John Deasy: Up in smoke

A year after losing his Fine Gael front bench job for smoking in the Dáil members' bar, John Deasy says he is doing just fine. Katie Hannon reports

He fought the law and the law won. One year on from the fateful day that John Deasy sparked up his last ever cigarette in the Dáil Members' Bar, the Waterford deputy remains unrepentant.

Defying the smoking ban made him a hero of the revolting smoking classes and cost him his high profile front bench job. But when asked if on mature reflection he now regrets his last illegal puff, he is adamant: "No I don't. And I never will."

That's John Deasy for you. He does things his way. He shoots from the hip and appears unfazed by the consequences.

In this, he is certainly a chip off the old block. Austin Deasy made little attempt to disguise his impatience with what he regarded was the lacklustre performances of his Fine Gael colleagues throughout his last 15 years in politics. And his son is equally open about what he regards as his colleagues' shortcomings today.

Growing up in Waterford, he twigged early on that his father was different to his friends' fathers. He saw his father "rarely" but says this did not breed resentment towards the political life. "The opposite happened. We became fascinated about what was so important that it would take him away from the house for so long at any given time."

"I always remember a good friend of mine whose father was also a TD telling me once that the one time that he truly loved was Christmas because it was the only time they could guarantee that their father would be there. It was kind of the same thing with us."

"The reason I am in politics is because of my father, because of what he did. The particular job he was involved in, I always thought it was something really worthwhile."

He bristles at the notion that his father might have been considered stubborn or cantankerous in his day. "The one thing that my father detested was yes men people who actually viewed the success of their political careers on doing the safe thing at all times – he hated and detested that kind of attitude.

"People always say you're just like your father but I don't think I'm like him. I listen to my father and his advice is absolutely invaluable but I can't say I've taken his advice all of the time. I suppose some people might be right in saying that there's a certain streak in me similar to him in that I have just no time for namby pamby politics either."

Namby pamby politics? "It's the politics of self-satisfaction and it's the politics of self-satisfied representatives."

He falls silent for a moment when asked to explain how it should be done. But when it comes, the response is firm: "I've said it before and I'll say it again. If it was up to me, my kind of politics would be far more aggressive as far as the opposition is concerned".

Deasy studied history on a scholarship programme in the United States, staying on to work for a US senator and then for a congressman in the US House of Representatives.

He grew to admire the American committee system which gives more weight to opposition representatives, an admiration that fuelled a frustration with how we do things here.

"What happens here is the Government railroads through pieces of legislation as it damn well pleases. By and large, they don't bother listening to the opposition.

"What happens then is TDs who are elected – especially opposition TDs but I even see it in backbench government TDs – they come to Dublin with a lot of energy and some really good intentions. After a while I see them kind of wane and get totally disinterested in the system. This doesn't happen in the States. Everybody who is elected there truly has a role. But here I've seen over the last two to three years, people become demoralised and they go back to their constituencies and concentrate on getting elected again. People don't involve themselves in the legislative system at all.

"The point is that when they see that they really don't have that much input into the system, they become dispirited and end up in their constituency office with the free phone calling people about medical cards. It doesn't work. Our executive and our legislative branches are rolled into one. You might as well have the cabinet and just leave it like that. Let them run the country with civil servants. Ultimately a lot what happens in the Dáil is completely irrelevant. For about 110 of all TDs, it just passes them by."

He says he wasn't surprised by what he discovered in Leinster House after he had slogged his way to a Dáil seat against the tide in 2002. "I had a very poor opinion of the way the Dáil was working before I came up and I suppose my biggest mistake initially was telling everyone in Fine Gael that it wasn't working.

"I think we made a horrendous mistake by rushing in and electing a new leader. I think we should have sat back for maybe six months and really looked at where the party was headed and where its direction was. That's not a criticism of who we picked as leader. I just think we could have waited for six months and actually figured out collectively what our structures were going to be and where we were going to go."

"We are probably still languishing where we were in or around our general election vote.

But, he says, one thing has changed. "There is one difference however and the difference is that Enda Kenny is becoming popular with people who are working class in particular and people who would have been apolitical. It's a glimmer of hope. It's a very substantial plus on our side right now."

