Sunday August 9, 2020

Pat Cox interview: 'I have no reverse gear'

In a long and storied career, Pat Cox has worn many hats, from RTÉ presenter to leading light of the Progressive Democrats to president of the European Parliament. And after more than four decades in public life, he shows no signs of slowing down

Daniel Murray

Business Reporter

24th November, 2019
Pat Cox‘s richly textured career has kept him in a state of near-permanent flux

Pat Cox is something of a chameleon. His richly textured career has kept him in a state of near-permanent flux. From lecturing in economics to presenting a current affairs programme on RTÉ to a long and exceptional stint in politics, each role seems to have propelled him relentlessly on to the next, and he has rarely stopped to look back.

Cox, who turns 67 this coming Thursday, now finds himself spinning several plates, flitting between public policy roles and private business interests. His political outlook remains unapologetically pro-Europe, while his professional focus has shifted firmly onto sustainability and the green economy.

He is now a member of Sustainable Nation Ireland, a promotional body for responsible investing supported by both the public and private sector. He also holds directorships on the boards of various "green" companies, working on multiple fronts to accelerate the clean energy transition.

Cox’s roles have taken him to extraordinary places. As one of the first members of the Progressive Democrats, he was part of the team that tussled with a reluctant Charles Haughey to form the first ever coalition with Fianna Fáil. Later, as leader of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party, he became the first Irish person to lead a political group in the European Parliament. Upon being elected president of the European Parliament, Cox also became an instrumental figure in the accession of ten countries to the European Union in the unprecedented 2004 expansion.

In more recent years, his sustainability work with Michelin, the tyre company, has involved the curation of transport programmes at the United Nations climate conferences, while his continued work for the European Union has made him responsible for a major transport corridor project, crossing the entire length of the European continent from north to south.

One of the forces driving Cox’s seemingly insatiable ambition is both tragic and deeply personal. The death of his six-year-old daughter Mary in a car accident in 1988 left deep and enduring scars, which have imbued his work (whether in electoral politics, public policy or private industry) with what he describes as a duty to lead a meaningful life in the knowledge of its fragility and brevity.

'Things just happened'

Born in Dublin but raised in Limerick, Cox was educated at St Munchin's and Ardscoil Rís. He had an unqualified positive experience in both schools, crediting them with developing his confidence and his public speaking skills.

Cox took those skills and went on to become a lecturer in economics in what has now become the University of Limerick. It was there that his career began to take a very public turn. He ran unsuccessfully as a Fianna Fáil candidate in the local elections before an unexpected opportunity came his way.

“A lot of my life has been serendipity,” Cox muses as he sits down with the Business Post. “Things just happened, they weren’t planned.

“In the case of RTÉ, there was simply an ad in the paper. I was sat one day in the canteen with another lecturer and he said, jokingly: ‘Did you see that ad in the paper, it looks like it's written for you.’ So I looked at the ad that evening and I thought, that’s interesting, why don’t I apply?”

Cox’s casual application became a successful interview, and he suddenly found himself in Dublin presenting Today Tonight on RTÉ One. The current affairs show, under the stewardship of Joe Mulholland, made the careers of several of Ireland’s most notable broadcasters, such as Olivia O’Leary, Pat Kenny, John Bowman and Brian Farrell.

“I was hired because of my background in economics, but as is the nature of things, the programme was very political,” Cox says. “Another sign of the times was that you would often arrive into work in the morning, and by late morning you were somewhere in the North, unhappily covering the fallout, the tragedy and the politics of the latest atrocity.”

When I ask him about his relationship with Gay Byrne, Cox responds that due to the siloed nature of RTÉ’s departments, he never really knew Byrne beyond a nodding acquaintance. However, he adds that the first question anybody would ask during his time in RTÉ was: "What is Gay Byrne like?" How times change.

“I think that’s a measure of the ubiquity of Gay Byrne,” Cox laughs. “He was in some respects totemic, in terms of the image of RTÉ. A colossus in terms of the range of activities he covered as a presenter. He had an entertainment logic, but that entertainment value belied the fact that the repertoire, range and instincts of the man were incredible.

“He opened us up to ourselves. The claustrophobic qualities of weighty, conservative orthodoxy were lifted from our shoulder bit by bit.”


After just a few short years, Cox finished up with RTÉ to join the freshly formed Progressive Democrats. The party was born out of the the personal and political animosity between Des O’Malley and Charles Haughey. O’Malley left Fianna Fáil in 1985 and formed the PDs, but Cox didn’t experience the events as anything akin to a split.

