RING, Michael FG
The Political Interview
IT’S 4pm and already it’s been a long day. A 7am rise, a couple of hours sorting through mail and correspondence, a few dozen face-to-face enquiries at clinics, a funeral or two, a snatched bite to eat between appointments.
Still Michael Ring arrives in Knockranny House Hotel full of the joys of spring. He’s on home ground; Westport is his still point in a crazy world. And talking is his stock in trade.
Milestones in his political career roll off the tongue like liquid through a funnel: the 1979 UDC election in Westport – his first – when he came second to Seán Staunton, having considered opting out of the race less than a week after agreeing to let his name go forward; topping the poll in every UDC election he contested thereafter; being elected to Mayo County Council in 1991; losing out on a Dáil seat in the 1992 general election when Padraig Flynn got a massive vote and his transfers fell unkindly for Ring; the best day of his political life, when he was first elected to Dáil Éireann in 1994; the joy of being returned in 1997 coupled with the dismay of Fine Gael losing power. Ups and downs, highs and lows. Par for the course, he knows.
The experience of the ‘92 defeat gave him perspective for the elections that were to follow. There’s always a chance it won’t work out, always a possibility the numbers will go against you. So in spite of his previous poll-topping exploits, he hates to be told he’s a ‘dead cert’ this time out.
“It’s very unfair and my competitors are using it against me all the time. I have to fight the election, and this time around I’m going to have a potential taoiseach in my constituency. Every leader of the party always increases his vote – Michael Noonan did it, John Bruton did it, Alan Dukes did it and Enda Kenny will do it. The party faithful will support him. And then we have an excellent candidate in Michelle Mulherin, a high-profile candidate in John O’Mahony … and that’s only within our own party,” he says.
But he’s ready for the fight, content – but not over-confident – that his work on the ground since 2002 will stand to him when polling day comes.
“I’m not one of these politicians who gets elected and then hibernates for three-and-a-half years and then when the election comes around again the cuckoo comes out. This is one cuckoo that has been on the ground 52 weeks of the year.
“Generally people are decent. I have had about nine or ten thousand people through my office in the last five years, if I can get even half of them and their families to vote for me I have no worries,” he says.
Traditionally, Ring has drawn votes from every part of the county, and from every persuasion (‘I get a big Fianna Fáil vote and I’m very grateful for that’) and, while he admits that areas like north Mayo could go any way this time around due to the Corrib gas issue, he believes he has his finger on the pulse in every region. Besides, this time one issue stands out for the people of Mayo, he submits.
“There’s one simple issue: the people feel they have got very little from this government. Everything we’ve got we’ve had to fight for. We have a problem with ESB, with water, with sewerage, and we need to get infrastructure in place, it’s vital. Ring roads are needed around Ballina, Castlebar and Westport and a bypass in Ballinrobe.
“I think people know now there’s an opportunity if Fine Gael are in government.”
But will Fine Gael be in government? Has the party done enough to convince its many non-believers?
“We ran into difficulty last year, but we’re back up and running and I honestly believe there’s a mood out there for change. They’re looking for an alternative and Fine Gael are at last showing that we are a good alternative. We lost 14 out of our 15 front bench spokesmen at the last election – strong people like Alan Dukes and Alan Shatter. If that happened to the Mayo team after last September you wouldn’t give them much hope in the championship this year. It takes time to build it up again and it took Fine Gael three or four years to re-build. We now have fine young candidates in every constituency – and this election will be fought in every constituency – and there’s an enthusiasm there that I haven’t seen for a long time,” he pronounces, with a renewed enthusiasm of his own. He senses power within his party’s grasp. And with it a ministry for Michael Ring.
“If I could choose [a ministry] right now it’d be transport or the environment. The first job I’d do if I was Minister for the Environment is I’d instruct the NRA that I want the road from Longford to Charlestown continued all the way to Ballina and to Westport. And I’d demand that a package be put in place for the people of Erris. If Fine Gael are in government and I’m part of that government a package will be put in place for the people of north Mayo because they’re entitled to it. That road from Castlebar to Belmullet is a disgrace,” he says, warming to his theme and the whiff of power.
And if we have a Mayo taoiseach, a Mayo tánaiste and no senior minister from the county, what will the indomitable Westport man do then?
“I’ll talk to you about that after the election!” he smiles, unwilling to be drawn into any criticism of his leader.
Planning, the need for a debate on the erosion of power among local representatives, the securing of more jobs for Mayo and a continuation of his long-running crusade for greater accountability in the area of public services also feature highly on his reform list, if elected.
But for now, 13 action-packed weeks stretch out ahead. A high-energy approach will greet them … starting today with an evening journey to Dublin, which will reach its conclusion around midnight, after another funeral stopover in Tuam en route.
It’s a long road … but this is one hard dog.
On the record
Michael Ring on …
> Fine Gael’s time in government from 1995 to 1997
“We delivered more in two-and-a-half years than Fianna Fáil did in 20 years before that, and nothing has been delivered since. We got the seaside resort scheme up and running and that has served the county well, we got Ballycroy National Park, Turlough House, the famine monument in Murrisk, we got the water problem sorted in Westport. We did a lot in a short space of time; it’s just a pity we didn’t get another term”
> the need for a change in government
“The super rich are doing very well in this country and the big builders are doing very well, but everyone else in society is feeling the pinch. They have higher mortgages, are working harder, have no quality of life and little time with their families. I think people now believe the Government have lost control of themselves and the country”
> what he will do if Fine Gael get into power
“My priorities will be Mayo first, Connacht second and Ireland third. Infrastructure for the west will be key”
> the controversy last year over payments to Bertie Ahern
“He should have been forced to resign. The mistake that Fine Gael made is that we should have put down the vote of no confidence the very first evening. They were getting ready to dump him in the Dáil but the opinion polls saved him”
> his party’s chances of seizing power
“It’s the best chance we’ve had in 20 years to win the election. It’s not going to be easy and we can’t afford to make mistakes, but neither can the Government. They’ve made enough and the people are ready for change”
> the people’s views on politics
“People say they hate politics, but people don’t hate politics; 99.9% of the people out there love politics. They pretend they don’t like politics, but they love it and they’re tuned in to it. People get disillusioned with politicians but they still love politics”
> the prospect of losing his seat
“I had a dream the other night that I lost my seat and I woke up in a sweat. At the end of the day you’re a human being and that thought goes through your mind at times. You have to be ready for that circumstance”
> the possibility of retirement
“Everything depends on your health and, thank God, mine is good at the moment. After the election I’ll look at it and, yes, if we’re in government I’ll stand again, no question; if not, I’ll have to look at it”
> his favourite politician outside of Fine Gael
“I know they’re all giving out about him, but I admire him because he stands his ground, and that’s [Michael] McDowell. I just like him because he does what he thinks has to be done. He mightn’t be the most caring person in the world, but he stands by what he believes in”