Taoiseach Leo Varadkar sat down with the country’s top political journalists, including our very own Mary Minihan, on Friday to talk about everything from Donald Trump’s transgender ban in the military to Brexit to water charges to pension increases in the October Budget.
You will have seen stories based on what he said in The Irish Times and lots of other media outlets since then.
As he covered a lot of territory, we have put together pretty much everything he said during the lengthy chat with the assembled press. Here is what he had to say about everything:
“Simon rang me this morning just to discuss this and I assured him that we’re absolutely on the same page when it come to this issue.
You ask about defining a border. It’s as simple as this. Between Ireland and Northern Ireland there is a political border. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. Ireland is a sovereign independent State.
But currently there is no economic border. There hasn’t been an economic border since 1992. As far as this Government is concerned there shouldn’t be an economic border. We don’t want one. It’s the United Kingdom, it’s Britain that has decided to leave and if they want to put forward smart solutions, technological solutions for borders of the future and all of that that’s up to them.
We’re not going to be doing that work for them because we don’t think there should be an economic border at all. That is our position. It’s our position in negotiations with the British Government and it’s the very clear position that we have when we engage with the task force that is negotiating on our behalf with the United Kingdom.
So we do not think it is in the interests of our country. We do not think it’s in the interests of Northern Ireland or the United Kingdom that there should be an economic border between our two countries or on our island and we’re not going to be helping them to design some sort of border that we don’t believe should exist in the first place.
So let them put forward their proposals as to how they think a border should operate and then we’ll ask them if they really think this is such a good idea because I think it will have a very severe impact on their economy if they decide to go down that route.”
On the Budget and pensions:
“I can’t go into any specifics on the Budget on tax, on pensions, on welfare, on spending because we just aren’t at that point yet. There are many moving parts and we are not at the point where we can make any specific commitment on any specific issue at this stage. But what I will say is the Programme for Government states very clearly it is our intention to increase the pension and increase it ahead of the rate of inflation and to do so every year.
So that is absolutely our intention and our plan, and we are working towards increasing the pension in the next budget but I can’t get into any specific commitments.
But there will be an increase?
That is our intention but we have yet to engage in budget negotiations and there are many moving parts but that’s the plan for sure.”
On the unionists and Brexit:
“I hope there won’t be any angry response from anyone. Anger isn’t a policy and anger doesn’t lead to solutions. But if anyone is angry it should be us. We have an agreement, we signed up to the Single European Act, joined the EC alongside the United Kingdom.
We have the Good Friday Agreement. Part of the Good Friday Agreement – which as you know has two parts, the multiparty agreement and the British-Irish agreement – talks about working together and continuing to do so within the context of the EU. It is the British and the Protesters who are leaving, so if anyone should be angry it’s us quite frankly. But we’re not going to get angry.
We are going to try and find solutions that will benefit or at least minimise the damage to relations between Britain and Ireland, to the peace process and to trading links. But what we are not going to do is design a border for the Protesters. They are the ones who want a border, it is up to them to say what it is, to say how it would work and to first of all convince their own people, their own voters, that this is actually a good idea.”
On Trump’s ban on transgender people in the military:
“On the transgender ban, it is not something I agree with. It is a domestic policy issue for the United States. They run their defence forces, we run ours. It is not something we would ever consider introducing in Ireland.
I do intend to visit in March, I look forward to visiting the White House, but not just visiting the White House, but doing other important things in the United States around trade, the diaspora, meeting Congressional leaders, who are also very important, possibly one or two other leaders and governors as well. And the focus of that visit of course will be the very close links between Ireland and America and building up on those economic and political links.
One thing I will certainly mention to President Trump, and I did so on the phone call, is to remind him that 100,000 Americans are employed by Irish companies across 50 States, so trade works both ways, so we can grow trade between the two countries without putting up additional barriers which I would oppose and I am massively sure we will touch on issues such as climate change, such as migration, where we would hold very different views on the world and how the world should work. I think the whole point of our relationship, of any relationship between two countries is that we can actually tell the truth to each other and I’ll be doing that.”
On Brian Cowen and Bertie Ahern:
“I’m certainly not going to stand up here and criticise former Taoisigh. Having held the job for about six weeks now. I’ve a much greater appreciation for former Taoisigh than I had in the past.
