Enjoying the opening of McGroartys Bar - Aidy Gallagher, Aisling McGlynn, Roisin McCauley
Expectations, Ambitions and Aspirations
As we await Berties announcement of a date for the General Election, expected around 10th May, Times girl Margaret Gallagher talked with our local Minister Mary Coughlan TD. She first asked her how she handles all the pressures:
D.T.: Mary, a wife, a mother, a junior minister - how do you cope?
Mary: With great difficulty but I am accustomed to doing so many things. I was a County Councillor, VEC member and a T.D. with less backup - I have more background people and more help, even though I have more responsibilities. I have also been the honorary Secretary of the party nationally for the last five years, so that means I have party work to do. Dave married me when I was in politics so he knew what he was getting into - the children know nothing else except politics - they have a very good baby sitter and my mother is always there with her support. I am away three or four nights a week, some Saturdays and Sundays, so the time I have with my family is quality time.
D.T.: You were elected in 1987 at a time when public expenditure cutbacks were necessary was that a tough time in politics?
Mary: It was difficult for two reasons, first of all I wasnt very long in political life, secondly, my very first budget in 1987, the Minister at the time Ray McSharry stood up and cut every department spend to pieces, it was a very difficult time but it brought out a political skill in people. We had to manage with the resources we had. Without that pruning back we would not have been able to get to where we are today, so it gave you a political skill in trying to prioritise issues. The progress that is now taking place should have happened in the 1980s. That being said, it is equally difficult in a time of plenty - if not more - because of expectations. In the 80s there were no expectations - we had serious problems with unemployment. People were upset about their families being abroad, we didnt have peace. Now is a time of plenty and it is difficult to address peoples expectations.
D.T.: You were first elected in 1987 Crossbencher had you in the Dail in the 1981-1983 period. Of course that was your Uncle Clement and you were just coming into your teens. 1979 to 1993 - with five elections - was that an exciting period for you?
Mary: My mother protected me and all my family from political life at that time. One very difficult occasion in our home was the night the budget was lost, just shortly after Clement was elected to the Dail. As you know Jim Kemmy wouldnt vote for the tax on childrens shoes and I will never forget the phone call from Clement to my father and about four or five oclock in the morning going up to Peggy and Clement to get ready for another general election. We had three elections in three years in very difficult times for the party and the economy.
D.T.: Did you intend to enter politics in 87 or was it your fathers death that pushed you there?
Mary: I studied politics and was interested in becoming a county councillor at some time. I had finished my studies and the local cumainns, along with local councillors Peter Kennedy and James McBrearty were all anxious we would retain a seat in the south of the county. There was a lot of pressure on somebody in the family to go forward. I happened to be the person that was there at the time.
D.T.: Have you any regrets?
Mary: I enjoy it, but I do often wonder what else I would have done. I was very young to go into political life.
D.T. Fianna Fail - always the story doing well in the polls but haunted by scandals. Is it a party that squares the circle?
Mary: No. We are the largest political party and naturally, with over 300,000 members, its one of the largest organisations in the country and therefore you are going to have a variety of people, taking the number of T.D.s and senators. We have also been a party that has been in power for the majority of years since the foundation of the state. I would agree that we have had very embarrassing and difficult situations that certainly undermined the party profile over the years. That having been said, the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, introduced the tribunals and was very sure of what he wanted to do in the party. We have very strict rules and regulations now, both in the party and in the Dail, so at least one can say that the ills of the past are now being dealt with and hopefully will never arise again.
D.T.: Two F.F. and one F.G. The mould has been broken - is it going to stay broken?
Mary: We are making a great effort to return two seats. I think F.F. has done a lot of work - we have re-evaluated, restructured and we have a very good election team. The work is being done on the ground and hopefully that will help to get two F.F. T.D.s elected on this occasion. I know Pat is a good strong candidate in the Glenties area and I hope that I have done my best in the south-west over the last 15 years.
D.T.: Will this be the toughest election so far for you?
Mary: I havent found any election easy - all elections are tough and difficult. They take a lot of personal energy and effort, I am going to get it tough - I have a strong candidate in Ballyshannon and another strong candidate in Killybegs - I hope to be successful but its not going to be easy.
