Mary Mitchell O’connor

Ire­land’s most glam­orous and out­spo­ken TD on putting her life back to­gether

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Life -

Some peo­ple just can't help stand­ing out and Fine Gael back­bench TD Mary Mitchell O'Connor is one of them. Two years ago, while most new­bie TDs were fig­ur­ing out where the cof­fee dock was or how to ne­go­ti­ate the Le­in­ster House re­volv­ing door, she made head­lines by driv­ing her car down the Dail plinth and by be­ing la­belled Miss Piggy by the Dail's ver­sion of Statler and Wal­dorf. If you're op­er­at­ing off the prin­ci­ple that it's bet­ter to be looked over than over­looked, she's do­ing well since her dra­matic Dail en­trance.

I'm in­ter­view­ing the 53-year-old former school prin­ci­pal over a few days in the Dail. I'd need a colour wheel to de­scribe her var­i­ous out­fits. On the first day she's im­pos­si­ble to miss in an elec­tric-blue out­fit with match­ing coat. Be­fore my eyes had time to ad­just, the blue look was dis­pensed with the fol­low­ing day in favour of a bright or­ange and black dress with geo­met­ric strip­ing that wouldn't be out of place on the bridge of the Star­ship En­ter­prise.

She's not shy about be­ing a one-woman rain­bow coali­tion. Mary's own web­site pro­claims that her colour­ful at­tire has “ripped through the grey and dreary con­ven­tions of a con­ser­va­tive Dail Eire­ann”.

“I like colour! I'm sorry, but it's the first thing I go to when I go to a shop. But half my wardrobe is ac­tu­ally black,” she says.

Even when she dresses drably, it still causes a stir. “In my old school, for Hal­loween, the kids and the teach­ers would dress up. I'd wear one of my black dresses and some­times I'd put on the witch's hat. There was this lit­tle boy and he re­fused to come to school be­cause of the prin­ci­pal wear­ing black. The mother came in and asked me not to wear black!”

Mary's bumpy exit from the Dail back in March 2011, when she drove down the steps, brought her to pub­lic at­ten­tion for the first time. “I learnt to drive on a trac­tor,” she says, “keep go­ing straight and keep be­tween the hedges. I drove down the steps but, in my de­fence, if you drive round by the front of the Dail it looks like it's at the same level. I think some­one else has done it since. I picked my moment though, as the TV cam­eras were there and the pho­tog­ra­phers. If there was a hole in the ground, I would have driven in. I was very em­bar­rassed.”

It wasn't a happy end­ing for the car. “I ended up hav­ing to change the car,” she says. “It was a red Hyundai with my name em­bla­zoned on it. I didn't do the sus­pen­sion any favours. It kept go­ing, but it was an old car, so I changed it a year later.”

A more hurt­ful episode in July 2011 was Mick Wal­lace's com­ment, picked up by Dail mi­cro­phones, about her per­sonal ap­pear­ance. The Wex­ford TD said: “Miss Piggy has toned it down a bit to­day.” It pro­voked laugh­ter from Luke ‘Ming' Flana­gan and Shane Ross. Wal­lace sub­se­quently apol­o­gised.

“I've kind of for­got­ten it, but it was ex­tremely hurt­ful. When you com­ment on a woman in that kind of form I take it that they were com­ment­ing on me per­son­ally. If they said it about me po­lit­i­cally, it would have rolled off me. I didn't like it, even though Miss Piggy is great her­self. She's an icon really,” says Mary. “It was un­for­tu­nate, to be fair, that they were picked up. I would have a dis­tant re­la­tion­ship with them now. I just couldn't be very friendly with them be­cause I think that's giv­ing some­one lais­sez-faire to say what they like.”

A group of her friends de­cided to make light of the Miss Piggy in­ci­dent, with the aid of some ap­pro­pri­ate con­fec­tionery. “One of my best friends got me this cake in the shape of Miss Piggy and we had great fun with it. We had a bit of a slic­ing party!”

Her in­ner pri­mary-school prin­ci­pal comes out when she casts a cold eye over the rowdy bunch in the in­de­pen­dent Op­po­si­tion benches. If she had the power to ini­ti­ate Dail naughty steps, you can be sure they'd be on them. “There's bad be­hav­iour in the cham­ber. You have the in­de­pen­dent Op­po­si­tion,” she says, “that's really where it's coming from, but we do have our own heck­lers within the Government par­ties. As the say­ing goes, empty ves­sels make the most noise.”

Who's get­ting on her goat at the moment? “For ex­am­ple, Finian McGrath gave a speech sug­gest­ing we row back on our smok­ing laws. It’s rub­bish and a really bad mes­sage. We know it kills 5,200 peo­ple ev­ery year.”

