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My Life in Politics: Aidan Mullins on early influences, a slow system and why being a TD never interested him in the slightest

Aidan Mullins after being elected to Laois County Council for the first time in 2014

My Life in Politics is a new weekly series on LaoisToday where we will chat with various local politicians – both past and present.

First up is Aidan Mullins, the Portarlington-based Sinn Féin councillor.

Aidan first ran for election in 2009 in the old Emo electoral area when he got 571 first preference votes.

Though he finished five votes ahead of Fine Gael’s James Deegan, he missed out on the fourth seat to Deegan on the 8th count.

He wasn’t to be denied five years later when he returned to top the poll in the new six-seat Portarlington-Graiguecullen Municipal District when was elected on the first count with 1,547 first preferences.

He was again elected on the first count in last year’s local elections when he increased his first preference vote to 1,614, though behind poll topper Padraig Fleming (Fianna Fáil).

In this interview, Aidan talks about his early political influence, how gets satisfaction from his role as a public representative and why the prospect of becoming a TD has never appealed to him.

What is your earliest political memory?

I lived and went to school in Ferbane in Offaly until I was 16 years of age as my father worked in the ESB Power Station there.

During the summer months I worked on local farms with my brother Tony, thinning beet, saving hay, cutting turf etc. We became very good friends, and still are to this day, with one particular farming family who lived in Moyclare a few miles outside Ferbane.

Paddy Barnes, his wife and their son PJ owned the tillage farm and I spent many long days listening mesmerised to Paddy telling me about his role in the Old IRA during the Rebellion and Civil War when he was on the run.

He introduced me to the politics of a Civil War Ireland and the rival political parties. Paddy was a brother of Peter Barnes from Banagher who, along with James McCormack, were wrongly convicted of a bicycle bomb in Birmingham and both innocent men were hanged in Winson Green Prison in February 1940.

Looking back now I realise that my earliest political memories and awareness come from those days with Paddy Barnes in the green fields round Ferbane. I couldn’t have asked for a better tutor or mentor.

What politician do you most admire?

There are many politicians I admire for various reasons, some from the past and others from more recent times.
Inspirational leaders I admire who left an indelible mark on the world stage include Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.

One of the Irish politicians I would admire most is Seán Lemass. Often referred to as the father of modern Ireland, he played a major role in the industrialisation and economic growth of the country among other achievements. He was a TD for 45 years including time served as Tánaiste and Taoiseach.

In recent Irish history I believe that the legacy and leadership qualities of Martin McGuinness will stand the test of time as a patriot, peacemaker and selfless leader.

Martin McGuinness has passed away this morning after a short illness
Martin McGuinness

What is the contrast like between a ‘normal job’ and your role as a politician?

There are many differences between the two. I think the main one is the amount of time devoted to properly perform the duties of an elected representative.

You are literally on call 7 days a week and your day may not end until after 10 pm some nights due to having to attend meetings or meet people to discuss a pressing issue they may have.

The work of a Councillor is very varied and covers a multitude of issues.

Quite a large amount of my work has actually nothing to do with the County Council e.g. problems with Social Welfare, drug problems, inability to pay bills, medical cards, JSA, Carers  Allowance, SUSI grants, Working Family Payment, Disability Allowance and many other entitlements.

As a public rep you are effectively your own boss and answerable only to your constituents.

I think there is definitely a lot more job satisfaction working as a Councillor as opposed to a “normal job” and you are constantly learning.

Aidan Mullins (Sinn Fein. 1,547 votes) after being elected at the 2014 Local Elections
Picture: Alf Harvey/hrphoto.ie

What is your favourite thing about being a councillor?

Having some bit of influence on the decisions and work programmes of the Local Authority which can benefit communities in the Municipal District.

You don’t get everything you look for but, in general, Council Management will work with Councillors within budgetary constraints.

You are in the privileged position of being able to help someone who needs some advice or assistance if only to fill out a form for them.

What’s the most frustrating thing about being a councillor?

I find that the most frustrating thing about being a Councillor is often the slow pace at which the system works.

This is particularly true in the construction of social housing where bureaucracy and burdensome procedures imposed by the Department can cause delays of a number of years before houses are built.

The public sector and private sector sometimes seem to work on different planets.

Aidan Mullins with his wife Helen after being elected in 2014

What if any changes would you like to see made to local government?

The powers of Local Government have been stripped back over the past 20 years or so.

The abolition of the old Health Boards and the privatisation of household waste collection are just two that come to mind.

The provision of social housing is now rapidly being handed over to Approved Housing Bodies.

Councillors now have limited or no influence over many departments and services (some might say that’s a good thing).

Aidan Mullins with supporters after his 2019 Local Election success
I believe that the role of Strategic Policy Committees (SPCs) needs to be reviewed to determine how successful they are in forming policies. They are at serious risk of becoming talk shops.

The current system of appointing Chairs and Vice Chairs to various Committees needs to be changed to a D’Hondt System which is fairer and prevents the exclusion of independent Councillors, smaller parties or groups from key positions.

A strange form of local “democracy” in action.

Brian Stanley and Aidan Mullins in discussion at the 2009 Local Election count. Picture: Alf Harvey

What advice would you give to anyone considering getting into politics?

Any young person should think very carefully before committing to politics. You would need other career options available to you due to the insecurity of the job of a politician.

I think it is a very difficult career for women particularly as it’s not family friendly and very time demanding.

There is a lot of public cynicism for obvious reasons, and often deserved, around politics and in the age of social media many politicians come in for harsh criticism and sometimes personal abuse. 

It’s not for everyone but if you choose it you need to fully commit to it and it can be very rewarding from a job satisfaction point of view.

Politics badly needs many more young men and women involved but it’s difficult to see what would attract them.

Aidan Mullins chatting to Fianna Fail TD Sean Fleming at the 2019 Local Election count.

Would you like to be a General Election candidate at some stage down the line? Or would you have liked to have been previously?

I have absolutely no interest in contesting a General Election or in being a TD.

It was never in my plans during my working life and I would never have harbored any thoughts of becoming a politician at any stage.

It was only by chance that I ended up as a candidate in the Local Elections in 2009 and wasn’t something I actively aspired to do.

Having said that I’m delighted to be a public representative and I’m honored that people put their faith in me to represent them.

Who do you consider as the greatest Laois person of all time?

There have been many notable Laois people in many spheres and walks of life. The one who stands out for me has to be James Fintan Lalor.

What four people – dead or alive – would you invite to a dinner party?

Billy Connolly. Frances Black. Keith Richards. George Best. Imagine the stories and entertainment at that table.

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Steven Miller is owner and managing editor of LaoisToday.ie. From Laois, Steven studied Journalism in DCU and has 14 years experience in the media, almost 10 of those in an editorial role. Husband of Emily, father of William and Lillian, he's happiest when he's telling stories or kicking a point.