At the beginning of March, one of the most high profile casualties of the February general election, Regina Doherty, started a three-month micro-credential course in financial technology at DCU. 

Fresh from the bruising experience of losing her seat to Sinn Féin in the three seater constituency of Meath East (coming in behind her Fine Gael rival Helen McEntee), the outgoing TD and Minister for Employment Affairs & Social Protection did what anyone out of a job is advised to do: she began retraining for a life outside of politics. 

The new direction didn’t last long. Within a week of the course beginning, Doherty had deregistered from DCU and was firmly back at the cabinet table in her old role, planning for the Covid-19 pandemic. 

As Social Protection Minister in the Fine Gael led caretaker government, she has overseen a suite of emergency, short-term measures aimed at alleviating the worst economic effects of the crisis including the weekly pandemic unemployment payment (PUP) of €350 and the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme (TWSS) to help keep struggling businesses afloat.

At the peak of the Covid crisis in May, 600,000 people were dependent on the pandemic payment. Those numbers have decreased to 515,000 as the lockdown measures have eased. 

But the employment forecast remains bleak. While Doherty reckons around 300,000 of the people reliant on PUP will return to full-time roles in the coming months, many others won’t. “We’re going to have a very large live register in September, October, November, December,” she warns.

Now with government formation talks between Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party inching towards the finish line, Doherty’s ministerial comeback is drawing to a close.

So what now as she exits frontline politics?

Doherty sat down with The Currency in her office at government buildings last Thursday afternoon to talk about Covid-19 business supports, tackling mass unemployment, and her own future – including why she would be the right fit to replace Tom Curran as Secretary General of Fine Gael.


Returning to the frontline

Regina Doherty: “But even now you can start to see people are getting a little bit frustrated they want to get their lives back.”

Francesca Comyn (FC): I’m curious, first off, how does it feel to lose your seat and be a minister?

Regina Doherty (RD): For the two weeks I had the indulgence of feeling that way, it felt not nice. It was kind of a weird couple weeks to be honest with you. The message wasn’t subtle, it was loud and clear. 

At that stage I had decided, do you know what, that’s fine. I’m 49 this year. It’s time to go off and do something else. And it was okay. It hurts but it wasn’t devastating. It was grand. And then two weeks, 10 days after the election, we started planning for a pandemic illness here. And then everything just went mad. So the acceptance that I had come to very easily, completed unravelled.

I was born into a Fine Gael family. I was dragged to Ard Fheises, that’s the kind of household I come from

FC: It looks like we’re on the verge of a new government being formed, but nothing is certain. Would you stand for election again if it comes to it?

RD: So it depends on when the next election will be. It depends on my chances of winning. I don’t want to stand again and lose again. That’s doubly difficult to get over.

FC: Do you think, for example, if there were to be an election in the next four months. Do you think you’d have a chance of winning?

RD: Again, I’d like to say yes to you but I don’t know. It very much depends on how things pan out for the next couple of months. There are some difficult decisions to be made. I think, in the main, Irish people have been incredibly supportive over the last couple of months. You couldn’t be guaranteed that that will stay the same.  

FC: Why do you say that?

RD: I think in fairness, everybody was shell shocked by the speed at which this happened, and the speed at which the country closed down. And the fact that we did, I think very effective income support measures helped with social cohesion. It helped with people’s acceptance because they didn’t have to worry about bills and stuff like that. I think that if we had the UK model I think we might be in a very different situation with regards to people adhering to the public health guidelines, but in the main people have.

But even now you can start to see people are getting a little bit frustrated they want to get their lives back. It’s been three months. So roll on three months more, if we were still in semi lockdown, if people were still expected to live in that suspended space of €350 a month. People’s tolerance levels have been…

FC: And you think that would be reflected in an anti-Fine Gael vote?