While the in­de­pen­dent TDs are test­ing her tol­er­ance, a di­etary in­tol­er­ance test she took has re­sulted in dra­matic weight loss. “I feel great and have gone from 13st to 11.5st. I did an in­tol­er­ance test and found out that I was in­tol­er­ant to dairy and yeast. It took me six weeks to get my head around that. I stopped eat­ing dairy and wheat and lost a stone and a half. I loved things like goat’s cheese, but that's gone — it’s oat­cakes and hum­mus now.”

Her cur­rent life as a TD for Dun Laoghaire is very dif­fer­ent from the life she en­vis­aged when she was younger. She grew up on a farm near Tuam in Mill­town, Co Gal­way, and trained as a pri­mary teacher in Carys­fort Col­lege. She worked as a teacher at Scoil Cholm­cille in Skryne, Co Meath, even­tu­ally be­com­ing the prin­ci­pal there. “I got mar­ried in Meath,” she says. “My hus­band was a garda from Sligo. I had two boys — Conor, 27, and Steven, 26 — and we lived in Se­neschal­stown. Conor is now a doc­tor and Steven has just qual­i­fied as an ac­coun­tant.”

Her life was shat­tered when her mar­riage broke down and she took the de­ci­sion, aged 38, to move to Dublin on her own with her chil­dren, then 11 and 12. “The mar­riage broke down in 1999 and we came to a de­ci­sion to split up,” Mary says. “It was a very low part of my life and it was a very dif­fi­cult thing to walk away from the fam­ily home, which was sold. We'd built that house.

‘The mar­riage broke down in 1999... It was a very low part of my life and it was very dif­fi­cult to walk away from the fam­ily home, which was sold’

“It wasn't a bolt from the blue. It's the lit­tle things that you re­mem­ber from those times. In that part of my life, I played golf and was a mem­ber in the Royal Tara Golf Club. Be­fore it hap­pened I was try­ing to bring down my hand­i­cap, but I have never played golf since I left Meath,” she says.

Af­ter the mar­riage break­down she did numer­ous in­ter­views for other teach­ing jobs in Dublin and even­tu­ally got one in Glasthule. “I wanted to get out of Na­van and Conor had got a schol­ar­ship to Belvedere. It was dif­fi­cult to get a job be­cause you were sep­a­rated, even in 1999.

“I was bro­ken-hearted leav­ing Meath. For the fol­low­ing five years I just worked. I made din­ner for the boys and made sure they stud­ied and never came out­side the door, un­til they did their Leav­ing Cert,” she added.

She com­muted from Meath for two years be­cause she couldn't buy a house. “The tran­si­tion pe­riod was aw­ful. I found it really dif­fi­cult to buy a house with gazump­ing and that. We had de­posits down and I re­mem­ber ring­ing Daddy one day on a bus with the two lads, and I was bawl­ing cry­ing.”

Even­tu­ally, with some ad­vice from old neigh­bours from Skryne, she bought a house in Castle­knock. “That time was the low­est point and it has made me a good politi­cian and a good prin­ci­pal.”

How did she cope rais­ing her boys in Dublin? “I came from a home where there was good par­ent­ing. I would hear my­self, in my mother's voice, say­ing the very things that I hadn’t liked — ‘What time will you be home?' and ‘Where were you?'

“One thing about us is that we've al­ways had a very happy home. We get on very well. We pull to­gether. They are ab­so­lutely won­der­ful lads and really gave me no trou­ble. I feel par­ents can't be friends with their chil­dren. Chil­dren need par­ents,” adds Mary.

She also had to cope with other tragedies since, such as her younger sis­ter dy­ing of colon can­cer at 44 and her brother go­ing blind from retinosa pig­men­tosa.

Ini­tially, Mary got a ju­di­cial sep­a­ra­tion and didn't di­vorce un­til five years ago. “Some­times you may need a di­vorce if you are get­ting mar­ried again but I had no plans in that di­rec­tion. Re­mem­ber, as well, I was

teach­ing in a Catholic school. Then the time came and I got a di­vorce about five years ago.”

I ask her if she's still re­li­gious, even though be­ing sep­a­rated caused her prob­lems when look­ing for a teach­ing job in Catholic schools. “I am a prac­tis­ing Catholic. I know I am di­vorced in the mid­dle of it all. It's the same for me within Fine Gael — I buy into some­thing. Some­times I found it hard but you have to up­hold the Catholic ethos in those schools.”

Even­tu­ally she got the prin­ci­pal’s job in Glasthule, south County Dublin, and also caught the po­lit­i­cal bug. She had been friendly with the MEP Marian Harkin and, with her en­cour­age­ment, she be­gan to look for a po­lit­i­cal party. She was drawn to the PDs and joined in 2003. By 2004, she was one of their elected coun­cil­lors in Dun Laoghaire.

