ross and Michael created during their days in opposition, and from having their offices opposite one another in the Dáil prior to Ross’s promotion to cabinet, is clear.

Ross mentions that he once tried to court Michael to become a member of the Independent Alliance.

“Michael is absolutely cogent and allows for other people’s opinions. I’ve said in the book that I think one day Michael will make a great Minister. But I don’t think Danny is likely to follow that path,” he says.

“Michael is exceptionally likeable and there is no secret that I have a good personal relationship with him. We still do disagree about drink driving, but he doesn’t take them outside the Chamber.

“Whereas Danny does. He [Danny] was very personal about what he said so I suspect he would not be happy to have a conversation with me. My door is always open.”

Former Fine Gael Junior Minister Brendan Griffin pops up frequently in the memoir. Ross explains that Griffin bore the brunt of controversial decisions to increase the VAT rate for the tourism and hospitality sector (since reduced to help offset the effects of COVID); the decision to stop promoting greyhound racing to international tourists; and the drink-driving legislation.

The book focuses on some sharp disagreements between them, but equally their amicable relationship.

“He was absolutely magnificent. Brendan and I didn’t agree on everything. Brendan was embarrassed and opposed to it [the greyhound decision],” Ross says.

“I thought this was going to be a point of real difficulty as we disagreed fundamentally about it. He got a lot of flak about it. We sat down and came up with solutions on how we would agree. I said I did not mind him saying publicly that he disagreed with his senior minister, I didn’t mind. It’s a very grown-up way of behaving. Brendan was a solutions man. We had really thorny problems, and he was full of suggestions. He is very calm. We never actually had an angry word. It was good for Kerry to have him,” he says.

The image painted of Shane Ross is usually that of an anti-rural and Dublin-centric politician. This was the stick used to beat Ross throughout his tenure as a decision-making Minister, particularly when introducing drink-driving legislation that meant an outright ban for anyone caught with between 50mg and 100ml, and 80mg and 100ml. But Ross refutes the assertion that he is anti-rural and aloof to the concerns of people living far from the madding crowds in urban settings.

“I wanted to save lives. There were more lives being lost through alcohol on rural roads than there was on urban roads,” he says.

“It was really to save rural lives. What happened then is the Vintners built up a strong campaign against me, which built up this narrative [anti-rural], they fuelled it, saying: ‘Shane Ross hates rural Ireland’. I love rural Ireland.

“When I go to rural Ireland I never come across hostility. The only place I come across it is in the Dáil. The people in rural Ireland supported it.”

A key strength of ‘In Bed with the Blueshirts’ is the behind-the-scenes access to politics at cabinet level: the secrecy, done deals, party faithfulness over logic, are all interesting topics of discussion.

Ross’s prelude to becoming Minister for Transport and Tourism is one of effective opposition in the Dáil. But did achieving power erode the gains made through populism while in opposition?

“In opposition, sometimes you can get things done just by the power of argument. I did certainly compromise once I got in there. People at some stages felt let down that I hadn’t done the things I’d hoped I would do,” he says.

“I was the only cabinet member of the Independent Alliance. You have to make compromises. The Programme for Government had things like judicial appointments, which I didn’t compromise on at all. It was difficult but we did get some things through: the drink driving laws and the judges [review] that is still ongoing.

“Fine Gael wouldn’t have pushed the drink driving, and they certainly wouldn’t have pushed the judicial appointments if I’d not been there,” he says.

‘In Bed with the Blue Shirts’ is available in all Kerry bookshops and online.

Independent.ie – News