HOW LUCINDA CREIGHTON FOUND PERSONAL AND POLITICAL CONTENTMENT
Lucinda Creighton is a woman on the brink of big things. One, the prospective birth of her baby in March, scares the living daylights out of her, she admits. The other, she seems more sanguine about. We meet ahead of what's been called the Reform Alliance's ‘monster meeting’ in Dublin's RDS, which will have taken place by the time this interview is published.
The day we meet, she tells me that 300 of the 500 available places at it have been signed up for, and she recognises only a handful of the names on the list. “I hope it's not hijacked,” she half-jokes.
It has been quite a year for Lucinda Creighton, who celebrated her 34th birthday last week, but not a bad one.
When asked if the storm around her rejection of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, and her subsequent ejection from Fine Gael, left her rattled, Lucinda gives an emphatic “No.” She is either tougher than that, or smart enough to know that she should seem tougher than that.
“In a funny way,” she says, “I feel personally and politically content in a way that I couldn't have anticipated last July [when she was expelled from Fine Gael]. It wasn't a highlight of the year, by any means, but I have no regrets.
“There were certain frustrations that I felt in the party since I was elected in 2007, which manifested in various ways,” she says with a dr y laugh at this slight understatement. “I had problems with the lack of any real debate, the lack of consultation on policy, the top-down approach.
“It's not just something that I think is right or acceptable in politics. And I feel, now, that I've escaped that frustration. So there's a certain sense of release and relief.”
Lucinda Creighton has never been one to pull her punches, and was given to speaking her mind and plainly setting out her position long before she set out her intention to vote against the whip last year.
Soon after she was elected in 2007 — becoming, then, the youngest member of the Dail, and the only one born in the Eighties — she criticised the “cute hoor politics” of her party and took no prisoners in the EU, either.
She is straight talking, articulate and clear thinking in conversation, as only a trained barrister can be, but she has an interesting way of setting out her stall calmly and coolly, and then, almost casually, dropping devastating little bombs. And she has little good to say about the party she has left behind and, she says, to which she can't see herself returning. Or “not before the next general election” anyway.
Though she has said that the Reform Alliance meeting in the RDS was not about recruitment or announcing a new party, Lucinda is uncharacteristically vague.
She reckons there will be at least one new party before the next general election, but maybe not.
“There's a lot of chatter,” she says, “but there was a lot of chatter the last time, too: the David McWilliams aborted effort, and so on, that didn't happen because people got cold feet. That could happen again, but there is certainly a mood for something new, and whether that's a political party, or something along the lines of what we're doing, I don't know.” So what are the Reform Alliance doing? “It's an alliance,” Lucinda answers. “That's all it is. We have no resources, no structures you'd associate with a political party. We decided to work together to highlight issues in the Dail, to sponsor private members' bills, to put down amendments, and I think we've done it relatively well.
“And we also want to reach out to the huge swathe of the population who are utterly disconnected from politics, and that's what the meeting is about.
“It's the opposite of an ard fheis, really,” she says of the RDS, “because the political advisors, the mandarins, whatever you want to call them, they write and stage-manage ard fheiseanna to within an inch of their lives. I've been on three or four steering committees for Fine Gael Ard Fheiseanna, and it's the most frustrating experience, because you've got great plans and intentions to involve members, but, when it comes down to it, there's a TV schedule, and an image to portray, and a certain quota of people to fill: races, females, tick the boxes.”
In holding a new-style, new-ideas meeting, there could seem to be a desire, on the part of the eight-strong Reform Alliance, to be seen as more than just an anti-abortion movement.
Though, while Lucinda accepts that abortion has always been the issue about which she’s most frequently quizzed on constituents' doorsteps, she also says that she'd be “amazed” if she's associated solely with that issue. “I was Minister for European Affairs for two years,” she says. “I'd be amazed if I'm not more associated with that.” This may or may not be correct, but there's no denying, surely, that more people know Lucinda Creighton — or, as she might posit, they think they know her and her opinions — since the events of last summer. So, perhaps, opening herself and the Alliance up to the public gives her the opportunity to set things straight and present herself afresh.
“But I accept,” she adds, “that we are all people who were kicked out of Fine Gael on the basis of not voting for the abortion legislation — well, apart from Denis [Naughten]. He was expelled on foot of the Roscommon Hospital issue — but is that the only thing that unites us? Of course not.
“What unites us is that we were all people who were prepared to step outside of our comfort zone, which most people in politics were not prepared to do. We were prepared to say, ‘This is something that we were explicit about before the last election.' The party was, we, as individuals were, and, most particularly, our party leader was.