Her own life ex­pe­ri­ence means that she's passionate about women's rights and the fam­ily law sys­tem. She feels par­tic­u­larly for women who sep­a­rate later in life with no fi­nan­cial re­sources.

“If you're a woman, and you gave up your ca­reer to look af­ter your chil­dren and you sep­a­rate late in life, you have no pen­sion. There are women in bad sit­u­a­tions that have reared their chil­dren and find them­selves sep­a­rated and di­vorced.”

The TD is very keen to get the mes­sage out to women go­ing through really bad times that things can get bet­ter. “You can be really down and you can rise up. For women it's a really im­por­tant mes­sage. Lots of women con­tact me if they're sep­a­rated or di­vorced.”

She joined Fine Gael shortly af­ter the 2007 gen­eral elec­tion when the PDs im­ploded in the wake of their dis­as­trous per­for­mance and the res­ig­na­tion of party leader Michael McDow­ell. She moved to the Dun Laoghaire con­stituency and be­came very ac­tive as a coun­cil­lor in a host of lo­cal is­sues such as hous­ing and devel­op­ment.

In 2011, she se­cured a nom­i­na­tion to run for Fine Gael in the gen­eral elec­tion. “Head of­fice put a thing out that there had to be a woman, but they didn't think it would be me, which is kind of gas! But I had done the home­work,” she says.

She won one of the hard-fought four Dail seats in Dun Laoghaire, up against po­lit­i­cal big beasts such as Ea­mon Gil­more, Mary Hanafin and Sean Bar­rett.

One of the keys to her success is em­pa­thy. “I like peo­ple and I like hear­ing their sto­ries,” she ex­plains. “If, for ex­am­ple, they were out of work, I'd ask them to email me their CV. I'd have a look through it — maybe at the week­end — and then I would meet them and go through it very quickly if they were go­ing for an in­ter­view. I'd also ring them be­fore they were go­ing for the in­ter­view.

‘I have huge em­pa­thy for women who are treated badly. I’ve cried, I’ve laughed with peo­ple. If I lose em­pa­thy, I will leave’

“In par­tic­u­lar, I have huge em­pa­thy for women who are treated badly. I've cried with peo­ple, I've laughed with peo­ple. I just met a woman this morn­ing who has buried her child and is not really aware of the med­i­cal cir­cum­stances of their death. If I lose em­pa­thy, I am go­ing to leave,” she said.

There's been much de­bate about the abuse TDs get, but Mary even makes con­tact with peo­ple who send her abu­sive emails or let­ters. “I have met some of them. They were really nice peo­ple in tough sit­u­a­tions who have lost jobs. I would go to meet them in a pub­lic place,” she says. “I'm not go­ing to be putting my­self in dan­ger.”

She is a very emo­tional per­son and wells up fre­quently dur­ing our con­ver­sa­tions. Even the sight of the na­tional flag over the Dail makes her emo­tional. “I come in here some morn­ings — and I look at the flag and I say, ‘We have to make the right de­ci­sions. It's my kids, my grand­chil­dren, and we owe it to them.' If we have turned the coun­try round, we'll feel good. I want to do the best we can and this is the way we do it.”

Of course, she's still very up­set at the loss of her Fine Gael col­league Shane McEn­tee, who died from sui­cide at Christ­mas. “I knew him well as I had lived in Meath so long. I knew the McEn­tee fam­ily. Shane was the nicest per­son, very hard work­ing. I have rel­a­tives and friends in County Meath and I'd hear he'd al­ways be call­ing into farm houses, turn up at ev­ery meet­ing and was really gen­uine. I feel very up­set.

“Gerry, his brother, an em­i­nent sur­geon, said what he said about on­line abuse. We get nasty emails but it has to be said we also get lovely cards, too.” She then shows me a sheaf of thank-you cards from con­stituents. One card from an el­derly woman says that when she sees Mary's photo it says to her: “I care and I will do my best!” Mary's think­ing of us­ing it as her next cam­paign slo­gan.

De­spite a des­per­ate four years of re­ces­sion, she’s con­fi­dent about the eco­nomic fu­ture of the coun­try. Be­fore the prom­is­sory note deal was struck, this is what she told me. “I think Michael Noo­nan and an Taoiseach have been very forth­right and feel we’re close to a deal. When you’re mak­ing a deal, shout­ing and roar­ing and in­sult­ing, mega­phone pol­i­tics doesn’t work.”

Dur­ing the course of our in­ter­views, news of An­glo Ir­ish Bank’s liq­ui­da­tion and the ECB deal broke. “I was in the Dail un­til 3.30am,” she says, “and I really felt we were in the mid­dle of some­thing really his­toric. I’m de­lighted and I had full con­fi­dence that Michael Noo­nan and an Taoiseach would make a deal.”