D.T. How do you feel about Jim White - a F.G. candidate on your door step?
Mary: I admire anybody who decides to put his name forward and go for political office. Jim is a veteran of the game - he has been in F.G. a long time - a former T.D. and is going to be a formidable character when it comes to the election. He is as entitled as anybody else to put his name in the ring but I still hope by putting my best foot forward I will be elected.
D.T.: Pringle and Gwen - both Independents - claim that the people come first - they have no party to consider. What are your comments on this?
Mary: Its very easy for an Independent because they have some advantages. They dont have a party so they can decide what they are going to do themselves. We have a party line which we discuss locally and a party line on certain issues, but that does not deter us from having our own personal views. When you are a Minister of State you also have the big picture to think about. Its also easy when you are not accountable and an Independent is not accountable to a party or a structure.
D.T.: On the doorsteps there is a lot promised, but it is said once elected nothing happens, is this true?
Mary: No, that has changed and properly so - we have been accused in the past of being over-cautious, we have been accused of not spending when we should have, and accused of promising things we couldnt deliver. You cannot say that any country that has 4% growth is an regressive economy - its a progressive economy - but what we are saying is we have to invest in the priorities - there could be a rainy day. Nobody thought we would have the 11th September - we had to re-evaluate the funding that was there and were still able to deliver a budget without borrowing. Anybody in business would understand its best to be able to spend without borrowing.
D.T.: Has F.F. taken this constituency for granted previously?
Mary: A lot of people felt that way. If you went to a meeting in Donegal Town they would say they are getting more in Letterkenny, Ballyshannon would say they are getting more in Donegal Town, Bundoran more in Killybegs. That is a national thing because everybody is very much parochially orientated. It was F.F. who put forward the idea of regional investment. We have invested in our national roads, in our sewage schemes, in our water schemes, in broad-band communication - all of that helps in supporting the economy of county Donegal. Unemployment has decreased. We need another one of two anchor companies.
In the south of the county Abbott Ireland and Magee have been our anchors and out of these we have developed smaller industries and companies. We need something similar to that of the fishing industry in Killybegs and we have to look at new types of investment. This is very much a tourist orientated county. Tourism investment is important.
D.T.: Do you have to shout louder in the Dail for Donegal as it has been said we are the forgotten county, maybe at the bottom of the ladder?
Mary: I wouldnt agree we are at the bottom. I see a huge change - we are being very well represented through our county manager. A task force has refocused on Donegal and we have the most progressive local government structure in the country. We will see decentralisation in Donegal, hopefully in Donegal Town, in the very near future. If you stop to think what has happened over the years - the Department of Social Welfare has changed from focusing on unemployment to retraining and reskilling. Leader has really helped in the South of the county under Donegal Local Development, all of these in my opinion were done because we were out on a limb - we are improving.
D.T.: The two local developments Revlin and Drumlonagher seem to be at a standstill. With all the talk of creating more jobs these are sitting waiting to happen but nobody seems to be doing anything to speed them up. What are you doing as our local minister to progress these projects?
Mary: Take the Drumlonagher project first; planning permission has been given for the Council offices and the fire station. Unfortunately the problem is with an Bord Planealla and there was an objection from R.G. D.A.T.A. who felt this type of development would undermine the town. Similarly at Revlin - there has been a lot of frustration for the people involved, the investors and the man who has been promoting the proposal. The application had to be reviewed to satisfy the planning officer but hopefully we will soon see some progress at Revlin and Drumlonagher. I dont agree that both developments will not benefit the town. I feel we are very strategic in the south of the county and we would benefit from this type of commercial and economic investment. People will come to the town if there is choice - if they have facilities. A town that exemplifies this is Ballybofey. This town has developed because of John McElhinney. All the other shops round him, including ones in his own trade, have really developed and expanded because people come to the town. From a commercial point of view, Donegal Town has not developed, we have our small sole traders here but we dont have a lot of choice and I think choice will help.
D.T.: But the choice is sitting waiting to happen and nobody is doing anything to speed it up.
