Senator Neale Richmond’s office is bright and airy, if slightly disorganised. His desk is cluttered, covered in a thin veneer of assorted memorabilia seemingly collected over the course of his travels as Seanad spokesperson on Brexit. However, pride of place, perhaps unsurprisingly, is afforded to a marginally deflated rugby ball, a memorial of the Irish Parliamentary Rugby Team’s recent Six Nations win. He breaks out in a booming laugh when I ask where the team ranks in the pantheon of great Irish rugby teams, admitting they may not always boast players at the pinnacle of technical ability.
Nonetheless, with the 2019 Parliamentary World Cup now rapidly approaching, Richmond is relatively confident, hoping that the side, which includes the likes of Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan and Tániste Simon Coveney, can continue to emulate their professional counterparts. However, he is quick to admit that he holds little hope of overcoming a New Zealand team packed with several former All Blacks. He briefly trails off, perhaps plotting the possibility of Brian O’Driscoll winning a by-election in the near future.
I get the distinct impression that Richmond, a former star in the All-Ireland League (AIL), could talk about rugby all day, and I’m tempted to let him. Unfortunately, as it so often does, politics comes calling. Richmond, who boasts a dauntingly impressive portfolio despite his status as one of the youngest members currently sitting in the Seanad, promises a unique insight into the challenges facing Ireland today. He is part of a new generation of Fine Gael politicians that have been catapulted into the limelight over the past two years as they pick up the mantle of party leadership. Despite having come to the fore in the age of spin, the likes of Leo Varadkar and Eoghan Murphy have proven more than willing to speak their minds. Richmond, a frequent user of Twitter, has rarely shied away from controversy, developing a persona that trades on a tone that is in equal parts spiky and assured.
With Fine Gael riding high in the polls, the prospect of a general election is rarely far from anyone’s lips. Richmond is gearing up for a shot at a Dáil seat in the Dublin Rathdown constituency in the next election and is hotly tipped to take it. However, he’s acutely aware that in recent times Fine Gael’s spin team has not covered itself in glory when it comes to plotting election campaigns, and the lessons of 2016 still serve as a healthy reminder that the government’s perception of positive progress won’t always be shared by the public. “We had a terrible slogan in 2016”, he grimaces. “And as much as slogans don’t win you elections, they can certainly cost you a few votes, and we’ve learnt that. I think we had a good message to sell from the 2011-2015 government, but unfortunately didn’t do a good enough job selling it.”
The end result of Fine Gael’s tumultuous 2016 campaign was a hung parliament. Since then Ireland has experimented with its first-ever confidence and supply government, with Fine Gael supported at key votes by Fianna Fáil. While the system isn’t universally popular, Richmond has found himself very much at home in this new political landscape, recognising it as the practical reality in modern Irish politics.
“We haven’t had a single-party government since 1977-81. That was the last time we had an overall majority, so I think we have accepted in Ireland from 1981 to the last election that coalition was the norm. Be it Fianna Fáil propped up by someone else, or Fine Gael–Labour, maybe someone else. That changed in 2016 drastically and confidence and supply is kind of new. You had minority Fianna Fail governments who only relied on maybe three or four Independents, for example, the infamous Gregory deal in the past. But this is the first time that we have actually done it for a sustainable period and its something that’s more commonplace in Europe, in Canada and in New Zealand, and I think it’s something we need to look at. Is it ideal? No. But I think it’s doing a lot better than people thought.”
“I think too, it’s much credit to the opposition”, Richmond muses, “particularly Fianna Fáil, but also other opposition parties in terms of the level of engagement, that, you know, it has worked. And a lot of the issues, there has been a much greater cross-party approach, no clearer than the recent referendum. Not just the campaign but the commitment to the legislation that is going to be in place, hopefully, the first quarter next year. It’s not the ideal model but it can work, and I think that we now need to be hoping that minority governments and confidence and supply are viable alternatives in Ireland as much as coalitions and one-party governments. I don’t know if we’ll ever see an overall majority for one party again”.