Were the Government TDs kept in­formed

to any de­gree about the ne­go­ti­a­tions? “The Taoiseach would have in­formed us at the Fine Gael par­lia­men­tary party that they were mak­ing suc­cess­ful progress and do­ing the right thing,” she says. “We were ex­pect­ing it very soon. I knew we were close.”

Again, the tears come, as we dis­cuss the prom­is­sory-note deal. “It was very emo­tional in the Dail that night. Just to think that we’d done some­thing good for Ire­land. I un­der­stand — to make that point again — that the Op­po­si­tion have to op­pose, but their grand­stand­ing that night was dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand.

“There are 1.8 mil­lion peo­ple work­ing in the coun­try. We lost 250,000 peo­ple re­lated to con­struc­tion,” she con­tin­ues. “We will not wave a wand and get 250,000 back into con­struc­tion. We have to de­velop new ar­eas of growth. Look at all the dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies coming into Ire­land, like Am­gen’s €150m in­vest­ment in my con­stituency,” she says.

Even as a former PD, she's dis­mis­sive of Michael McDow­ell's call for a new party. “That is a load of shite if he thinks he's go­ing to set up an­other party. He was the first fel­low to walk off the field. When I see him say­ing he wants to res­ur­rect the party and that there's a gap,” she goes on, “and I was in that party! He walked out first. And I trained foot­ball teams and I tell you if they did that to me, they'd never be back in the team again.”

Mary has no such jaun­diced views of her own party leader. “I think Enda is tough. I think he knows ex­actly where he's go­ing and what he wants for the coun­try. He doesn't have to be in­volved in ev­ery­thing, yet he knows ev­ery­thing.”

She goes on: “I don't know where he gets the en­ergy from. I think he's phys­i­cally fit — a steel hand in a vel­vet glove. I think he has turned this coun­try around and re­built our in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion.”

What about his re­luc­tance to en­gage in pub­lic de­bate or sub­ject him­self to in­ter­views? “He's the leader of the coun­try so he can't be do­ing willy-nilly in­ter­views,” she says.

Play­ing fan­tasy pol­i­tics for a minute, which min­istry would she like? “I'd love Ed­u­ca­tion. I'd look at help­ing par­ents. Of­ten when we get the kids into school, some have lost out al­ready. Speech ther­apy should be at­tached to schools, not the health sys­tem. Math­e­mat­ics needs to be looked at, as I'm not con­vinced about Project Maths.”

She's scep­ti­cal about the re­jig­ging of school pa­tron­age that is be­ing spear­headed by Ruairi Quinn. “I saw statis­tics af­ter all the talk. Very few par­ents voted [in the pa­tron­age sur­vey]. Is it be­cause they are not in­ter­ested? I don't think so. Is it be­cause they are the silent ma­jor­ity and they're happy? Maybe.”

James Reilly also gets her back­ing, de­spite all the con­tro­ver­sies over pri­mary-care clin­ics. “Swords is one of the big­gest-grow­ing ar­eas,” she says. “There were 100 on a list, a ju­nior min­is­ter re­duced it. Ten more were added to it. I think the big­ger pic­ture is what's be­ing done in our hos­pi­tals. We've cut bil­lions from that bud­get but when you get into the sys­tem — it's still a great sys­tem.”

Roisin Shor­tall's res­ig­na­tion didn't im­press her. “When you are in a party, it is im­por­tant for the good of the coun­try that you do your best. If you are a ju­nior min­is­ter, like be­ing a ju­nior re­porter, you have to do what the ed­i­tor tells you. If I was run­ning a school and ev­ery­one was do­ing their own thing, you couldn't run a school.”

De­spite her hec­tic life, she makes sure that she has time to her­self. Sun­day is fenced off as her day, mainly to sit on the sofa and read the pa­pers. She also goes to movies — with some sur­pris­ing choices. “I've seen Seven

Psy­chopaths and Jack Reacher and really en­joyed them. I love watch­ing cook­ery pro­grammes like Rachel Allen and the Bare­foot Contessa — I love her!”

Fi­nally, I ask if she's in a re­la­tion­ship or would she ever con­tem­plate re­mar­ry­ing. “I am go­ing to put my en­ergy into my job at the moment. I've had a num­ber of re­la­tion­ships since my mar­riage break­down but noth­ing long-term. I'd say I'd be hard pleased! I have loads of good male and fe­male friends.”

Would she go out with a politi­cian? “There would be too much pol­i­tics,” she laughs. “Go­ing out with politi­cians means too much po­lit­i­cal bag­gage!”

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