"I would say that people still don't understand or know what Fine Gael stands for. But what he's done actually is put himself in a position that if he could take a step up as far as the policy issues are concerned before the general election, we have a serious chance here of actually taking seats.

"He's actually unified the party. He's very likeable and he has become more assertive within the party. He's beginning to tell people what they should be doing. He's going in the right direction and everyone knows it too."

"The local elections went extremely well for us, largely because Fianna Fáil kicked itself in the head four or five times. It's not necessarily anything that Fine Gael is doing but as time has gone on over the last three years, he (Kenny) is putting himself in a position where if he takes that step up on policy issues, we will return to being a force to be reckoned with. I think (we need to be) a more aggressive opposition, formulating three or four messages that you need to go into a general election with, sooner rather than later."

In his early days in the Fine Gael parliamentary party, his relationship with his party leader would have been considered bumpy. So what's changed?

"We totally banged heads on issues. I mean again and again when I got here first. There's no harm in that, surely to God?"

"If you want some way that I am similar to my father, I am absolutely. If I am involved in a political party I am anxious for them to actually do well. I am anxious for the party to actually achieve maybe for the first time in a long time. If I become impatient, or seem to be impatient, or I am downright cantankerous, to use your words, it's because I am absolutely without patience when it comes to this and I can't see myself in a political party that under-achieves.

"Of course I've banged heads with Enda Kenny, I've banged heads with a lot of people on the front bench you know and it's because I'm anxious for the party to do well. I mean they know the position, they know what drives me and they know what my motivation is when I say things. It's not because it's a disruptive thing, it is actually that I want to actually achieve something.

"In Waterford we beat Fianna Fáil in the local elections for the first time since the history of the State. We ended up with eleven county councillors, they ended up with seven. I mean we beat them hand over fist because we took them on locally. We devised a strategy. We were aggressive about it and we are by far the biggest party in the county of Waterford now. What I want to do is apply that model on a national level and take that kind of effective aggressive politics and apply it to Fine Gael in the Dáil and that's what I am anxious to do."

He says he is bored with the whole smoking ban issue but insists he doesn't regret what he did.

"I don't and I never will. The one thing I do regret is that people felt that I was flouting the law. Some people actually carried it in the newspapers properly – the fact that I tried to get out the door, that I tried to get the superintendent, but I was refused on every occasion. I suppose at the end of it, it was just absolute pure frustration and then it happened. Some things happen in life and you move on."

He accepts that in some quarters his actions were viewed as simply arrogant. "Of course it did damage me. I would be stupid to say otherwise. But I have an overriding opinion about not just this but a lot of things. If you come in here to the Dáil and if you plod out a twenty -year career of doing the right things and saying the right things and being nice to the right people, well fair play to you if you do that.

"I am going to tell people what I think, I'll take the hit, that's fair enough. I am unrepentant about what happened. I worry for rural pubs. I think they are part and parcel of Irish life and they've suffered badly."

What bridges were burned at the time are, he insists, well mended by now. Or, as he puts it, "My relationship with Enda is fine."

He claims not to miss being on the front bench. Especially since his appointment to the chair of the European Affairs Committee last September.

"If you are asking me if I am enjoying it more now then, yes, absolutely. It's far more interesting, far more diverse. You learn about government like I never expected. I'm really enjoying that."

He believes that the pact with Labour is necessary if the country is to be given a credible alternative to the current administration. But he worries: "I am beginning to think that the Labour party internally are having a few problems with this and that there are moves within Labour by people who are uncomfortable with the idea of tying themselves to Fine Gael inextricably."

"The best thing that ever happened to me was Enda Kenny appointing me as justice spokesman. Some people wait fifteen years before that happens to them. It happened to me the day I set my foot in Dáil Eireann. I got a crash course in life at the high end. It's an experience that is absolutely worth anything."

He says he has even come to appreciate the media mauling he received in the wake of the smokegate affair. "Some people have been around here for twenty years before they get that kind of experience but after that your opinion is that you can just about deal with anything. So was it a help? Totally! Would I have it any other way? Absolutely not! Am I happy with what I am doing right now? Yes. The way it's worked out is great actually."

He clocks a disbelieving raised eyebrow and adds for emphasis: "Seriously."p

Katie Hannon is a reporter on RTÉ's Primetime programme