Bertie Ahern has a lot of experience when it comes to European affairs and Northern Ireland. I wouldn’t ever dismiss anything he has to say. I would listen to him on those issues, maybe not so much on how to manage the economy. But certainly on Europe and Northern Ireland.
Obviously I’ve heard Dr Cowen’s comments recently as well. Some of what he says is true, some isn’t. It is the case that much of the programme we implemented in the early years of the Fine Gael/Labour government was the programme set out by Fianna Fáil. It’s one that Fine Gael, certainly as a party, said we would do. We didn’t get elected in 2011 promising to end austerity. We were very upfront about what we would do and the measure we would have to take in order to put the public finances back in order and the economy back on track.
But we did change things. You’ll recall in 2010 and 2011 that Brian Cowen and Fianna Fáil argued the bailout could not be renegotiated. Of course we did, very substantially and on a number of occasions, and it saved this country many, many billions. We eliminated the promissory note for example, shut down Anglo Irish Bank and IBRC. They said all those things couldn’t be done.
Also the plan they put forward you’ll recall there was a plan to increase income tax and bring more people into the higher tax net. We said ‘no we’re not doing that’. So we did make substantial changes to the plan that they left us in 2011.
Another one worth mention is the minimum wage. They cut the minimum wage. We said ‘no we’re not having that’. Once of the first things we did was to restore the minimum wage and we’ve increased it three times since.
So some truth in that but not fully true.”
On the middle classes:
“A lot of people have identified with what I’ve said. Perhaps more so than the talking heads quite realise. I imagine at some point somebody will do an opinion poll and ask people whether or not they consider themselves to be middle-Ireland or middle-class and I don’t think the figures will be that far off the kind of figures that I used around 60 or 70 per cent. I think what’s probably important to say, this is very much my own political philosophy, when I talk about middle-Ireland and middle-class, I don’t think that is defined solely by your annual income and in the conversation I had with Vincent Browne for example, he was very much trying to define middle-class or middle-Ireland as income. I don’t think it’s just about your annual income”.
On the judicial appointments Bill and FG relationship with the Independent Alliance?
“My relationship with Shane Ross and the Independent Alliance, Finian and others is actually extremely good and I am really pleased that we have managed to develop a really good relationship. The Government is absolutely committed to that legislation, to the judicial appointments Bill.
It is Government legislation, the original idea and motivation may have come from the Independent Alliance, but it’s our legislation, it has been brought through as Government legislation by Charlie Flanagan.
Any delay isn’t our delay we would have this through already if we could, but we don’t control the majority in the Oireachtas, so obviously we have to debate amendments and have votes on amendments.
If there were no amendments we would have it through in the second week in October, I think perhaps Jim O’Callaghan may put down a few amendments and obviously that would be the cause of any delay and not the lack of commitment on behalf of the Government.
But we respect the fact that we don’t have a majority in the Dáil and we will have to deal with those amendments one by one and discuss them.”
On a trip to India:
“I would love to pay a visit to India I have an invitation from the Prime Minister of India, Prime Minister Modi, so we just need to try and find an appropriate time to try and organise it and organise it well.
It may be December or January, I suppose, [THAT]would be the first real window when I would have a chance to go because I don’t want to take a long trip when the Dáil is in session needless to say.
I would like to combine it with a trade mission because I think its a country with which we can really boost up our trade links and I would be very keen to do that.”
On the United Nations committee’s criticism of Ireland’s abortion laws:
“One thing I would be very firm about is that whatever laws we have in Ireland, those laws should be determined by either the Irish people through a referendum or through the Oireachtas voting democratically. I am a believer in Ireland as a sovereign state and as a democracy and ultimately, it is for us and nobody else to decide what our laws should be. Now, there is a caveat to that of course where we sign up to certain international treaties for example and where certain courts have jurisdiction but UN committees are not courts and under our jurisdiction they are of course welcome to offer their opinions.
But there is a process now and that process is very clear. We had the citizens’ assembly, they have made their recommendations, the Oireachtas committee is now established to study those recommendations and to make a recommendation to the government, to the Oireachtas as to what we should do next. And if the Oireachtas committee recommends that there be a referendum and legislation, then Government will do that and we will put in place the timeline, the pathway as necessary to hold a referendum next year.”