RD: Well I think actually it would be a plague on all of our houses because to be fair, over the last maybe six to eight weeks we have genuinely tried, I think, fairly hard, to get a government together. There are obviously some issues that are still unresolved, and I hope we will get them resolved this weekend, but I don’t think anybody could accuse us of it not being for the want of trying.

FC: If there’s no election soon, then what you seem to be saying is that that’s probably you out the door. What are your plans, then in that scenario?

RD: What I had decided in that two week period after the election, and I’m really not a person to sit around and wait, I had already signed up to do a micro-credential course in DCU and I’d actually started it. It was in Fintech innovation, and I was starting on the second of March. I started that week and then by the end of that week I had to unregister myself and postpone it to the end of the year, because it couldn’t have given this job the hours that we were giving and do a course in DCU.

But I was going to move on. There’s an enormous amount of expansion in our Fintech industries in Ireland, particularly as a lot of them are resident here and have European headquarters here. That to me was something I’d never done before. 

Before I came into public life, I was in the IT industry. That’s not quite the same as it was then. But fintech is new, it is innovative.

Staying within the fold

“I’m not sure anybody else can offer that kind of experience, but as I said there are some really super people I know of”

FC: I see you’ve been mentioned as a possible replacement for Tom Curran as general secretary of Fine Gael. Has anyone approached you?

RD: That opportunity is there. The recruiting process is ongoing at the moment. So I’m keeping my options open.

FC: You’ve been asked?

RD: When I say I’ve been asked, people have come and expressed a desire for me to stay involved in Fine Gael. I was born into a Fine Gael family. I was dragged to Ard Fheises, that’s the kind of household I come from. So it isn’t just a job to me, it has been a very large part of our family for all of my life. And so if I can stay involved in a more active role within the future direction of Fine Gael, I think it would be very attractive. If I can’t be in public life, I would like to play an active role in Fine Gael’s future.

A recruitment firm hired to find Curran’s replacement is currently managing inquiries of interest before the interview process begins. Doherty expects lots of people to be interested in the role, some of whom would have more managerial experience than her. But she is happy to set out her own credentials against the competition.

RD: I just know I’m uniquely placed in an organisation where I have been an ordinary member, a member of our constituency executive, a member of my local county council I’ve been a TD a backbencher, a Minister of State, I’ve been a minister. I’ve been on our National Executive I’m not sure anybody else can offer that kind of experience, but as I said there are some really super people I know of [that are interested in the position].

If there is not a place for Doherty inside Fine Gael, she seems destined to return to the world of business, although she dismisses the idea of starting up a new venture herself. Her IT firm Enhanced Solutions Ltd went bust in 2013 with six figure debts.

FC: Were you shocked to lose your seat or did you see it coming?

RD: Probably within the last year, things started to turn a little bit locally for us, but it is interesting that we [Fine Gael] still managed to pull 29 per cent in my constituency.

In the 2016 election, the party pulled in a 35 per cent share of the vote in Meath East with Doherty taking the third and final seat, alongside junior minister Helen McEntee and Fíanna Fáil’s Thomas Byrne. This time around, the Sinn Féin surge saw its candidate Darren O’Rourke top the poll, leaving no room for Doherty who came in fourth.

The dying days of the campaign saw something of a constituency turf war between the election teams of ministers McEntee and Doherty over canvassing outside of agreed boundary divisions. 

FC: The Fine Gael vote was badly managed though wasn’t It?

RD: That would be a very nice way of putting it.

FC: It was definitely put out there that there were daggers between the two Fine Gael candidates.

RD: Again it was a nice way of putting it: it could have been better managed.

Troubled times

The conversation turns towards the government’s handling of the pandemic and whether there are plans to bring in longer term support for vulnerable industries.

In retail, for example, Doherty says cities in China, Korea, Japan, are experiencing a 70 per cent reduction in footfall, year on year. “If that’s reflected in the workforce in Ireland well then we’re going to be in trouble in the retail sector. We have an accommodation sector that’s in trouble. We will have a transport sector that’s in trouble, along with our international travel and our travel agencies. Although I heard in the last week that people are booking holidays and flights in their droves for July and August, so maybe it won’t be as badly affected,” she says.