Mary: Well, I have been very supportive of both projects and very supportive in trying to facilitate the problems they are having. I was on the Council when both projects were submitted. All the councillors regardless were very supportive. There are frustrations about Revlin but we have them more or less sorted out - we have been working behind the scenes trying to expedite this project. There are objections and these have to be addressed.
D.T.: Why is it taking so long?
Mary: There were one or two issues which were serious and had to be looked at. You have to evaluate the impact some of these developments will have on the town which is a historic town, a tourist town. Its a light commercial town, its a service town and we would like to see that kept.
D.T.: Surely a Dunnes Stores or Tesco would help the town?
Mary: Dunnes and Tesco surely would help and I am not getting into the pros and cons of each. But we dont want them to have a serious impact on sole traders that are here in town and provide a good service late at night and early in the morning. They have people in jobs and we have to support them. But at the same time Lidl is out there now and seems to be doing well with locals employed and the same goes for Super Valu. I think the south of the county can carry two large multiples at this stage, because at the end of the day people are going to Letterkenny or Sligo to shop, so why not have the choice here in the south of the county. There is a huge catchment area and I think this town can carry both multiples.
D.T.: Do you think that local committees and organisations depend too much on politicians for funding?
Mary: Look what happened in Donegal Town. They raised a lot of money for the Development Officer, they didnt rely on me or Peter Kennedy or anybody and I say well done to them and hope they get the person they are looking for. Similarly many clubs and community groups have raised a lot of money. They are only looking for support from the politicians and are not as over-dependant as people make them out to be. Without a shadow of a doubt there has been a change here in the South. Really the people who have put in a lot of hard work are entitled to get recognition for it from the funding agencies.
D.T.: To date what has been your highlight in your political career.
Mary: Being appointed as Minister of State was fabulous and not just for myself but for all of the people who supported the Coughlans over the years. There was always an expectation that Clement might have been a minister, or my father. It was a great occasion to cross Bundrowse Bridge in Bundoran and come through the towns to end up in Inver - huge crowds, and not all necessarily F.F. members - locals out just to welcome me.
D.T. It is said that your two grandfathers were inclined towards F.G. and your grandmothers towards F.F. do you now see any irony in a current public perception that sees little difference between any of the parties?
Mary: I think its great that the woman outruled the men on that occasion. They were two very strong women, granny Breslin was Gallagher of the Roose. At that time in the Abbey there was a man staying who was a F.G. candidate - that was Dermot Barrys father, Jack, and so my Grandfather, who hadnt a great interest in politics, supported him. The Abbey was the F.G. house and the Central the F.F. house but all that has changed now with both houses being F.G.
D.T.: Your Personal Manifesto in the election?
Mary: I would like to see full implementation of the National Development plan. A lot of schools need funding and upgrading, support for special needs and ways to support people who are under pressure like the small farmer - also the fishing industry which is under huge stress. There is absolutely no way that I can support any reduction in the number of people in the traditional fishery. I know I would be speaking out against my own minister in this regard but at the end of the day I see the need to invest in the small sector.
DT: What improvements would you like to see for Donegal Town?
Mary: I would like particularly that the people would support the St. John Bosco Centre and see that develop. Other issues include additional car parking. I secured money from the Department of Environment to look at a multi-storey car park. That report has gone to the County Council and I hope, through a public/private partnership, we could see additional car parking. We got additional car parking spaces down at the pier, more behind the main car park and also at the fire station. Now, with the new fire station being built at Drumlonagher, maybe that will free up some more space. Parking is an issue and of grave concern to the town. If we are expecting people to come and visit the castle, go on the water bus, attract tour buses - then we have to provide parking in close proximity. In this day and age if there is nowhere to park people will just pass by.
D.T: Ernan McGettigan has expressed his concern on NWR about public toilets not being open. What are your views on this problem?
Mary: The waterbus committee is looking for a place to facilitate visitors and we are going to have a new tourist office built down at the Quay. The public toilets will be in this building, supervised at all times.
D.T. Is that part of the five year plan?
