Last week Fine Gael held its annual party think-in at the Galway Bay Hotel and, on Thursday morning, I had a sit-down with An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to hear his thoughts on a range of local and national issues.
I began by asking if Fine Gael might add any further candidates to its Galway ticket for the next election. “There are no plans to add anyone to the ticket either in Galway West or Galway East,” Varadkar replies. “You can never entirely rule out that changing, but at the moment we’re not thinking of adding anyone. We have a good ticket; it is balanced both geographically and in terms of gender in Galway West with Hildegarde Naughton and Sean Kyne, and a good geographical balance with Peter Roche and Ciaran Cannon in East Galway.”
One issue of major local interest is the planned Galway City Ring Road. Varadkar gives an update on the project: “I’m a regular visitor to Galway, it is one of my favourite cities, so I know how essential the ring road is both in terms of alleviating traffic in the city and our objective of increasing the population of Galway city and suburbs by 50 per cent under Project 2040. Because it is a big infrastructure project and will cost more than €100 million it has to go to cabinet approval before a planning application can be lodged with An Bord Pleanála. We’d anticipate Minister Ross bringing that memo to cabinet in the next couple of weeks and that will then allow the authorities to put in for planning permission.”
The Budget was one of the main topics discussed at the party think-in and the Taoiseach outlines what we can expect from it; “The most important principle is that it be prudent, that we reduce the budget deficit. We want to move from a deficit to a surplus by 2020 so we need to keep bringing down the national debt. I’m determined that, if there is anything I do as Taoiseach, it’s to break this country out of this boom and bust cycle we’ve been in for too long, where we have massive increases in spending and tax cuts when things are going well, and when things are going badly we make them worse by cutting everyone’s pay and welfare and increasing taxes.
'We absolutely cannot accept the emergence of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland after everything we have gone through and achieved with the Peace Process'
"I am determined that Ireland should have a new normal, which is what they have in most of northern Europe, with steady, sustainable growth in jobs, incomes, and living standards. So it is going to be a prudent budget. For some people that might make it underwhelming but we will provide for about €3.5 billion in additional spending. A lot of that is already factored in; Project Ireland 2040 and the extra investment in roads and housing, increased pay restoration to public servants, and money to recognise that our population is increasing, and we’ll need extra funds for pensions and more kids in school.
"There isn’t much room for manoeuvre beyond that but we intend to reduce the number of people who pay the highest tax rate. People on an average income who get a pay increase can find more than half of it gone on tax. We want to change that over the next couple of years and also we’re going to have a welfare package to find a bit more money for pensioners, people with disabilities, carers and so on. However, there are a lot of moving parts at the moment and we haven’t got it fully agreed, and we have to negotiate obviously with FF and with the independent ministers in Government.”
On Brexit, Varadkar remains hopeful of a deal being reached between the EU and the UK. “We will have a withdrawal agreement with the backstop with the Irish protocol, which we insist on, and also a political declaration on what the relationship between the UK and the EU is going to look like," he says. "While the aim is to have that done by the summit in Brussels in October, it may run into November but we do need the deal. Ireland needs it, the UK needs it, the EU needs it, and that is going to require further compromise on both sides, but I think it is achievable.
'There is a big difference in policy perspective between the current US president and the current Irish Government around President Trump’s attitude to trade and migration. I’m not afraid to raise those issues with him in a robust way'
"First of all, we absolutely cannot accept the emergence of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland after everything we have gone through and achieved with the Peace Process. Secondly, it is really important we have a transition period; that we don’t have a sudden change in the rules of trade because the impact on our farmers, the food sector and SMEs would be dire. Getting an agreement does mean having to set aside a huge amount of time over the next couple of months to focus on Brexit; myself, the Tánaiste, and Minister of State, Helen McEntee, will all be travelling around the European capitals. One of the difficulties in this job is that there is never enough time to do all the things you want to do, but Brexit is top of the priority list along with getting the Budget through.”
Amid rising rents across the country, campaigners like Fr Peter McVerry have voiced concern over the number of TDs who are landlords (one in four ) suggesting this could amount to a pro-landlord lobby within the Dáil. Varadkar disagrees.
“I’m not a landlord myself," he says. "A lot of my friends are people who are renting and paying very high rents, or are people who want to buy but can’t find a property because there is an under-supply in the market. For every TD who understands the point of view of the landlord, and landlords aren’t bad people, we do need them, there are just as many who understand the issue from the side of people who are renting.
"If we had been overly influenced by landlords we would not have brought in the rent pressure zones yet we did and that limits rent increases. If you look at the official figures – not the ones from Daft.ie but those done by the ESRI and the Residential Tenancies Board - you see that rents have gone up by about two per cent in the last six months. That is a big slowdown on the kind of rent increases we had in the past. We are seeing some progress there but there is a lot more to do.”
Finally, Varadkar will likely be hosting President Trump in November. Having been praised for the way he confronted church scandals when welcoming Pope Francis, will An Taoiseach be delivering a similar speech in greeting the US president? “I don’t know yet because we don’t yet have a programme; we don’t even know what day he is actually going to be here,” he replies. “I’m sure it will involve a meeting between him and me, following up on our meeting at the White House in March. The relationship we have with the US is really important and it is more important than any particular president or any particular taoiseach at any particular time.
"I am going to try to maintain and strengthen that relationship but there are big differences. More so than ever before there is a big difference in policy perspective between the current US president and the current Irish Government, particularly around President Trump’s attitude to trade and issues around migration which is something I want to talk to him about – our undocumented in the US and also issues around values. I’m not afraid to raise those issues with him in a robust way.”