FC: The supports in place, like the PUP, are due to expire at the end of August. Are you considering specific supports for certain sectors that might continue to be badly affected after that?

RD: I think it is a difficult position we are in at the moment. If we were in a different political lifecycle you’d be able to make decisions now knowing what to expect to transpire in July or the beginning of August. Because we’re on the cusp of a new government, we’ve tried to be incredibly cautious and lay the groundwork for activities and decisions to be made, but to allow the new ministers, make those decisions instead of us.

FC: But has sector specific support been considered?

RD: The income support is the easy bit from a social protection perspective because we’ve always given income replacements for people be it periodically or temporarily and so that structure is there. Getting tens of thousands of people onto our normal system will take time but that’s what we do.

And then we do the activation. We had a reinvention of ourselves, around the time of the last recession in 2010 and 2011. We entirely changed how we activate, motivate, and retrain people and our Intreo (employment service) offering was born.  We’re there, it’s established, we do it well. It just would be turned on again. But the point is is that we will be turning over to a different reality and so the normal safety valves that you have during the recession of people being able to leave and go to different countries are not going to be available at this time because everybody’s experienced the same difficulties reopening.

If we can identify very quickly our new emerging markets, those people that are not going to be working in hospitality or in entertainment need to be retrained

Regina Doherty

The new world of work is different and so you take a business that used to have 1,000 employees at a Dublin 1 or Dublin 2 office. That can’t happen anymore and so we can expect to retrain people for a different work environment.

FC: Say I’m working full time in entertainment and it’s the last industry to be opened back up. Do you want those jobs to be propped up, or does it come to a point where you let them go?

RD: It’s interesting so we’ve done all this modeling preparation for Brexit. I know it’s not the same but it is the same. So you look at businesses that are vulnerable, but absolutely viable, and you’ll support those businesses. But businesses that are vulnerable and not viable, then is it the right thing to do to support a business that you know is not going to be able to survive in the new economy, and in the new way we organise ourselves?

FC: Is the new economy what we will have for the next few months or does it assume that in a year’s time we can go to the theatre or the cinema as before?

RD: I think it depends on two things in very short to medium term and then in the longer medium term. It depends on whether we are at one metre or two metre from a social distancing perspective in a working environment, because one metre for two metres is an absolute game changer for an awful lot of our businesses.

It also depends on how fast we’re going to get a virus vaccine. So, there are businesses that require close contact, that maybe can’t employ the standard PPE (personal protective equipment) that we’re talking about for our hairdressers, or our beauty salons, or even some of our healthcare delivery services. And if you can’t employ PPE then that close contact can’t be maintained without putting somebody’s health at risk. And so would you continue to support that in the medium term if that medium term was one, two, three years? I’m not sure whether that would be considered viable. Like for argument’s sake, if we were waiting to get from two metres to one metre, then I think absolutely you would support businesses until they get to one metre until they become viable themselves again. Absolutely.

FC: What do you mean when you say ‘when’ we get from two meters to one meter?

RD: I believe, based on the trajectory of our numbers, we can follow the Korean, the Japanese even the German models. If we can manage to maintain a level of suppression of the virus and number two, the conditions from our health service that can support even a slight increase, well then maybe you can take the risk of going from two metres to one metre because your health service will be able to cope. But if they can’t, then you’re not going to actively promote and tell people to put themselves at a one metre distance which only gives you 60 per cent cover of being beside somebody that potentially has the virus whereas two metres gives you a 95 per cent cover. 

One industry at a time

FC: What do you reckon will be the extra requirement in your department’s budget for 2021 to cover the effects of Covid?

