Interview – David Cullinane, SF, Tax, Leaders, Labour & Coalition
The 2011 General election and the Senate election that followed brought many new faces to Leinster House. Ushers and staff have had to get used to a lot of new people at a rate they didn’t experience in the past. It still brings a smile to my face when I arrive at the gates and the staff don’t recognise the name of the member or as in the case of David Cullinane they ask me to spell the name. Thankfully I found the congenial Waterford Senator after a few phone calls. As one of the new faces in Sinn Fein I wanted to try getting an understanding of the issues facing the party and what considerations it has to make in the future.
The first thing I wanted to put to him was the peculiar situation Sinn Fein finds itself in where it is well up in the polls on its general election showing but seems to have stagnated and is struggling to break the 20% ceiling. In response Cullinane points to the advances Sinn Fein have made since 2002 and says that the party is well positioned for further gains, but I suggested to him that in the current environment, surely they should be doing better. Perhaps a little unsurprisingly he says that ‘There certainly is an unfair bias against Sinn Fein in the media’ and no doubt many in Sinn Fein might agree that this is part of the problem. I might be tempted to agree at times but only on the odd occasion. The fact is that every party member or representative of every single organisation is convinced that the media is biased against them. They all give me umpteen examples so I am a little hesitant to agree completely. Cullinane makes the case however that much commentary tries to say that ‘Sinn Fein policy does not stack up’ or that they engage in fairytale economics, but he points out that ‘everything that we said about the economy has actually come to pass, which doesn’t give us any pleasure but it is the reality’.
‘The media say that SF policies don’t stack up but they don’t scrutinise the Fianna Fail policy to any extent’, Cullinane feels that the media don’t ask Fianna Fail how they will pay for things whereas Sinn Fein are forced to come up with figures every time they propose a policy. This is an argument that certainly does come up a lot and I asked him about specific policies such as the Wealth tax and whether the €800 million they proposed from this policy was realistic, given that they proposed the tax in two separate years, one where they included pensions and one where it was removed, but still came to the same figure. Cullinane suggests that ‘if you look at any of the budgetary adjustments made by the government, you will see that many don’t come in on target, we base our costings on our analysis of the situation.’ Specifically in relation to the wealth tax he says ‘We are asking people to buy into the concept of it, its 1% on anything over a million euro, as time went on we had to develop the position into a more robust one and firm out the proposals, so as part of that some adjustments were made.’ Sinn Fein, he says, spoke to a range of economists on the issue to make sure there were no holes in the argument, ‘Any of the independent costings we had done showed it would bring in at least €800 million, that’s a conservative estimate. But you can get caught up in whether it will bring in 800 million or 600 million, the point is its something that’s on the table and should be discussed’
Its not the only policy on taxation that Sinn Féin have as Cullinane points out ‘We have also called for a third rate of tax of 48% on any income over 100K, so clearly if you are earning 150k then you are going to pay 7% more tax’. I put it to him that this could be a return to the very high personal taxes of the mid eighties that failed so abysmally, but he argues we are already back in the ‘80s and ‘the very people who need money don’t have it. If you look at any independent analysis, including the ESRI, of the last two budgets from this government, they were the most unequal and most unfair and had a disproportionate impact on low and middle income workers.’
Cullinane is very definite on policy in this regard ‘there is a section of people who earn higher levels of income and a modest increase of 7% is not going to affect them to any great degree, it would have some impact, but far less impact than say a property tax and PRSI changes on people earning say 30 or 40k.’
There is no doubting the left wing credentials of such views and it would probably terrify any right wing reader of this article but Cullinane argues that there is little option with so many people reaching a point where they simply can’t pay their bills or meet the mortgage repayments. Sinn Féin would also change tax reliefs currently available at the top rate of tax to be standardised at only the lower rate, bring in increases in Capital Gains Tax and Capital Acquisitions Tax and tackle what he calls the ‘runaway pay’ at the top and the cost of the public sector. He says that Sinn Fein were told there could be no deal on bank debt but that now the government were looking for just that and that while SF is dismissed as having ‘having fairytale economics’ it wasn’t those polices that caused the mess but instead what he calls the ‘nightmare economics of FF and FG.’