I think we had a good message to sell from the 2011-2015 government, but unfortunately didn’t do a good enough job selling it
While Richmond has clearly been energised working in Ireland’s evolving political culture, he isn’t rushing to extend an invitation to Sinn Féin to join the new brand of collaborative politics. The party has been undergoing something of a rebrand over the past year, as new leader Mary Lou McDonald attempts to reinvent its image. Nevertheless, Richmond, who has engaged in regular scathing outbursts on Twitter over the party’s conduct, is unequivocal in his opposition to any form of coalition deal with McDonald’s party.
“I absolutely one hundred per cent oppose Fine Gael going into government with Sinn Féin. I am already on the record as saying that if we went into a coalition government with Sinn Féin that I’d be resigning the whip. I’d vote against that”, he says candidly. Having grown up in a Protestant family, his unease at the idea of partnership with Sinn Féin stems from an almost uniquely personal place: “The language and the blatant rhetoric that Sinn Féin put out I find obviously very personally offensive. And that is not a blithe comment.”
While Richmond admits that he has “huge concerns about Sinn Féin and their legacy”, the crux of his opposition to any partnership with the party is grounded in a more practical political reality. “The policies of Sinn Féin are diametrically opposed to those of Fine Gael”, he says forcefully. “I have no problem saying that we are a party of the moderate centre right. We are a Christian democrat, soft-conservative party. Sinn Féin are a hard left party who sit in the communist group. You can see by their proposals in relation to tax increases in the last budget and everything else that you can’t square that circle. Even if we didn’t have the horrendous visage of their history with the IRA and everything else you still have essentially a hard-left Marxist party. I just can’t see it happening.”
I am already on the record as saying that if we went into a coalition government with Sinn Féin that I’d be resigning the whip
As we chat it quickly becomes clear that Richmond has an unambiguous vision of the type of party Fine Gael must become, and he is more than happy to use terms that have often seemed “alien” to the Irish electorate to help paint that picture. He describes Fine Gael as a “party of the moderate centre-right … soft conservative”, identifying the German Christian Democrats as a natural ally in Europe. However, he is also unabashedly liberal in his social outlook, frequently adopting positions he readily admits not all in the party are in agreement with. The clarity of Richmond’s self-analysis is a welcome change from a somewhat jaded Irish political sphere in which traditional parties are struggling more and more to articulate a clear message.
During his tenure as chair of the Seanad’s Brexit committee Richmond has carefully cultivated an assured image, rarely willing to sit in silent disagreement on the important issues of the day. In truth, it’s on Brexit, rather than domestic policy, where he has truly excelled, unafraid to heap scorn on what he sees as ill-conceived ideas on the part of the UK government. Indeed, during his two years in the post, Richmond has grown into his role as the stern face of Ireland’s opposition to what it considers flights of Brexiteer fantasy. Now something of a fixture on Britain’s numerous political talk shows, he jokes that he has become the “great Satan” for Brexiteers, and his frequent sparring matches with the likes of Kate Hoey and Ian Duncan Smith have made him something of a hero to remainers in the UK.
As the Brexit deadline rapidly approaches, and with Theresa May’s Chequers proposals having been firmly rejected by EU leaders, media coverage in Ireland and the UK has become decidedly more pessimistic on the likelihood of a deal being struck. Richmond, however, disagrees, remaining confident that a deal will happen, and suggesting sadly that serious talks have only just begun in earnest.
“I would argue that the talks have only begun properly in the last fortnight, and there is a huge amount of goodwill on the British and European side to deliver a deal from those talks. And it’s not just goodwill, there’s a real need for it. Because the no-deal scenario that a certain amount of disaster capitalists paint out, like, we can’t fathom how bad that will be. And I have been going around everywhere I can saying how bad that will be and some people think I’m going over the top, but you can only go off the reports I have seen. Where we are now, the likelihood … that there will be an element of a deal, it won’t be what we want, nothing about Brexit is what we want. It won’t necessarily be good for Ireland or the EU, but it will be the least bad option.”