RD: I think if we look at the significant investment already, it’s probably going to be needed for another year, in an awful lot of sectors, and there are specific sectors that will need plans individually tailored to their own sectors. I’m thinking about aviation, I’m thinking about transport in Ireland, and even domestic public transport in Ireland. It’s going to be a significant investment for us to maintain people’s ability to be able to go to work or to just even transport themselves around.

FC: You mean in terms of your department specifically?

RD: You see so what we do in our department is, we look after people’s income replacement. Where I think the emphasis should be is making that income replacement as short in duration as possible and by that means you would completely support industry specific programs. And so, if we take retail for a second. If the high street is going to look very different in a couple of months time than we would historically have known, well then maybe we need to move people to online shopping and support all of the businesses so they can move out of the high street.

FC: It’s not going to be pretty though, is it?

I’m not a TD anymore but my inbox is still full every single day from constituents asking me for help. There are some stories out there where landlords are demanding a repayment. If you haven’t got it you can’t get blood from a stone

Regina Doherty

RD: No, it’s definitely not. Of the 515,000 people that are on PUP today, I would expect at least 300,000 or more of them to go back to work over the coming months, but there’s a significant cohort that won’t be going back to the full time roles that they had on March, the 13th. So they need to be supported from an income replacement perspective through the social welfare system but they also need to be moved and retrained absolutely as fast as we can into whatever new jobs will be created by the green economy, which you can see is going to form a very large part of the programme for government.

If we can identify very quickly our new emerging markets, those people that are not going to be working in hospitality or in entertainment need to be retrained. We have a whole new raft of need for elder care, for childcare in different settings. If we can identify easy wins that we can ask people if they would like to retrain in those [sectors].

FC: On the estimate you’ve given that’s about 200,000 people who are receiving a PUP payment that would be better off than on your average unemployment benefit?

RD: Well, not necessarily so. So I know when people think about the supports that are available from my department they automatically go back to the €203 number which is our base rate. Where the €350 number came from was that what is available from our Department for an adult with an adult dependent is €347. So the €203, plus a qualified adult, brings you up to €347. Not everybody is a single individual adult with nobody else to look after exccept themselves. Most people will qualify for qualified adult dependent, qualified children dependents. 

When I look at the notifications for redundancies over the last couple of months, it’s significantly higher than it should be for this time of the year. And I expect that to grow significantly

Regina Doherty

FC: When you say ‘most’ what roughly do you mean?

RD: Absolutely more than half. So when you look at our numbers, if you look at the people that are on the PUP.  Some hundred thousand of them are under 25. You would expect, but it’s not a hard and fast rule, the majority of those probably don’t have other halves or children. Obviously some of them will.

FC: It’s still a substantial number that will see their payments go down at the end of August, assuming PUP is not extended.

RD: No because they’d see their base income drop to €203 but then they would get access to rent supplement, to housing supports, to transport supports to supplementary welfare allowances, medical cards, all of the other supports we do that never get told about. 


The emergency rent freeze and the temporary ban on tenant evictions that were introduced by the caretaker government in late March are due to expire at the end of the month, but may well be extended as the country is still far from the end of the crisis. Doherty believes the new government will be kind in their choices. 

She says she has noticed a spike in rent supplement requests with about 6,000 new applications. As of last Thursday morning, 1,700 applications had to be processed.

“There are some stories. Like I’m not a TD anymore but my inbox is still full every single day from constituents asking me for help. There are some stories out there where landlords are demanding a repayment. If you haven’t got it you can’t get blood from a stone.  So I think everybody needs to recognise that we are all in this together and we all need to move forward,” she says.

Modelling the impact by sector

“I came from a very deprived area that forty something years later is still deprived.”

FC: What is your modelling of the anticipated supplementary estimates required for Employment and Social Protection for this year?

RD: So again, we’ve looked by sector. And we have done modeling on how much of each sector we expect to go back to work by September. And so, we probably expect some 300,000 plus people to come off the wage subsidy scheme [There are currently 520,000 on the wage subsidy scheme]. When I look at the notifications for redundancies over the last couple of months, it’s significantly higher than it should be for this time of the year. And I expect that to grow significantly. 