“Yes, government is about a degree of compromise, and the programme for government is about a degree of compromise, but, on an issue of that sort, on which people do disagree, on an issue that is a matter of life and death, it's an entirely different concept.
“If you change the abortion law, there will be abortions, and they can never be undone. It's not like a change to the tax code, that can be changed back the next year. And some people say that's a right-wing view — I mean, I've heard it all, especially on social media and whatever — but there's a huge cohort of people in our parliamentary party who said they'd never vote for it and went in and did vote for it.”
There are several occasions in the course of our conversation that Lucinda Creighton becomes visibly angry. When discussing the Government's handling of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, before, and since, it was passed; when discussing how her position regarding the Bill, and regarding abortion, has been manipulated and misrepresented; when discussing how she believes the death of Savita Halappanavar was hijacked, and when discussing former colleagues that she believes to have been hypocrites last summer.
She says that she broke bread with many former party colleagues, who told her they believed that there should be no legislation on the X case — and then went and voted with the Government. Did they act for the party's sake, perhaps?
“Yeah,” says Lucinda. “Or because it was the right thing for them and their political careers. And there's something really disheartening about that as a politician. Because, if you don't have some basic principals that you're prepared to take a hit for, then what's the point?
“I've a lot more regard for the people in Fine Gael who don't share my view on abortion,” she adds, “but who've never pretended otherwise.”
What the manner in which the Bill was presented and passed meant, Lucinda believes, is that an opportunity for a proper debate on the subject of abortion was missed. There was no chance to explore what, for a lot of people, is a nuanced issue, a grey area somewhere in between the polar opposite positions into which the debate tends to degenerate.
Lucinda's own admission that her position had altered since her youth was interesting, and probably spoke for the experience of many people, but it was swept away in the heat of the campaign. And the proof of how the lack of debate was a real shame is to be seen in how the Act is now being put into effect, she suggests.
“The legislation would have passed anyway,” Lucinda points out. “There was enough of a majority between Labour and certain parts of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, Sinn Fein, United Left Alliance, Technical Group, et cetera. It would have been carried. There would have been a higher rate of attrition, if you like, if people had been allowed to exercise their own view on it, but that would have been fairer, I think.
“Fine Gael would still have been breaching their own commitments before the last election,” she adds, “and the Taoiseach would still have been breaching personal commitments I saw him make at a meeting in my constituency, but at least it would not have been so divisive.
“I don't know that I would have been comfortable staying, but that room for manoeuvre would have been healthy and a real sign of leadership.”
Lucinda is critical, too, of the handling of the Act since it came into effect in the new year. She has concerns about how psychiatrists can be expected to definitively
decide whether a woman is suicidal, with the fear that, if they say she is not, then what happens if that woman then kills herself ? And it's not only that she is bothered by the availability of abortion, or the issues around suicidal ideation, but about what she sees as a fundamental, cultural refusal within the Government to debate it. Particularly with Lucinda, you might say, which, you might say, again, is simply petty personality politics. You might.
Lucinda explains how her Alliance colleague, Terence Flanagan, asked questions in the Dail late last year about guidelines for psychiatrists, but with no joy.
“They were totally dismissed by the all-knowing Minister for Health,” she says, dropping one of her little bombs, “or, presumably, by the people who write his answers to parliamentary questions.”
Is Lucinda Creighton opposed to abortion under any circumstances?
“There are terminations happening in hospitals all the time,” she answers, “and I think a very fundamental principle is that no treatment should be denied to any woman where her life is at risk. And that is effectively the test that exists in our law anyway, and I support that.
“It makes no sense, in fact. It would be barbaric if our medical professionals were focused on protecting the life of a baby at the cost of the life of the mother. But the Savita Halappanavar case is different and difficult.
“But you can't make pronouncements. The people who make pronouncements that, if Savita had an abortion, her life would have been saved, need to think again. One thing is clear, that she had contracted sepsis and she wasn't treated appropriately for it. If she had been, and whether that would have required a termination, I don't know, but that's a clinical judgement that doctors make in this country all the time.”
“Yes, I have no doubt that it was,” says Lucinda on whether she believes the Savita case was hijacked, “and I think that is really tragic. I have people emailing me, saying, ‘You'd rather see Savita die than change the law'; that sort of nonsense, and it's completely ill-informed and not true. People were manipulated.”
She adds, with some ire, that the easy accusation thrown at her was “Catholic fundamentalist”, explaining that she's not religious, not a regular mass-goer, not involved in religion in any way.
