‘This is a huge opportunity for County Roscommon’

INTERVIEW: PAUL HEALY
Winner alright…

At the first Roscommon race meeting of the season on Monday evening, the punters were in great form. It was as if they had been let off a leash…the season had finally begun.

In the parade ring stood a political thoroughbred – Denis Naughten. Bred by Fine Gael, trained by a politically astute family (and himself)…and now in the winner’s enclosure.

72 hours after he became Roscommon’s first senior minister in thirty-four years, Denis Naughten was on home turf, enjoying the great buzz of the races, his every few steps punctuated by stops to accept congratulations on his elevation to high office.

Along with Minister Naughten in the parade ring (where the latter was making a presentation) was Cllr. Domnick Connolly. When the formalities had ended, they tried to exit from the confined area and merge in with the crowds. Twice they had to step back to avoid being trod on by horses entering the ring.

At the third attempt, they were free – and back in the betting ring. Even wild horses couldn’t stop ‘Team Naughten’ now…!

Back in from the cold

In 2010 Denis Naughten and Enda Kenny fell out; in 2011 Naughten fell out with Fine Gael. Who could have foreseen the twist this tale has taken?

Naughten has produced a political masterclass over the past seventy days or so. Of course he doesn’t describe it as thus, but that’s what it was.

It was one thing for Naughten to play such a central role in the painstaking Government formation talks. What was also required – and it was forthcoming – was Enda Kenny’s willingness to shake hands with the friend who became an enemy who has now become a business partner.

When we chatted on Tuesday evening, Minister Naughten was just out of a meeting with Taoiseach Kenny and Ministers Coveney and Humphreys.

Earlier in the week, the Secretary-General of his wide-ranging Department (Communications, Climate Change & Natural Resources) handed him “an inch-thick” file, a briefing document which the new minister will have as reading material in his hotel bedroom.

The new Government’s first formal Cabinet meeting was due to take place on Wednesday (yesterday). His life is about to change. Most weeks, Naughten will stay in Dublin from Monday to Thursday, before returning to Roscommon.

The show is on the road. Before the new workload was faced into on Monday, there were celebrations throughout Roscommon as supporters welcomed the new minister home.

“It was a great weekend. We celebrated, certainly…I think after seventy days of talks and negotiations there was a sense of relief that we had a government in place. Then the fact that I got appointed to Cabinet…it’s a great personal achievement but it’s also great for my family, my supporters, and, I think, for the constituency.

It’s the first time since 1982 that Roscommon has had a Cabinet Minister; it’s a chance now for our voice to be heard.” The talks may have gone on for around 70 days, but Denis says he wasn’t offered a place at the Cabinet table until last Thursday. Five years on from the closure of Roscommon A&E, two of the main characters in that drama stood face to face. There were just two men in the room: Enda and Denis. They discussed various ministries.

Naughten says he didn’t turn down Rural Affairs, but that he did have a frank discussion with Kenny during which the Roscommon man emphasised that it was important that any Independent members of the new Government would have key economic roles. Enda and Denis didn’t discuss Roscommon County Hospital.

They didn’t talk about the past. They didn’t ‘mention the war.’ Denis Naughten: “Our relationship is businesslike, it’s as simple as that. We need to work together…it’s not a schoolyard.”

24 hours later, after he had been re-elected as Taoiseach (and supported by Naughten), Enda Kenny offered the Roscommon man a senior ministry. Five years in a form of exile had kind of ended. Denis Naughten is still an Independent, and says he will remain so for at least the duration of this Dáil term.

But, in unique circumstances, he is in from the cold and – for the first time since 1982 (Sean Doherty) – Roscommon has a voice at the most powerful table in the land.

Now, the ‘H’ word…

Almost 14,000 people gave Denis Naughten their Number 1 vote in the recent General Election. He accepts that a great many of those voters didn’t want to see Enda Kenny back in as Taoiseach, least of all for Denis Naughten to help make it happen.

His decision to support Fine Gael and now take a seat in an Enda Kenny-led administration will anger some members of the public.

When I ask him about this, and why he didn’t seek specific commitments on emergency services at Roscommon Hospital, Minister Naughten insists that he was up front with voters before the election…and that the decisions he has taken since will benefit the constituency.

“I agree that a large number of the people who voted for me wanted a change of Government…but before the election I consistently said that, if re-elected, I would serve as an Independent for the duration of the next Dáil – and I will.

