Minister with a mission to deliver

Practical, tireless, sharp and fast-moving, Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald is showing she has a flair for the feasible

 

‘She does ‘mumsy’ well”, murmurs an observer, watching the local TD and Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald, drive off after declaring a Kia garage open in Liffey Valley at the end of a working day that would have felled an elephant.

Off the overnight flight that morning from a working weekend in Washington DC and into her pearls, petrol-blue suit and heels to head straight for a cross-Border conference on organised crime in Belfast; a lunch with her opposite number, David Ford, and top police brass from both sides of the Border; a press conference ; a well-judged speech. A plan to dash for the opening of a children’s playground back in Rathcoole in her constituency, thwarted by a fraught parliamentary party meeting in Leinster House; then back from there, finally, to her constituency, to congratulate the beaming Keane family on the new garage venture in Liffey Valley and exchange pleasantries with friends and industry figures; and another speech, before heading for the city to meet her son, Mark, for an interminable festival production of Hamlet.

“Mumsy? What does that mean?” the 64-year-old wonders a few weeks later. “On the one hand it’s fine. Mothers are very important – I know, because I am one. But it’s kind of an interesting thing to say about a female politician, isn’t it? What is the connotation? Pleasant but not very effective? In a political context, it does sound sexist. Would you ever hear a man referred to as dadsy?”

It’s nearly 9pm; she could have dismissed the description in a withering sentence. The measured debate she conducts with herself and this interviewer is probably a fair reflection of her general approach to issues. It is analysed, put out there for discussion, its layers of meaning dissected, views canvassed, political pitfalls averted (mums are a Good Thing), and a position reached. Swiftly and efficiently.

But it stings.

She does a comic turn about a repetitive reaction, mostly from men, to her promotion from minister for children to the carnage of the justice department.

“Isn’t that a big job you got?” they would say in a slightly quizzical tone. Now what’s behind that response, she would ask herself. “Is it ‘Isn’t that a big job you got . . . for a woman?’” Pause. “‘A big job . . . for a small, blonde woman?’” She tells this with whoops of laughter. “Well, what do you say? ‘Ah no, not at all, it’s dead easy’ or [small, girly voice] ‘yeah, it’s very big, I hope I’ll be able to do it’?

“Obviously things are changing and women are getting huge jobs, but I think you do have to prove yourself a bit more . . . I don’t know if many people went up to Leo [Varadkar, who got health at the same time] and said: ‘Leo, it’s a very big job for you’.”

A long way from mumsy

After a couple of months loitering on the edges of meetings in her department, in Leinster House and in her constituency, what this observer saw was a long way from mumsy.

“She looks like she wouldn’t say boo to a goose, but, by God, she’d say boo all right,” says a hard-bitten Labour man.

The working atmosphere she generates is unfailingly courteous, but brisk and businesslike. Coffee is served in harp-embossed cups and saucers in her department office on St Stephen’s Green, but with no time-wasting of the “one lump or two?” variety. At the endless series of meetings with NGOs, advocacy groups and senior agency representatives, she listens carefully, brings in those who haven’t spoken and responds with forthright remarks, taking a few notes with a Samaritans biro.

Two things become evident very quickly: the first is that she is highly practical. Her key interest is what is feasible, what can be sent forward for immediate action or set in train. As she listens, she picks up instantly on problems that can be resolved through facilitating a meeting with the relevant agency or a word in the right ear.

The second, connected to the first, is that groups who turn up with woolly reasoning or without a clear agenda will be rumbled. A former minister once remarked that “some NGOs seem to regard these meetings as a kind of therapy session . . . That’s a big mistake”.

No one knows this better than the woman who travelled up the NGO route herself. As a high-profile chairwoman of the National Women’s Council, with about 80 very different affiliates, she navigated everything from equality issues and LGBT rights, breast cancer and anti-smoking campaigning, to abortion. Hers was one of the strong, empowering voices for women’s groups still finding their footing in the post-women’s-liberation era, media- friendly, beholden to no one. She knows how to grab the attention of a minister.

“What’s your point about that directive?” she asks with deceptive mildness of a voluntary group in a fairly tense meeting. The group is arguing generally that Government commitments have not been met. The Minister believes their argument is overstated. Her jaw sets a little when she suspects the efforts of her officials – often sitting alongside – are being misrepresented. “What’s your own answer to that question?” she asks pleasantly. “Give me an example.”

It can take 45 minutes to get to that point. At one challenging meeting with an advocacy group – all volunteers – one of them halts the discussion to announce that she has something to say. The room tenses. It turns out to be a generous, unqualified message of praise and gratitude for the officials from the people they represent. The officials look stunned.

Such praise is thin on the ground. This is the 2,200-strong justice department that lost its minister, secretary general and Garda commissioner in controversial circumstances only six months ago. When she invited management expert Kevin Toland to analyse the foul-up, he found a “closed and secretive culture”, “leadership and management problems” and a “deferential relationship” with An Garda Síochána.