But while there may be many people out there who would be attracted to such policies I put it to him the Irish people are searching for honesty. That even with all these changes surely some impact upon ordinary people is still unavoidable. I asked him directly if SF were elected in the morning, and they admit that this crisis does carry pain for all, then what would be the impact on someone earning 40k or less under SF. Cullinane says ‘the argument is not about how much pain you inflict on someone earning 40k but whether or not its economically justified…what we would do is implement our policies such as the wealth tax and income tax increases in the first year of government’. Cullinane argues that hitting people on 40k or less will only perpetuate the problem, so I press him on this and he says that ‘Certainly under 40k I cant see how…in fact, I think things would get better for them to be honest because the property tax would be replaced with the wealth tax’
Whatever your view of economic matters SF certainly has set out its stall, but then I ask him if the policy is so definite then why there are such difficulties with the media and getting the message across. I suggested to him that perhaps it was the responsibility of the party leader to sell the message and maybe it was time for SF to consider a change. However, Cullinane doe not feel there is a mood right now for this, ‘It’s a very fair question for people to ask and people are entitled to ask questions of any political leader and whether or not it is time for that person to move on, but ultimately of course a decision such as that is a matter for the Sinn Fein party and I don’t see any desire within the party for that to happen at this point and time.’
One of the reasons that Gerry Adams is still important to SF as a leader is because of Northern Ireland according to Cullinane and he says there are ‘many unresolved issues’ with regard to the peace process and he says there are ‘a lot of issues to be dealt with in relation to victims’. He agrees with the idea that ‘republicans must face up’ to their responsibilities but it is clear that there is work to be done. I get the impression that Cullinane trusts Adams more than anyone else to lead this conversation. However he admits that ‘I understand the media fascination with the leadership and maybe there are some sections of our constituency out there that might be asking questions in that regard but I think Gerry Adams is doing a very good job in Leinster house and the party is articulating well our core proposals.’
That begs the question though as to whether the historical overhang from the Northern conflict that is holding SF back. In his response Cullinane points to the efforts SF made for peace and he points out that the situation in Northern Ireland was complex, he says the ‘conflict existed because of core injustices’ but he is also clear that he does not agree with every thing the IRA did or with all of its actions, but he does understand the situation and what led to it.
But, while I accept Cullinane’s position on this I am forced to ask him, if, after all the efforts for peace and all the discussion of understanding and victims it is appropriate to have IRA memorabilia on sale from the SF shop, and to sell ‘Sniper at work’ badges at the Ard Fheis. To be fair to Cullinane he struck me as understanding the difficulty this presents and that it made him uncomfortable. There was no doubt that he hugely respects and admires figures like Bobby Sands and other republican heroes but he says ‘I don’t believe any organisation or party should be glorifying war, war is ugly and war is brutal and anything that would glorify war is not something any party should be doing’. I asked him if it was something SF need to look at and he said ‘I think its something we are conscious of…but it is an issue we need to look at.’
Talk of the Ard Fheis brings up the question of if we are seeing a change in SF, and rather than being in splendid isolation they are now starting to reach out to Labour as a possible friend and I did find his answer interesting as he said ‘What we have in this country are two parties whose polices are the same and then we have the Labour party, who in fairness their policies are different, but they are prepared to be a mudguard for either of those two parties and that retards the development of a genuine alternative.’
He says that ‘I don’t see Labour as the enemy, the Labour party are just misguided, I have regular meetings with people who are in the Labour party but not public representatives and I would say to all these people….that their policies, by and large are not wrong, there is a lot of agreement between us but tactically I think they are wrong to prop up either of the tow main parties’
That brings us to the question of Coalition. We are used these days to parties ruling out one another on the basis of never even talking and before even an election takes place. Cullinane has a far more considered view, he does not see SF coalescing with FF or FG simply because he does not believe either would be willing to agree to SF policies, however he says that while ‘there must be compromise’ if SF got a significant portion of their policy agreed and were seen as equal partners in government then they would consider any possible government. However, he does not believe it likely that any of the current main parties could see their way to agreeing enough of the SF redline issues to allow them enter government. He says the problem for Labour was that they had a bottom line but ‘then reversed that’ to stay in government. Cullinane says ‘we are not looking to be in permanent opposition’ he points out that SF want to be in power but ‘not power for the sake of it’ but ‘’if we can get a substantive part of our policies delivered that’s different’ but he simply doesn’t believe that can or will happen with FF or FG.
Cullinane says that there are many people out there who might well fear SF coming to power because he believes that in government, they would break up the ‘cosy cartel’ that exists and what he calls the Galway tent culture that still exists. Form business to the media he argues that there are many who want to see the status quo retained but that if SF comes to power they know they will see that ‘crashing down’. Therefore he says it’s ‘no surprise that many in the media present the argument that they do.’