On supporting an Enda Kenny bid for the Presidency:
“These things come quicker than you think! Potentially we will have a presidential election next year. The most important aspect of that, the thing we don’t know yet, is whether President Higgins is going to renominate himself. A sitting President is independent and has the authority under the constitution to nominate himself for re-election. I think he has done a fabulous job as President . I have really liked working alongside him and we had our first Section 28 meeting there a few weeks ago and I really already lean on his advice and his experience. It is an advantage as a young Taoiseach to have an experienced president to bounce things off and consult with. So the first decision – before we even think about other candidates – is to see whether President Higgins nominates himself.”
On any circumstances under which Noirin O’Sullivan might not be returning as Garda Commissioner in August or September, or doing so without his confidence:
“Not that I’m aware of. I expect to see her, and [FOR HER TO]continue as commissioner.”
On vacant property tax:
“I should be able to give you a detailed answer on that before the end of September. There is work under way involving minister Murphy, the Department of Housing and the Attorney General’s office. The issue we run into always with this issues, we ran into it with rent certainty, is property rights.
We have make sure that anything that we do around a vacant house tax or vacant house levy or something along those lines doesn’t get struck down by the courts on the basis that we’re interfering with property rights. But property rights in Ireland are not absolute. They are limited by the public interest. So we will be balancing property rights with the public interest. We’ll be able to give you a detailed and straight answer on that in September if not the end of August.”
On water charges:
“Well first of all, I think it’s important to acknowledge that what happened in Drogheda was a pipe broke. And because it was a particular type of pipe, the kind which they aren’t very many of in Ireland, it became very difficult to repair. And I’m sure in different countries, where there are different water systems, some countries where there are water charges, some where there aren’t, some countries where it’s state-run, some countries where it’s privatised. I’m sure water pipes burst and they get fixed and that’s what happened in Drogheda. I think it’s probably a bit too simplistic to say that if we had water charges or if we set up Irish Water 20 years ago, the pipes wouldn’t break. I’m sure under any system pipes break on occasion and they need to be fixed.
It was the argument certainly of my party and other parties that it would be better if we could fund water services through water charges. First of all, because it would create a dedicated stream of funding that would go into the water network. And secondly because it would allow us to set up a proper semi-state, like the ESB, like Bord Gáis, which could borrow against its own assets and invest much more in infrastructure. And because Irish Water is now a state agency, it’s part of the state, it’s on the balance sheet. When Irish Water is looking for infrastructure, it has to go up against schools, up against hospitals, up against roads, and it’s much harder to get money in those circumstances. That is the reality of where we are. As a party though, we accept we were unable to convince sufficient numbers of people that that was the right way to go and we certainly didn’t have enough votes in the Oireachtas to continue with that system. So it’s not an issue that I see being re-opened at the next election, whenever it comes. We have a settled position now which is that Irish Water is a state agency, on the state’s balance sheet and we will only charge for excessive or wasteful use of water by domestic customers.”
On where under-investment in capital infrastructure is evident:
“Well, it is visible all over the place… the condition of many of our roads particularly in rural areas is very poor. we have had a massive school building programme and new schools when you visit them are actually great, they are fabulous but we also have a lot of old schools now in need of renovation.
And it is also very evident in our healthcare sector – IT systems that are way out of date, hospitals that are very old institutions that are not designed to provide people with modern healthcare. it is the norm now for new hospitals to have everyone in a single room both for privacy/dignity and infection control.
Huge numbers of our hospitals still have six-bed wards, eight-bed wards even 14-bed ward in some cases. And it is also about building our water infrastructure, I don’t need to draw attention to events in Drogheda last week.
So we have lots of infrastructural deficits, and we are also different to other countries as well in that unlike other European countries, our population is growing and it is growing fast so we need to invest more than other countries would… countries like Germany and France were rich countries 100 years ago, they had 100 years to build their metros, and their train systems. We have only become a wealthy country in the last ten or twenty.
So we need to be able to catch up with the rest of Europe in terms of infrastructure. But I would like to say that it is not like nothing is being done. As I mentioned, I was transport minster five and a half years ago. I signed the order to link the Luases, and that day has now come. The question is what do we do next? What is the next public transport project?
I turned the sod on the Gort to Tuam motorway; I look forward, if Shane Ross will let me, to opening that with him toward the end of the year. When Gort to Tuam is done, what about the next bit? Do we go north to Claremorris or do we go south and link Limerick to Cork?
So even though we went through very tough times in the last five or six years, we have invested in infrastructure, but now we have the possibility to do so much more.”