She notes the recommendations about opening up communications. The press office and a session with the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (Inis) are included in our department tour.

“I went into a department that was very, very traumatised,” she says. “Staff who work very hard and bring a lot of legislation through obviously didn’t know me very well . . . I knew how much I had to do. I had to get on top of it immediately and start talking to everybody. It’s what I do, I suppose.”

The initial meetings were with the management group, “nine or 10 men and one woman”. Then it was the turn of the big agencies: the Garda Commissioner, the Garda inspectorate, the Garda ombudsman commission.

Meanwhile, meetings continue in Farmleigh with representative groups, about the new Garda authority, for example, involving up to 100 participants. All of this is happening, however, with her department under an acting secretary general, Noel Waters, who already has a formidably demanding job as director general of Inis.

The €176,000-a-year job no one wants

Two months after the €176,000-a-year job was advertised through the Top Level Appointments Committee, Fitzgerald has had to admit they will have to re-advertise.

She is “disappointed and somewhat surprised” that more eligible people did not apply. “It’s disturbing . . . This is a department that is critical to Irish society. We are in the middle of public service reform and you want people to take the top jobs.”

With characteristic can-do, she sees the job as a “fantastic opportunity for someone who can drive change and is motivated. For the first time in a long time, we have the outside analysis, a road map, a big budget to manage, and you have a time of change in justice”. But perhaps several seismic resignations and damning reports and 2,200 traumatised staff may look like more trouble than the €176,000 is worth.

“At certain levels, I suppose you might have people thinking: ‘Do I want to take on that level of responsibility?’,” she says. “It is a changing role and secretaries general are much more to the forefront now, appearing before committees and so forth.”

In a sense, it points up Fitzgerald’s own fearless spirit. She took on the justice job in the depths of crisis. Such was the warlike intensity, she didn’t get back to her desk at the Department of Children and Youth Affairs for several weeks. Many doubted her ability for justice – why is not clear, since she had been a resounding success elsewhere. In a glowing reference, Fergus Finlay, chief executive of Barnardos Ireland, said she had “worked tirelessly” as minister for children. “She wasn’t afraid to listen, learn and debate with those working directly with children . . . Her commitment to the role is evident from her long list of achievements, accomplished in an impressively short tenure.”

Perhaps in the testosterone-fuelled air of Leinster House, children and youth affairs – despite all the rhetoric about “the youth” – is perceived as a “soft” department. Or maybe it’s about the way politics is done. It says something about her own style that she finds a lot of politics “very trite” and is deeply critical of the kind “that is adversarial for the sake of it. There is a lot of posturing, and women can’t stand it. That kind of fake outrage goes down very badly with a lot of people . . . I think, very often, it’s about bringing people down and the next election, as opposed to policy and the delivery for the people . . . Even some of the committees are going into this style now. Put it like this: does it really serve the country?”

She has high praise for committees on which she served in opposition, with John O’Donoghue as chairman, for example, and the “amazing, detailed work” being done now by the justice committee “in quiet collaboration with Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil”.

A critical mass of women would make a difference, she believes. “I call it an unfinished democracy in terms of women, but I think it’s an unfinished democracy in terms of how we do business as well.”

In that atmosphere, there were plenty happy to bet that her spin in justice would end in tears. Some suggested she was being rewarded for siding with Enda Kenny in the 2010 heave (and quick to recall that she picked the “wrong” side in the heave against John Bruton in 1994, scuttling her chance of promotion). But few can point a finger now at her performance so far.

“She has been the fire blanket in crisis and has managed to stabilise it. She is doing a very good job,” said one independent voice.

In the meantime, rumours swirl in the hothouse. One is that she is difficult to work for. She takes it as a kind of compliment. “I think I do things quite pacily. I think I can carry a lot of things at the same time, and I’d like to see that delivered . . . I do get frustrated.”

Did she throw a cup/file/object at an official at some stage? Her face drops in shock. “That is completely not true. I would never do that to anybody I worked with,” she says. In fact, the subject of that rumour is a friend, she adds.

Another rumour is that she was briefly in Fianna Fáil. She recalls a headline back in her National Women’s Council days – when several parties had approached her – declaring she intended to run for Fianna Fáil. “Completely and utterly untrue,” she says.

In 1985, as a mother in the home with three children under five, she liked the cut of Garret FitzGerald and joined Fine Gael, which sent back a letter suggesting she go to a branch meeting. Such was the dampness of the welcome there at the time, she didn’t go back.

Social work degree

They should have looked closer. She might have been breastfeeding, but she was not the bored young mum from the leafy suburbs they clearly assumed her to be. She carries the tag of Limerick-born, but only because she was born in Croom Hospital, which her mother, Anna, chose because it happened to be the closest hospital to the grandparents in Charleville, Co Cork.