Secondly, I said that, if I had the opportunity to be in a position to speak to other parties (about Government formation) I would speak to anybody..,about delivering on my agenda.”

Minister Naughten says he didn’t seek the re-opening of Roscommon A&E because it’s “unachievable” at the present time. “For A&E to resume in Roscommon, there’s a requirement to employ 10-15 Consultants. Now we have significant challenges in Portiuncula Hospital in Ballinasloe…looking for three or four Consultants.

If we couldn’t get them in Portiuncula, down the road from Galway, what chance is there of getting them in Roscommon? It is not possible at the moment to recruit those Consultants for Roscommon. Yes, the new Government could have signed up to A&E restoration, but it wouldn’t have happened…we couldn’t recruit that number of Consultants. Leo (Varadkar, Health Minister at time of recent negotiations) was not prepared to give commitments that could not be fulfilled.

“However, I have got about 97% of what I wanted included in the Programme for Government. And included is a very specific reference to a review being conducted of the operation of Medical Assessment Units in hospitals…with a view to expanding hours.”

Naughten says his decision to support Kenny and accept a ministry was the right one. “I had a decision to make last Thursday.

I had secured a substantial amount of my issues…(during the talks)…the question for me was: Do I rely on Fine Gael to implement those issues under the supervision of Fianna Fáil, or do I take this opportunity? This represented a huge opportunity for me to deliver on my policy platform, it was a huge opportunity for County Roscommon. “Yes, it did mean me going in and supporting a government (i.e. Fine Gael) that had lost a huge number of seats, but this will be a very different government.”

Locally there has been a broad welcome for Naughten’s appointment – while some are not so impressed. Some of the criticism has been conveyed through “online abuse”, Minister Naughten said.

“I’m not surprised at the online abuse. When you make a decision like this, you expect it. I took plenty of it in 2011 (around the time of the hospital controversy). So did Frank Feighan. He took more abuse after the A&E closure.”

A future of promise

Whatever one’s view of Naughten’s recent approach on the Roscommon Hospital issue, it is surely a very positive thing that this county now has a Government Minister.

Denis Naughten has an opportunity now, provided this administration lasts, to achieve much. It is a vast portfolio, with Naughten in charge of a range of semi-state bodies, including Bord na Mona, Bord Gais, ESB and Coillte. Windfarms, fracking, RTE, local radio stations, all come under his remit. Not to mention climate change.

Asked to name some priorities, he says his priority is “One: Broadband; Two: Broadband and Three: Broadband!” Minister Naughten wants contracts for the National Broadband Plan to be signed by June of next year. Responsibility for rural roll-out will actually lie with Minister Heather Humphreys.

He says every house in Ireland will have high speed broadband by 2022 but that blackspots – “areas with current broadband deficits” – will be creatively addressed much sooner if at all possible. “This broadband plan will transform rural Ireland” he says.

A huge priority for Roscommon will be the creation of jobs. He is excited about the challenges ahead. Naturally he hopes that this somewhat unique minority government will last for a few years and he is confident that, with a fair wind, it can do so. He is in government with Fine Gael but he is remaining an Independent.

Asked if he might rejoin Fine Gael after this Dáil term, he says it would be irresponsible for any TD to ever rule anything in or out. Who can say what will happen in the future, he muses, adding that “an amazing new party” could be created at some point.

He then reveals that, during the last Dáil term, he was approached by a number of parties and groups and invited to join them. Pressed on who they were, he confirms that Renua and the Social Democrats made serious offers, while there was also an approach from Fianna Fáil! “I was asked would I consider running in the election for Fianna Fáil.” (He didn’t give it any thought). He did consider the Renua and the Social Democrats offers – but declined to dance with either of those would-be suitors.

And they’re off!

On a personal level, this is a crowning achievement for Denis Naughten. His late father, Liam, was also a TD, and served as Cathaoirleach of Seanad Eireann.

“I know how proud he’d be” Denis says, when I mention his father. His mother, Mary, was “ecstatic” last week and travelled to Dublin to share in her son’s success. Back at Roscommon Races on Monday evening, Minister Naughten only had time to get one bet on.

He lost a few euro on ‘Zig Zag’ in the second race. “You’ve been Zigzagging a lot lately yourself” I say by way of a lame link to the 70-day epic that led to the minority government. “Yes” Minister Naughten replies. “It’s been a rollercoaster of a ride. But we got there. We got a government and if it can implement its programme it can be a good government. Now the work begins.”