A school meeting with Taoiseach John Bruton in 1995 sparked Damien English’s interest in politics. Seventeen years later, the 34-year old Meath West TD chairs the Oireachtas Committee for Jobs, Social Protection and Education.
How did you become involved in politics and what attracted you to Fine Gael?
My interest in politics was not innate but was acquired in my late teens. I lay the blame for my initial interest in politics firmly with one of my secondary school teachers, PJ Nugent, who arranged for students to meet the Taoiseach, John Bruton. It was 1995 and I’m still not s
ure if I was brought along as punishment or reward but that encounter with John whetted my appetite for politics. I didn’t go out and seek a political party to join but my interest in Fine Gael stemmed from this meeting with John Bruton. I was approached by PJ and others locally in Fine Gael to stand as a candidate in the local elections of 1999. I didn’t jump at the idea at first but reflected on the offer. As a 21-year-old it was quite daunting.
I ran initially as a candidate for Navan Town Council, but with a matter of weeks to go before polling day I was ‘added on’ to the Fine Gael ticket for the county council election after constituency chair John Duffy said that I may as well run for both town and county. This proved to be an astute move as I was elected to Meath County Council and not Navan Town Council. In 2002 I contested the general election for Fine Gael and was elected to Dáil Éireann alongside John Bruton in what turned out to be his last election.
Is the Government succeeding at rebuilding the economy from the ground up?
The Government is succeeding with this task. Politics is about making decisions that will lead a country in certain directions, both in an economic and a social context. The task of rebuilding the economy from the ground up is not solely to regain our economic sovereignty from the troika. It’s about making the Irish economy sustainable for generations to come.
In previous years, governments made long-term current expenditure commitments based on a fiscal bonanza from the building boom rather than on sustainable income streams. When the income from construction-based activity collapsed, the money was no longer available to meet the commitments made. A situation like this cannot happen again.
When the economy recovers, it needs to be to the point where our income will match our expenditure requirements. This will come from monies raised from increased employment levels and increased consumer spending within the domestic economy coupled with a thriving export market.
There will always be conflicting views on how we should get to this point. For my part, I will continue to support and challenge government on the path in getting there.
What’s unique about Meath West?
Meath West is a dynamic and interesting constituency incorporating part Meath and part Westmeath. It has many contrasts such as Navan having 10,000 homes, almost all in housing estates, while in Fore, County Westmeath, there are no housing estates at all. To the north there are rolling hills around Oldcastle, while to the south near Enfield the land is flatter.
Possibly the most unique thing that Meath West has to boast is that Ireland’s version of the Olympic Games, the Great Aonach, took place at Tailteann (Teltown) tri-annually for over 3,000 years. It is reported that mythical young warriors tested their strength and prowess in events such as wrestling, boxing and chariot races.
In your opinion, what are the three biggest challenges facing the Government?
Equality of access to public services irrespective of where people live is possibly the biggest challenge facing the government. It should not be more difficult for people living in one part of the country to access health, educational, business support or social welfare services than others living elsewhere.
Reducing the unit cost of providing services within the public sector is another challenge. This is vital so that the level of service can be maintained for the public but the costs of providing such services are reduced.
Government faces the challenge of advancing the public service so that every person working within it can be proud of the work they do. Public sector employees are part of a large team of people that provide essential services to the country; they should be confident at all times of the work they do. Changes impending within the public service need to be enabled by government but must be driven from within the public service. It needs to happen and be embraced at all levels of the public service, not enforced from the top down.
What are the main issues on the Jobs, Social Protection and Education Committee’s forward work programme?
The JSPE Committee has quite a large remit, covering the work of three government departments. The work programme decided on for 2012 will look at:
- job activation schemes, youth unemployment and the long term unemployed, supporting the self-employed, promotion of entrepreneurship and creating demand in the domestic economy;
- the use of IT in the delivery of social welfare services, the rights of casual workers, reform of the child benefit system, black market workers and social welfare fraud;
- plans for community primary schools and gaelscoileanna, junior certificate reform, the guidance counselling profession, plans to improve standard of spoken Irish, proposals to address illiteracy and innumeracy, the provision of special needs education in primary schools and the standard of teaching and research in the universities and ITs.
How do you like to spend your free time?
I love spending time with my family. I’m married to Laura and we have two young children (Harvey, two, and Karla, seven months.) They’re at a great age now and in between the teething we have great fun with them.
I like running. I have completed two Dublin City marathons in the past four years and many 5k and 10k runs. I make time also to go to as many Meath football matches as possible.