But the hate that was evident in this throwing around of ‘Catholic’ as a pejorative scared her, and seemed to her to be bordering on religious persecution. She laughs drily at the idea that throwing ‘Catholic’ into any debate is not unlike the debate-halting charge of ‘Nazi’ or ‘Hitler’.
While a certain personal dissatisfaction with Fine Gael — and Enda Kenny, in particular — wasn't something Lucinda had ever been quiet about, her departure, her expulsion from the party wasn't something she would have foreseen two years ago.
She has said, many times, that she's dyed-in-the-wool Fine Gael, but, given how she blithely picks apart its workings during this conversation, you can't see how she'd plan to re-enter its embrace.
“In Fine Gael,” she says, “and I suspect it's the same in other parties, you go to weekly meetings, you have absolutely zero impact ‘I’ve more regard for people who don’t share my view on abortion, but who have never pretended otherwise’ on policy, your views are not welcome unless they back up what's been handed down by advisors and spokespeople.” She criticises the manner in which ministers have “very little leeway in a government that's heavily dominated by civil servants”, but admits that, in some ways, it has always been so. And quickly adds that there are a lot of “fantastic” civil servants — many of whom she worked with in Foreign Affairs.
“But what I hear from colleagues,” she adds, “is that it's certainly got worse in the last 10 or 15 years.”
It's not necessarily a question of Fine Gael needing a younger leadership, either, says Lucinda, who wasn't even born when Enda Kenny was first elected in 1975. “It's not so much generational as a mindset thing. There is a structure that has been in place for some time, and people see it as successful — if you consider success to be winning an election that was unloseable,” she says, dropping another little bomb. “But is it democratic, is it a desirable political structure? No, it's not. But a lot of people are happy to play to the game. They're happy to go along with whatever in order to advance their careers, and it remains to be seen if others are prepared to put their heads above the parapet to change that.” Would Lucinda like to be taoiseach? “Ha, ha,” she answers. “That's not looking
very likely, is it? When I was young and idealistic, I would have said, ‘Yeah, I'd love to be taoiseach, there should be a woman taoiseach, blah blah, blah.’ But, now, I don't know about taoiseach being the best job in government.”
The dream job, Lucinda says, would be Minister for Finance. And she speaks both warmly and admiringly of Michael Noonan, though less positively about the department itself. “I don't think it has changed much since the crisis,” she says.
“The same mentality exists that got us into this situation. I'm talking about the permanent government, rather than the minister.”
Apart from that, Lucinda, whose mother was a school teacher in her native Mayo, would be keenly interested in education — “despite what the socialists say, they're not the only ones who care about fairness and opportunity in politics.” She's also exercised by social welfare — “because there has been no social welfare reform, really.”
As a woman about to have her first child, however, Lucinda is on the brink of an experience more life-changing than anything she has experienced in her career to date.
And while she outlines how she and her husband, Senator Paul Bradford, are lucky to work in jobs that aren't strictly nine to five, and should allow them flexibility to juggle the responsibility, she also acknowledges that it's different for women.
Not least in the fact that, as a TD, she is not entitled to any employer top-up of the state benefit — not that she's complaining.
“I explain to people that I'm just like any self-employed person,” she says, before adding, “I've never had a baby, so I have no idea, physically, what the effect will be, but I suppose there will be a week or two where I won't be going anywhere. But, in politics, you never switch off and you don't stop.
“It won't be easy, but I have an office in the house, so I'll use it more and try to manage it that way,” she says, before admitting that it's no accident that there aren't more TDs who are mothers to young children.
The political days are long, meetings are often at night, there can be a lot of travelling and a lot of time away from home.
Even Margaret Thatcher worked as a barrister until her twin children were six years of age and publicly rejected the idea of a ministry until they were older again. She cites the decision of her friend and mother of three Olywn Enright not to run in the last general election as disappointing, but also understandable. It’s a world that should be made more accessible for women and mothers, but even Lucinda’s not sure how that can happen. Is she optimistic for Ireland in general? “I am, in the short and medium term,” she says. “I think Michael Noonan has done a good job, but there are things I would worry about, like moving back into this property-bubble cycle. I think we're in danger of making some of the same mistakes again. There's an optimism around, but, in terms of a sustainable-growth plan, there isn't one. And that bothers me.”
And, if it is bothering Lucinda Creighton, you can be sure, then, that she'll be letting someone know about it. She has big plans and is a woman on the brink of bringing some of them into being.