Mary: No, funding has been put together for that and planning permission has been obtained so it will be progressing quite quickly. Public toilets are a huge issue and in a tourist town these facilities have to be provided. The Council will have to look at public facilities that are not open to vandalising. We need public conveniences and Clr. Kennedy and myself will proceed and see how we can open these toilets for the summer season. The answer is the superloo where you pay one euro but unfortunately they are £25,0000 each but they really are the only conveniences that are vandal proof.
D.T. Dinny Mc Ginley and Pat the Cope have been around all of your political life how do you get on with them?
Mary: I get on the best with Pat, I have known him for a long time - he was there in my fathers time and in Clements. I worked with him as a T.D., and on the County Council, I worked for him when he ran for Europe. I think he has made a fine European Parliamentarian. I think one of the bizarre things when I was elected first was that there were three single T.D.s - myself, Pat and Dinny. Pat got married, then I did, Thomas Gildea took the plunge but I dont know what Im going to do with Dinny.
I find Dinny easy to get on with. The one thing that stands to Donegal politicians - when an issue affects the county, regardless of political agendas, we always work together. When ministers see us coming they always remark - the Donegal Mafia.
D.T. The TG4 poll shows the Cope likely to top the poll might you beat him to it?
Mary: All I want is to be re-elected. I think I will have a tougher job, firstly because we dont have the population base here and secondly I am boxed between two other candidates I really dont care - I just want to be elected. I hope to get as much first preference votes as possible and also hope for many 2s and 3s.
D.T. Leinster House more and more seems like an insiders gentlemans club whose members live in dread of the prying questions of the media. While you seem relaxed would you see yourself as a confident media performer?
Mary: I know a lot of people in the media but still dont like being asked awkward questions. I try my best to facilitate the media, especially local. I havent had a huge national profile until recently. I suppose being made Minister of State gave me an opportunity on national T.V. I was one of the people who worked with Michael Martin on the abortion referendum and that has given me a greater national profile. I work with TG4 and Radio Na Gaeltacha but at the same time I keep my distance from certain people and try to be as fair as possible. The one thing you wont get from me regardless of who you are, is anything said in confidence. Business discussed by the parliamentary party I will keep in confidence. I am a great believer in confidentiality.
D.T. You yourself are moving up the political ladder have you any dream or ambition for south Donegal that you may now have the influence to implement?
Mary: I would like to see more employment in the area - to have a decentralised Government office in South Donegal. I think we have an opportunity to do that. We have put forward good plans and the south of the County would benefit greatly from 300-400 civil service jobs. Access to this county is a huge issue - if we could further develop our road infrastructure we could expedite our progress. We will hopefully see more investment within the next few weeks for the road from Killybegs out to Glencolmcille and that is something that gives me great pleasure. The other issue which need to be addressed is leisure and entertainment. Also facilities for our young people and also tourists. We are working with the clubs and community groups on this but there is a lack of leisure investment in the county.
D.T. Surely with our own Minister for Tourism and Recreation in this county funding should not be a problem?
Mary: We should be taking advantage now and a lot of people have put proposals to that end. We have problems with our young people who have nothing to do but go to pubs. Parents are under pressure - we need swimming pools, cinemas and entertainment to encourage people to become more active - get away from the computer, couch and T.V. and get involved in sport. You dont need to have a lot of money to enjoy sport. We should encourage young people to participate. This is one of the worries I have - a lot of youth clubs are dying out. There is not as much volunteerism and it is always left to the few. It is incumbent on us as a community to get involved and give more leadership.
DT: Have you any personal political ambitions - Minister for Tourism, European Commissioner - or Taoiseach?
Mary: I have enjoyed my opportunity tas Minister of State. If the occasion arose again and we are back in government, I would like the opportunity to serve in cabinet - I think all public representatives would like that opportunity. I like the national scene and national politics. I dont know if I would enjoy being the first woman Taoiseach.
D.T. Since your well deserved appointment to Ministerial rank two years ago - are there more demands and satisfaction in meeting these?
Mary: Its more demanding as I have more than one constituency to look after. Working with all my colleagues, working with Udras na Gaeltacha, is definitely more demanding. It is also more satisfying as you can make decisions and work towards changing peoples lives.
D.T.: Well, you will be in home territory for the next few weeks - best of luck.
Mary: Thank you.
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