During his two years in the post, Richmond has grown into his role as the stern face of Ireland’s opposition to flights of Brexiteer fantasy
While Richmond remains firm in his commitment to seeking to strike a deal with the UK, his assessment of Brexit’s driving forces is one of absolute disdain. Having become the regular sparring partner of a number of big names in the Brexit camp, Richmond is well-qualified to analyse the ideological motives underpinning it. His suggestion that a lack of knowledge of the darker elements of the history of the British Empire is partially to blame is one that has increasingly gained traction. Brexit, he poignantly notes, appeals to the same “base level of nationalism” that gave rise to the presidency of Donald Trump in America, observing that an idealised version of “big thrusting armies going abroad and conquering” has an undeniable appeal to a certain type of voter in the modern world. However, Richmond is sceptical of the promised success of the Brexiteers’ idealised “Anglosphere”, coyly noting that in trade “geography matters”.
As the reality of Brexit has become clear, voices in the UK calling for a second referendum or a “people’s vote” have grown louder, with numerous public figures now placing significant pressure on Theresa May to give the public a say on the final deal. While the Labour party is increasingly moving towards advocating for a second referendum, such proposals aren’t necessarily something that Richmond has welcomed with open arms.
“My big fear of a second referendum is that it gives Leave a bigger mandate and it gives a mandate for no-deal scenario. Again, you can appeal to that base level of nationalism and say daft things like ‘the EU is trying to force this deal down our throats. Don’t let Brussels tell us what to do’. It’s a very simplistic argument, but it’s very effective. At this stage, I don’t know if there is going to be a second referendum and I would urge that I don’t think there will be. A lot of my friends in the UK, people from the pro-European movement, want another referendum. I have a big concern about it even if there were to be one.”
Beyond Brexit, however, the EU faces no shortage of challenges in the coming years. In particular, the growth of hard-right parties across Europe is of particular concern. As voters increasingly turn to such parties, Richmond is adamant that defending the liberal values that have always defined the EU must be a priority as we face these new challenges. While praising Fine Gael’s contribution to that fight thus far, he refuses to duck the troublesome political reality that sees the chief architects of Europe’s “illiberal democracy”, Victor Orban’s Fidesz party, sitting in the same EU parliamentary grouping as Fine Gael.
My big fear of a second referendum is that it gives Leave a bigger mandate and it gives a mandate for no-deal scenario
“That really sits uncomfortably with me, and I’ve called for them many times to be expelled. That level of nationalism and far-right reactionism is really worrying”, he confides with a sigh. “What we had for a long time, and why the European project was so successful, was that it was a counterbalance. It was a counterbalance to fascism and World War II, then it became a counterbalance to communism and the rise of the Soviet Empire. After the collapse of communism we had 20 years of prosperity across the world, then we had the financial crisis. People went running for the solution, the quick and easy solution. The quick and easy solution is either to the hard left or the hard right. People think by shutting down borders and having strongman governments life will be easier, and we know that not to be true.”
In times of such extremes in European politics, Richmond, as someone who prides himself on such an unabashedly pro-European, globalist outlook, is something of an outlier. Preparing to rush to his first committee meeting of the day, he finds the time to turn his eye towards the current state of the EU before jetting off. Richmond is adamant that the key to its survival is a willingness to more boldly sell itself while adopting a more combative approach towards those who would seek to use it as a perpetual scapegoat.
“Europe selling itself is very important, but it also has to show how it actually impacts. So often people see those roads. That’s great. Paid for by the EU, and the EU needs to take control of that. But it also needs to make itself more relevant. I hate to say that in the past 20 years what is the great achievement of the EU, bar surviving? Probably abolishing roaming charges, and that’s not exactly exciting. Whereas if you look at the big projects, you look at cross country rail projects, the Eurotunnel, the Channel Tunnel, the Eurostar, big construction projects, Erasmus, Horizon 2020. All these big projects are how Europe actually gets across and says, ‘this is what we’re good at. This is what we need you to back’. Europe needs to be a lot more open and transparent and show that we have a really good positive and transparent impact on your lives. We can’t just be seen as that foreign entity that you blame when you need to blame.”