“I was in Limerick city, and the main man for Fianna Fáil in Limerick would have been Des O’Malley. So, considering the people with whom I was close in Limerick, there was almost more a continuity than a split.”

But as Cox worked to get the PDs' policies in place and help the party though a successful election, his life suddenly came to a catastrophic halt.

“On June 7, 1988, one of my beautiful little children was killed in a traffic accident while going to school,” he says. “That really knocked the stuffing out of me for a stretch. I am happy that I am not a person given to depression, but I found that period deeply difficult.

“I took one thing from it. Realising that this was a child with all her life ahead of her, and how life is really just hanging on a thread, I said to myself: 'Make something of every day. Get up and be happy that you are alive that day, and that you are fit to get on and do something.' That element has been a key life force for me, and has given me some meaning, such as is available, to the death of such a young child.”

“Her name was Mary, and we still have, hanging on the wall at home, a little drawing that we found in her schoolbag, after she was buried. It means an awful lot to us.”

Off the table

To recover from such a devastating tragedy, Cox threw himself into his work. In the summer of 1989, a general election was called by Haughey at the same time as the European elections. Despite the PDs losing more than half their seats in Dáil Éireann, Cox topped the European poll in Munster, and again found himself thrust into the centre of the colosseum.

“You had the extraordinary outcome in the election that was called by Charles Haughey, that instead of Fianna Fáil winning a majority, they fell short. Haughey ended up being exactly the number of seats short that the Progressive Democrats had won. There was a long debate about whether we should or shouldn’t engage in any conversations with Haughey,” he says.

That long debate had a short conclusion. They would engage. A team was promptly assembled to conduct the necessary conversations.

“Essentially, that team was the late Bobby Molloy and myself, reporting to and when necessary involving Des O’Malley. The counterpart was Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern, reporting and when necessary involving the acting taoiseach Charles Haughey.”

Talks had no sooner started in the Mansion House when they broke down. As far as Fianna Fáil was concerned, coalition was off the table. For the Soldiers of Destiny, the right to rule by majority or minority was, by this stage, taken for granted. Haughey was categorical: Fianna Fáil would rule alone, or not at all.

“Our answer was that our policy was to implement our policies,” Cox smiles. “Which required being in government.”

When talks broke down that Saturday morning, O’Malley wasn’t happy, but Cox wasn’t given much time to indulge his leader’s ire. “Charlie Bird [of RTÉ] came on the phone, saying the taoiseach was going to hold a press conference in Government Buildings at 12pm, and that he knew the talks had broken down, and what did we have to say?”

“I decided, without consultation, because these are games that have to be played in real time, to tell Bird I had been just about to call him to say we were having a press conference in Buswells at 11am.”

With this stroke, Cox and the PDs gained an important political advantage by getting their message out first. The tone was set for the Sunday papers and broadcast debates over the weekend: Fianna Fáil was insisting on the rights of a majority, when the people of Ireland hadn’t given the party that mandate. The aroma of arrogance was allowed to stew throughout the weekend, until it reached boiling point on Monday.

“On the Monday evening, Haughey called us to a private meeting in the Berkeley Court Hotel, using a private entrance and taking a lift up to some top floor to a penthouse suite. We sat around a large dining table, and we had this slightly spangulated process about what word you would use for coalition that wasn’t coalition.”

The re-engineering of such trivial semantics proved unnecessary in the end. After several more weeks of stop-start negotiations, the first Fianna Fáil coalition was born, and the PDs began what turned into an episodic but surprisingly tenacious and influential run over four different governments.

Allure of government

The allure of the PDs being in government back home clearly presented an irresistible platform for Cox, who returned to Ireland and won a Dáil seat in 1992, just in time for the PDs to go back into opposition. When O’Malley stood down as party leader the following year, Cox threw his hat into the ring, but was edged out by Mary Harney.

Unperturbed, Cox decided to run for Europe again, but when the PDs selected O’Malley over him to contest the European seat in Munster, he cut loose from the party and beat O'Malley to win the seat as an independent. He would hold on to that seat for 15 years and, during that time, would reach the highest rungs of power available to him.

In Europe, Cox was elected leader of the liberal/centrist grouping of parties, becoming the first Irish person to do so. In 2002, he succeeded Nicole Fontaine as president of the European Parliament, and upon assuming office, set out three goals for his presidency. He pledged to facilitate the enlargement of the EU, to raise the public profile of the parliament, and to reform the controversial system of excessive MEP expenses. He succeeded in the first two.

