An equal op­por­tu­nity missed

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - GERALDINE KENNEDY Geraldine Kennedy is a for­mer ed­i­tor of the first wo­man po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent ap­pointed in 1980, and a for­mer TD


The ti­tle of this book is wrong. The con­text of this book is re­gret­tably dis­ap­point­ing. By ac­ci­dent or de­sign, it does a dis­ser­vice to the 19 women who have served in Cab­i­net in the his­tory of this State, a pe­riod of al­most a cen­tury. They are min­is­ters in gov­ern­ment like their male coun­ter­parts, not Madam politi­cians. Be­ing elected, not to mind be­ing pro­moted, is the great lev­eller in pol­i­tics.

Martina Fitzger­ald, RTÉ’s po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent, has writ­ten this book from a sort of a #MeToo per­spec­tive. She has brought the women TDs along with her. It prob­a­bly makes it more read­able than an his­tor­i­cal po­lit­i­cal book about women min­is­ters. There is a whole chap­ter on Sex­ism – #politi­cianstoo. There is an­other on Me­dia and Ap­pear­ance – Look­ing Great but What Did She Say? And an­other again on Fam­ily and Friends – Con­stant Guilt. That is the kind of book it is. Whether that is her agenda or the agenda that the 17 sur­viv­ing min­is­ters (and two historic women pres­i­dents) know­ingly ac­qui­esced to in in­di­vid­ual in­ter­views is not clear. But, what­ever the case, the min­is­ters do them­selves no ser­vice.

“The women at the ta­ble of Ir­ish po­lit­i­cal power,” the sub­ti­tle on the cover of the book, also demon­strates a sort of in­fe­rior at­ti­tude. It wouldn’t be said of the men who be­came taoisigh, tá­naistí and min­is­ters. The women min­is­ters were ex­tremely high achiev­ers in the pol­i­tics of their time. They were trail-blaz­ers and, for the most part, they left a sub­stan­tial leg­isla­tive legacy. They weren’t to­ken women and, with the ex­cep­tion of one can­di­date, Josepha Madi­gan, an able quota can­di­date in the last gen­eral elec­tion, they fought the same fight to get into pol­i­tics as men.

Among them, four reached the high of­fice of tá­naiste: the first be­ing Mary Har­ney, the long­est-serv­ing wo­man min­is­ter in the his­tory of the State; Joan Bur­ton, leader of the Labour Party; Mary Cough­lan, deputy leader of Fianna Fáil; and Frances Fitzger­ald in Fine Gael. We haven’t had our Mar­garet Thatcher nor our Theresa May yet but we have had two very suc­cess­ful Mary pres­i­dents.

For all of that, there are in­ter­est­ing in­sights into how hard it was for women to break through the party sys­tem to get a nom­i­na­tion to stand for elec­tion, never mind a min­istry. The at­ti­tudes are worth record­ing. Most of the first women TDs elected to the Dáil were the widows, daugh­ters or rel­a­tives of de­ceased male TDs. Be­tween 1922 and 1977, just 24 women were elected to the Dáil and, ac­cord­ing to the book, 80 per cent were re­lated to a for­mer male TD. It is an in­ter­est­ing fact that af­ter the 2011 gen­eral elec­tion, for the first time in the his­tory of the State, “no fe­male TDs were re­lated to a for­mer TD”.

Count­ess Con­stance Markievicz was the first Ir­ish wo­man ever to hold a Cab­i­net po­si­tion when she be­came min­is­ter for labour in 1919. She fought in the Easter Ris­ing. She was one of the found­ing mem­bers of Fianna Fáil in 1926. She died in 1927.

It took a full 60 years be­fore Máire Geoghe­gan-Quinn was ap­pointed as the sec­ond wo­man min­is­ter in 1979. She tells an in­ter­est­ing story about it. Charles Haughey had just be­come Taoiseach in the most di­vi­sive po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship cam­paign in his­tory. She was called in and thought she was go­ing to be “chopped” as a ju­nior min­is­ter.

“Well Máire, I think you and I are go­ing to make his­tory,” he said. She looked at him and asked him what did he mean. He said: “I’m ap­point­ing you Min­is­ter for the Gaeltacht.” Her re­sponse was “Do you think I’m able for it?” To this day, she says, “I re­gret that I said that. I re­ally do.” She was, in my opin­ion, the only wo­man TD who could have be­come taoiseach.

Mary O’Rourke tells a dif­fer­ent kind of story. She was min­is­ter for both ed­u­ca­tion and health be­tween 1987-1992. She says they were per­ceived as “kind of wom­anly” de­part­ments. She later be­came min­is­ter for en­ter­prise (1997-2002). From the out­set of her ca­reer in na­tional pol­i­tics in the early 1980s, she was very con­scious of not be­ing pi­geon­holed on gen­der grounds. As a re­sult, she twice turned down of­fers from Mr Haughey to be spokes­woman on women’s af­fairs.

Taoiseach Gar­ret FitzGer­ald ap­pointed Gemma Hussey as the first min­is­ter for ed­u­ca­tion in the Fine Gael/Labour coali­tion in De­cem­ber 1982. It pro­voked what she de­scribed as a “cul­ture shock” among sev­eral male min­is­te­rial col­leagues. The cost of re­duc­ing food sub­si­dies was un­der dis­cus­sion and the late Jim Mitchell was cal­cu­lat­ing the im­pact on the price of rash­ers and sausages. “Gemma, come here, what is the price of a pound of rash­ers?”

Dr FitzGer­ald in­ter­jected: “How would that wo­man know any more about the price of a pound of rash­ers than you would? She is out work­ing all of the hours that God gives, like you are.”

Mary Har­ney recounts an amaz­ing story about her time serv­ing as ju­nior min­is­ter with re­spon­si­bil­ity for en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion from 1989 to 1992. It was the first Fianna Fáil/Pro­gres­sive Democrats coali­tion. Re­la­tions with her se­nior Min­is­ter, Pádraig Flynn, were not good. She says that she had to come in through a side door, not the front en­trance, in the Cus­tom House where the main busi­ness of the de­part­ment took place.

These are in­ter­est­ing per­sonal sto­ries show­ing the hu­man side of pol­i­tics and the male en­vi­ron­ment in­side Le­in­ster House over most of the last 40 years. There was, for ex­am­ple, no wo­man’s toi­let near the Cab­i­net Room, the Dáil cham­ber nor the mem­bers’ bar.

Yet, there is some­thing re­gret­table and de­mean­ing about the way the book por­trays the 17 sur­viv­ing women min­is­ters and di­min­ishes their con­sid­er­able, some­times rev­o­lu­tion­ary, po­lit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tion to Ir­ish life. Nora Owen set up the Crim­i­nal As­sets Bu­reau, a model that has been fol­lowed in other coun­tries. Ni­amh Bhreath­nach in­tro­duced free third level ed­u­ca­tion. Mary Har­ney re­formed can­cer treat­ment ser­vices. Máire Geoghe­gan-Quinn de­crim­i­nalised ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity. These are just a few ex­am­ples and Madam Politi­cian does not ad­e­quately ac­knowl­edge them. ■ TheIr­ishTimes,


Mary McAleese and Mary Robin­son meet at a re­cep­tion in Áras an Uachtaráin.

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