This week marks two years since Ireland went to the polls for General Election 2020.
On February 8th of that year, voters across Waterford selected their TDs and among the victors was Independent candidate Matt Shanahan. The Butlerstown native experienced a meteoric rise in politics, having first been elected to Waterford City & County Council the previous May at the 2019 local elections.
Entering national politics in early 2020 proved to be a baptism of fire for Matt as, shortly after his election, Ireland was thrust into a global pandemic. The onset of Covid-19 resulted in a hugely challenging period for all at Leinster House, but especially for a newly elected Independent TD grappling with the whole new world of national politics.
Matt says it proved difficult to meet with civil servants and fellow politicians. As an example, he explains that he sought a meeting regarding Waterford Airport and Rescue 117 in May 2020 but didn’t obtain this until September of that year. Thankfully, assurances have now been given that Waterford will retain its Rescue 117 base, but the future of Waterford Airport remains uncertain and was the subject of a lively exchange between Matt Shanahan and An Taoiseach Micheál Martin in the Dáil last week.
Many issues which Matt Shanahan strived to work on were forced to take a back seat during the pandemic, but Covid-19 did present an opportunity to put other skills to good use. Matt was selected from the Regional Group of TDs to sit on the Covid-19 Special Committee.
“I felt I was being given an opportunity to highlight issues,” he says. “One of the things that was very frustrating was the way the whole pandemic was managed among a small group of people, with a lot of ‘groupthink’.”
He says he would have expected much more engagement with the “wider medical fraternity” and believes the response to the pandemic was “lethargic” in many aspects. Shortly after his election, he wrote to then Health Minister Simon Harris about utilising the Dunmore Wing at University Hospital Waterford (UHW) which, at the time, wasn’t fully operational.
Matt Shanahan (left) pictured during a tour of the new Apparel Supply face mask factory in Waterford during Covid-19.
“We knew Covid was coming so I submitted Parliamentary Questions asking why we weren’t looking at the Dunmore Wing for isolation rooms. If you’re not getting a meeting, you’re depending on Parliamentary Questions, and you don’t know if you’re being heard or not,” he explains.
Eventually, the rapid spread of the pandemic accelerated the opening of the Dunmore Wing which proved beneficial for Waterford’s battle against Covid-19.
In general, Matt believes most members of the public were one step ahead in relation to many aspects of the pandemic, such as the use of facemasks.
“People aren’t stupid. They could see what made sense,” he says. “With facemasks, we could see what was happening in Asia and we knew they could mitigate against spread.”
However, he was dismayed that NPHET didn’t grant approval for their widespread public use until well into the pandemic. The response to calls for the widespread roll-out of antigen testing was another issue which Matt Shanahan found deeply frustrating.
“I was approached by a company trying to break into Ireland with antigen testing,” he explains. “I was banging the drum and getting nowhere. Doctors were telling me that antigen testing absolutely had a role to play. I finally got a meeting with the Taoiseach and had data to support their use.”
However, there were still many obstacles to overcome before antigen tests became a familiar household weapon in our fight against Covid-19.
Supporting SIMI (Society of the Irish Motor Industry) Budget proposals.
Matt believes his past experiences in the world of business armed him a different outlook throughout the pandemic, making him acutely aware of the needs of the private sector.
“I’ve been self-employed and involved in a number of large-scale businesses,” he says. “It’s easy for public servants to say ‘let’s have a lockdown’.”
He explains that he was in regular contact with business owners and representatives, many of whom were deeply frustrated with “on again, off again” directions.
“Companies had international contracts which they couldn’t fulfil because NPHET wouldn’t allow it,” he explains, citing one particular instance in Waterford.
“On a Monday morning there was a contract meeting in the Industrial Estate for a particular company which was losing a major contract. Late on Sunday night they got the go-ahead that they could start work.”
He also believes there was greater potential for utilising local companies to assist with equipment, pointing out that the HSE spent money “buying ventillators from Chinese companies that we never heard of”.
“Whatever about ‘don’t waste a good crisis’, you must certainly learn from it,” he says. “We must go back and figure out why so many things did or didn’t occur. We could have another pandemic in another 20 years, and we can’t have disjointed thinking and panic stations.”