Her father, Tadhg Ryan, was a senior Army man who hurled with Christy Ring. His postings meant she spent her first 13 years in Newbridge, where she saw girls leaving school before sixth class – “that was to do with poverty” – before a transfer to Dublin landed her in Sion Hill, a secondary school where it was simply assumed that girls would proceed to third level.

After graduating with a social work degree in 1971, she landed a scarce job in St Ultan’s children’s hospital, where the truly poverty-stricken brought their children, or gave birth to them and occasionally abandoned them. She describes taxi journeys with babies to desperately poor places, such as Traveller encampments, almost imploring a father to take his child.

From there, she took a job in the acute psychiatric inpatient unit in St James’s Hospital – the root of a lifelong interest in mental health – with a catchment area that takes in St Michael’s Estate, St Teresa’s Gardens and Dolphin’s Barn. “That played a huge role in shaping me, to understand the continuum in relation to mental health and personality is enormous,” she says.

It was there that she met her husband, Michael, who was later to become a Trinity professor with expertise in child and adolescent psychiatry. She then worked in Ballymun before the couple moved to London for seven “incredibly formative” years.

“They gave me the third eye look at Ireland,” she says. “I was working with a bunch of 20 social workers, the most edgy you can imagine . . . totally different to my upbringing.” Her eldest son, Owen, was born there, and when they returned to Dublin, she suffered two miscarriages – “They were a shock, but I was okay” – before going on to have Mark and Robert.

Sympathy for politicians

Once she discovered the Women’s Political Association, there was no turning back. She became a delegate to the Council for the Status of Women (rebranded as the National Women’s Council in 1995) and then its stellar chairwoman. When Garret FitzGerald retired and invited her to run for his seat in Dublin South East in 1992, she had two weeks to campaign. In the teeth of an anti-Fine Gael hurricane, she was elected to the Dáil at the age of 42.

She took the business of being a national legislator seriously, diligently marking ministers, serving on committees, putting down amendments. She makes no secret of her shock at losing her seat in the next anti-Fine Gael hurricane of 2002.

The only time she becomes obviously upset about anything is when she mentions a photograph, recently rediscovered by a friend, of her three teenage sons and her husband, Michael, at that count. All four of them have tears in their eyes.

“Don’t think for a moment that I’m asking for sympathy for politicians because I know there’s none out there,” she says. “But just from the inside out, I think it’s quite tough on families. It can be harder for the observer than the actor.

“That’s a reality. Politics and your job are very important, but it’s when your kids have a problem, or when your health is at risk, that’s when people get to know stuff about life.”

She gets up for a tissue. “It’s grand. I got over it. But the point is it’s tough on the family. People behave as if it has no impact, that you’re a zombie emotionally. It’s not true.”

The Seanad canvass that followed revealed “traumatised” men all over the place, people who had “had dreadful experiences in politics . . . I couldn’t believe the bitterness and the upset.”

And she failed to get a seat. “I was on the outside panel . . . I think, at that point, I was discarded as a bit of a loser.”

The long road back began in 2007, when she won a Seanad seat. Four years later, she was back in the Dáil, after Enda Kenny invited her to run in Dublin Mid-West, encompassing huge areas such as Clondalkin, Lucan and Palmerstown. Anyone with the spine to change constituencies like that should not be underestimated.

Future taoiseach?

She could yet make it to Taoiseach. Does she want it? “I’ve had a chequered political career, so I don’t even go there,” she says.

True. But surely she would say yes, if offered? “There’s no question of the Taoiseach going anywhere.”

But supposing it opened up? “You’d have to examine the circumstances . . . I don’t think a woman should say no to anything.” So she would take it? “Of course,” she says, with some exasperation.

“But I kind of do the work as opposed to saying what I want to be . . .You should talk to some of the young guys – I’m sure that’s how they’re thinking.”

Her own boys are grown up now. Owen is about to graduate in French and translations studies from DCU. Mark is an actor, who has worked in Edinburgh and London. (The mystery is: why did Love/Hate producers never think to cast the Minister for Justice’s son?) Robert is an accountant with Grant Thornton.

Meanwhile, back at the department, the massive ongoing work of consultation and legislation continues, on victims’ rights, on sexual offences (with a new focus on grooming and harassment, including post-prison behaviour), on penal reform, on adoption rights and – not least – on the equality referendum.

On the day of our interview, she had met two women who had been victims of rape, with widely differing experiences, and was able to tell them, she says, of legislation that “is going to change people’s experience of the law. You are going to get a rebalancing of victims’ rights . . . It has been missing. People have said that forever, not only women. It’s everyone’s experience.”

Mediation will also become a particular focus in the new year. “It’s an area that would take away the pressure on the courts and could mean that couples and families would have a better experience in the courts.”

Her job is really all about delivering in all those areas, she says. “Politics is full of high drama, let’s face it. But justice is not just about the technical details. They’re very important in legislation, but justice is about family, about community, about how people are treated. It’s about our legal framework. It affects everybody.”

It’s around 10pm. She is eyeing the huge pile of files on the diningroom table. They need to be assessed by morning.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.