I’m somebody who actually cares. Like, I asked for this department.

Regina Doherty

We also expect people who are on the wage subsidy scheme that those businesses potentially may not be able to support them in the longer term. We’re going to have a very large live register in September, October, November, December. So I do expect another supplementary estimate for our department for whoever is in this role. And a very different department budget for next year. We saw the highest ever increase in budget allocation for this year before we got this supplementary. We were at just under €22 billion. I would expect that to be significantly higher next year just to stand still.

FC: Roughly?

RD: Four billion more.

Doherty stresses that the top priority is of course getting people off the live register. She references the need to access the trillion euro EU recovery fund Sure to facilitate retraining.

“What we would have done historically in Ireland is look in the short term at getting people on quick courses to get you off the live register. I think substantially we need to look at longer courses and at entirely retraining people for new industries that might not emerge for a year or two years. But to give them a substantial qualification, a degree or diploma.”

No regrets

As the interview winds down, the conversation turns to some of the pressing non-Covid issues facing the country including the housing crisis, health, and pensions. I ask the Minister how much it would cost to abandon the decision to raise the pension age from 66 to 67 next January, and to cover a transition payment for workers forced to retire before qualifying for the State pension. Her answer is €2 billion for the next five years.

On the crucial issue of housing, a huge chink in Fine Gael’s armour at the last election, Doherty accepts mistakes were made. Housing hit the middle classes and the last government paid dearly for it as Sinn Féin reaped the rewards. “I think a lot of people that would normally vote Fine Gael or Fíanna Fáil, their own children couldn’t afford to buy a house. I don’t think we did enough in telling people of the supports that were there or there certainly wasn’t enough support. It was a real issue.”

I ask the Minister if she has any regrets looking back at her political career. There is no false modesty. She says she doesn’t and instead lists a string of achievements from parental leave payments to the hot meals schools programme. She says her father, a former shop steward, gets a particular kick out of the fact that ICTU’s Patricia King praised a statute championed by her Department in the Fine Gael led government as the employment rights legislation of a generation. 

FC: Who should do your job now that you’re leaving it?

RD: Jeez, I haven’t even thought of that. Okay. I’m somebody who actually cares. Like, I asked for this department. It isn’t something that was just offered to me. I asked for it because number one I think the flavour of my life is where I started, where I was born. I came from a very deprived area that forty something years later is still deprived.

I grew up in Ballymun. My father was a shop steward and a driver in the ESB all his life. He’s retired now. My mam worked in a canteen in a school, she ran it in an entrepreneurial way. We were a normal family, we had normal issues. We left Ballymun when I was thirteen. My mam and dad bought a house in private estate in Glasnevin, which is where they grew up, but they couldn’t probably afford to do it for their first house. So I think somebody needs to care, and it’s got to be somebody who doesn’t have that stereotypical view of people on the live register that I absolutely abhor. People on the live register want to work. 

This thing that surfaces every now and again, that people are living a lifestyle on Jobseeker’s. Nobody wants to be on Jobseeker’s Allowance. And if people can’t find work, there are the usual societal issues or they have personal issues that they have that need to be overcome. There are about 80,000 people on the live register for longer than five years. With everything that’s happened in Ireland over the last few years, Covid withstanding, if those people couldn’t get retrained, or get a job in this environment, well then there are other issues at play that maybe other departments need to kick in and help with.


Looking for positives in the midst of a crisis, Doherty says she still sees so much by way of opportunity in Ireland and by way of wealth, which she says can be redistributed.

Some might say that message was the key to Sinn Féin’s success. But Doherty argues the Sinn Féin electoral surge was more to do with voters expressing their frustration.

For her, politics boils down to honesty. There are priorities and choices to be made whether it is about the state pension or the delivery of health services under Slaintecare – but voters have to know not everything is free. Sometimes the price tag will be billions.