While there are many things that we can learn from, he acknowledges that Ireland’s vaccination programme was a “game changer” and compliments all involved.
“It was a crisis, and we had never been faced with anything like it before, so we have to give credit to so many people. There’s no doubt that the vaccination programme was the game changer. Lockdowns were necessary unfortunately, but Irish people responded very well in general.”
With representatives from the horticulture sector during a protest outside Leinster House.
Matt Shanahan has been closely linked to the campaign for the pursuit of improved cardiac care services at UHW and made this a key component of his election manifesto. Last week, the announcement came that the hours of the existing service will be extended.
However, with patients still being transferred elsewhere for life-saving cardiac care, the fight for a full 24/7 service continues.
Matt believes the cardiac campaign is symbolic of Waterford’s treatment at a national level. He reaffirms that he is 100 per cent committed to this issue but has encountered an “entrenched” view within the Department of Health and the HSE that a 24/7 service isn’t required in Waterford.
“It’s about fairness and equity – that’s all we want,” he says. “We have a regional hospital, servicing patients from up to ten counties but for some reason, when it comes to cardiac care, we don’t have the treatment we should and we have to put people in an ambulance or use Rescue 117.”
Prior to Christmas, Matt and fellow TDs from the South-East region exerted further pressure on Health Minister Stephen Donnelly to “expedite” the issue.
“The promise was given to expand the service, so we want it progressed. It’s gone on too long,” he says.
The latest timeline indicates that there will be a newly commissioned cath lab in operation by September/October of this year and Matt is confident this can be achieved but “significant” steps must be accomplished. While he acknowledges progress in the building programme at UHW, he says more has to be done.
“In terms of the amount of money that goes into healthcare throughout the regions, certainly the budget has risen in UHW but what hasn’t rise is the whole-time equivalent number and bed number,” he says.
Despite his frustrations, Matt says he strives to work with the system rather than against it, but he admits he’s not overly enamoured by its workings. He says he’s striving to “educate” civil servants and “call them out” on certain issues.
“You have to work with the system. If you’re an outlier, and you try to move the system, it is very difficult,” he says. “I’ve voted against government; I’ve support Sinn Fein motions – it’s not just about standing on the sidelines and criticising.”
Does he ever feel isolated or intimidated as an Independent when dealing with the machinations of the State and powerful civil servants?
“Absolutely not,” he states. “Yes, their titles attract authority, and I respect the authority, but at the end of day they are just people.”
“I’m not combative,” he adds. “I might sound like I am, but I try to hear the other person’s point of view. The problems arise when what’s being said is ‘policy speak’.”
For example, he believes the “obstruction” to addressing cardiac care in Waterford isn’t backed up by clinical reasoning or best practice but is based on “vested interests”.
He admits it’s “frustrating” when the government moves “quickly and assiduously” when it wants to but refuses to budge on other issues. With this in mind, has he considered joining a political party?
“Unless you’re at the very top, you have to bow to policy and I wouldn’t be comfortable with that idea,” he says. “It’s not something that I agree with – having to go out and promote something and say that it’s something which it’s not.”
He is keen to retain his Dáil seat and says it will be “interesting” to see if people in Waterford value having an Independent representative.
“I didn’t get into politics because I wanted to be a politician. The way politics was being done in the past didn’t sit well with me,” he says. “I want to see improvements, fairness and ensure that people are looked after, particularly our elderly and vulnerable.”
He says his grouping of Regional TDs consists of “very capable people” who are keen to see progress on certain issues.
“We have an open attitude,” he explains. “If we agree on something we come out with a joint statement and we don’t go off on solo runs.”
Throughout his first year as a TD, Matt says he received a “significant” amount of online abuse.
“The minute I got into the Dáil it started – and it was pretty nasty,” he says. In addition to online abuse, he also received some letters. Thankfully, he says such abuse has now “eased off”.
“I try not to tune into it,” he explains. “A lot of it is based on party politics but is put forward as if it’s someone who is just voicing their opinion.”