Cox said his experience in the parliament was defined by the diversity of the members' backgrounds, along with their uncanny ability to find common ground in difficult circumstances. That ability was epitomised by his ELDR colleague and Auschwitz survivor Simone Veil.

“She carried on her left arm her Auschwitz tattoo number," Cox says. "She did so with quiet dignity, and it was not something that she spoke about. However, also sat in my group was a German man, who had fought in the army in World War II; not SS, but somebody who was conscripted and fought in the east and was wounded.”

“The thing that inspired me when I saw this was the extraordinary everyday quality of how these two people, and others, worked together in a context where, at a purely human level, they could have so many reasons to dislike or even hate each other. I think the reconciling power of Europe spoke to me through people like that.”

Dizzying projects

Cox stood down from the parliament in 2004 and was awarded Europe’s most prestigious honour: the Charlemagne prize. Since then, he has periodically flirted with electoral politics, but never made the decisive move back to it.

Instead, he is spread thin across a dizzying number of projects that straddle public policy and private business. An analysis of his Irish-held directorships shows him appearing on over ten boards, with notable bodies like the Institute of International and European Affairs, the Ireland China Institute, Appian Asset Management, and Alliance Française peppering his CV. His other activities range from chairing major European transport infrastructure projects, to working with multinational Michelin and the UN on sustainable transport; to leading European missions to Kiev on parliamentary reform.

Pressed on whether any of his activities constitute lobbying, Cox is adamant in his reply.

“Let me be clear, I don’t do lobbying," he says. "I don’t consider it politics because I have no mandate. A good deal of it is public policy. Where it is public policy, it is public policy in action, rather than public policy in theory.”

His actions on public policy have taken a distinctive shift towards issues of sustainability and climate. Cox now sees this as the central and defining public policy issue of the 21st century, but admits he didn’t always think that.

“I think for a lot of people, and I can put my hands up here as well, it was like a background noise that you were aware of, but you were just kind of getting on with business as usual," he says. "That sense was there. Yet more and more, as I focused on this, the more I thought this was something I needed to spend time on. That’s what got me involved with Sustainable Nation Ireland.”

Cox’s work with Sustainable Nation Ireland has involved trying to motivate capital markets to embed sustainability in their investment practices. He explains how big developments in this area are happening at an EU legislative level, but that they are likely to develop even more quickly in the coming years.

“It is currently contemplated in its initial phase as something that will be voluntary rather than mandatory, but I think in the fullness of time, though I can’t put a time on that, that these things will become mandatory if they are not voluntarily taken up relatively quickly.”

On Irish politics now, Cox says the financial and banking crisis led to political fragmentation across Europe, and that Ireland was no different.

“We have a hyper minority government. It‘s not just a few votes short of a majority. At its peak, give or take, we had about 58 deputies between Fine Gael and the independents, in a Dáil of 158. The fact that we have had continuity in government in such a context is, in fact, a remarkably positive feature.”

Cox compliments both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael for providing, what he says, is stability and putting the country first during the very difficult and strategically important Brexit negotiations, a compliment he does not extend to their British counterparts.

“Unhappily, that stands in stark contrast to what has really caused, in political terms, the fundamental problems in the United Kingdom. That is the tendency of key actors, from the very beginning of this process, even in deciding to have a referendum, to put issues of party in a more preferential position to issues of state,” he says. “The great illusion is the presumption that this will be put to bed once and for all if Boris Johnson gets his majority.

“The one thing you can predict with certainty is that the outcome, in terms of access for British goods and services to the EU single market, will be commensurate with the degree of alignment of British rules to EU rules. The more misalignment, the less access.”

Cox has never been slow to give his pro-European views substantial airtime, but when I ask him whether further integration and moving towards a federalist model is inevitable, he is more cautious-.

“I think, after all these decades, we have to move beyond the binary idea of a federal Europe or no Europe," he says. "We are living in a state of negotiated, treaty-based, permanent in-between-ness. We are not a federation, nor are we merely just a loose intergovernmental connection.”

Cox is quiet on whether he would consider another run for the Irish presidency, or any other office, but ahead of his 67th birthday this week, he shows no signs of slowing down.

“I would say I have no reverse gear," he says. "I like moving on to things. I don’t like going back to things. Everything I have done, I have loved doing. And when I finished those, it seems to me there is no point in looking back with excessive nostalgia or sitting and crying into your beer. You just get on with life."

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