He reminds himself that opinions expressed on social media are not indicative of wider public attitudes.
“You hear the vocal minority,” he says. “There are a lot of people out there who are quiet and unassuming. They don’t vocalise but they have an opinion also.”
Shortly after his election, he took the decision to invest in backroom support, opening an office in Catherine Street in the city as well as Dungarvan. He has people on the ground in both areas, as well as former Councillor Blaise Hannigan in Tramore.
He says his team are “doing a lot of good things for a lot of people” across a wide variety of sectors including healthcare, housing, and social supports.
“You get a lot of satisfaction when you move something that seemed to be very difficult,” he says. “There are many genuine people out there who don’t often contact their TD unless something is happening in their life that they require assistance with. Sometimes it’s just a problem with the system, protocol, or the way they’ve gone about something, and it’s just a matter of talking to an official and getting something over the line.”
Rural issues and farming are also key areas of interest for Matt, and areas which allow Waterford to play to its strengths. He believes we must maximise the potential of our rural areas, ensuring there are opportunities for remote working, and sufficient funding for community development projects to sustain our towns and villages. He is heartened that Micheál Martin has signalled he wants to see continued regeneration and rebalancing across rural Ireland.
“We have so much to offer in Waterford, but we don’t appreciate what we have,” he says.
He believes many people would benefit from spending time abroad before coming back and looking at things with “fresh eyes”.
“I criticise a lack of funding, but I never criticise Waterford,” he says. “I made the decision to come back and live here and there isn’t anywhere else I would like to be.”
Matt Shanahan pictured with his wife Elaine and children, Emma, Robyn and Tom following his election to Waterford City & County Council in May 2019. Photo: Noel Browne
As we progress further into 2022, Matt believes we are approaching a “watershed moment” for Waterford.
“This is going to be a significant year – certain developments have to happen,” he says.
He believes Waterford does not see the “signature investments” which other areas obtain. In the South-East, he would like to see the creation of a specific development authority for the region, similar to the Western Development Commission.
“We’ve been the poorest performing region for the past ten years,” he says. “The West has moved on, the Midlands have moved on, but we haven’t when you look at our jobs and our industrial scale. If we didn’t have agriculture, we would be an impoverished region.”
He adds: “We have all these promises but, per capita funding, we are way behind. The South-East region has been very poor at backing itself and asking for what’s required.”
Matt describes the recent announcement from Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) that there isn’t any funding available for the upgrading of the N24 and N25 as “absolutely unacceptable”.
“A line I’ve heard recently from government people in the South-East is that we should stop talking as if we have an inferiority complex and that we need to be more confident. But confidence alone doesn’t deliver. Give us our fair share of funding and we’ll show you what we can do.”
He continues: “I spoke recently to Paschal Donohoe (Finance Minister) and his appraisal of Waterford was that it is improving. I made the point that the figures in terms of funding don’t reflect that, and we need investment. We always seem to have one more step to overcome which others don’t. The North Quays investment required a private component, the airport requires another private component. There is always this additionality tacked on for Waterford – ‘if you do that, we’ll do this’.”
Matt, who sits on the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, is confident that the Technological University for the South East Ireland (TUSEI) has the potential to be an “economic driver” for the region – but only if it’s done properly.
“We need to see investment in Waterford,” he says. “We don’t need to be held up anymore by a ‘cost benefit analysis’ or anything that is designed to slow things down.”
He feels Waterford is “certainly closer to the agenda” thanks to his representations throughout the past two years.
“I think Waterford is definitely being heard,” he says. “I have absolutely and deliberately tried to raise issues relating to Waterford.”
Now that the major disruption caused by Covid appears to be receding, Matt says he is eager to get to grips with the cut and thrust of politics in Dáil Éireann and continue his fight for Waterford.
“Having Covid off our backs will allow us to address policy and hold more meetings – not Zoom meetings from a distance and all of this scheduling of things further and further down the road.”
History will judge the achievements of Waterford’s TDs, but Matt Shanahan’s passion for Waterford and his desire to seek equality for the region is certainly clear to see.