Emily O’Reilly interview: ‘I wasn’t going to park 20 years of my life’s experience at the door of the office’
Ombudsman leaves office with its reputation intact and a higher profile
Emily O’Reilly in her office as she prepares to publish her final report as Ombudsman today before taking up the role of European Ombudsman in Strasbourg. On the wall behind her hang portraits of her two predecessors, Michael Mills (left) and Kevin Murphy. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
An apocryphal tale has it that a former Canadian ombudsman deliberately avoided reading the piece of law establishing his office; that way he never knew when he was steering beyond his remit. Emily O’Reilly read her legislation and knew the boundaries of her office, she says, but when the former journalist took the job at the suggestion of then finance minister Charlie McCreevy in 2003, she had no intention of denying her past life.
“I wasn’t going to park 20 years of my life’s experience and my way of seeing things at the door of the office, even though I was reasonably careful in what I said,” she remarks, sitting in a leather armchair amid the packed boxes of her airy, soon-to-be-vacated office on Leeson Street in Dublin.
One of the features of O’Reilly’s decade in office has been her public profile – enhanced not least by a series of state-of-the-nation speeches that drew on but reached far beyond the work of her office.
In 2004, she set off a lively debate when she recoiled at “the vulgar fest that is much of modern Ireland”, decrying the “the debasement of our civic life, the growing disdain of the wealthy towards the poor”.
This summer, she told the MacGill Summer School that the Republic that rose from the ashes of the Easter Rising was “a perversion of the human rights ideals of 1916”.
Neither was she averse to going public as a tactical gambit in her disputes with State bodies. “I felt it was important sometimes to conceptualise these things and not just have them as dry complaint-handling statistics. I am a citizen, I’m raising five children, so therefore I’m interacting with every system – education, health and so on – on a personal level. On occasions, every few years, I would reflect some of this.”
“I do remember there was somebody, who was a former member of a government, who rang the office very crossly and said, ‘Who the f*** does she think she is? Does she think she is running the country?’”
Yet every speech also seemed to fuel speculation that she was preparing the ground for a tilt at the presidency.
O’Reilly admits she was approached informally – by whom she will not say – before the 2011 election, but insists she dismissed it immediately. “I didn’t think I had done enough in my life to justify becoming president . . .
I think Michael D Higgins absolutely deserved the presidency.
He had laboured for so many decades in so many areas. Another reason of course was that it would have meant leaving this job.”
Having served two terms, O’Reilly is fulfilling her last engagements this week before taking up her new role as European Ombudsman in Strasbourg, where she will be the first woman to hold the office.
The transition will be swift – her final annual report will be published today, and next Monday she will take her oath of independence at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.
O’Reilly’s tenure spanned a time of huge upheaval, and the nature of the work reflected those wider social shifts. In her early years, a huge volume of complaints related to planning, but after 2008, when the crisis hit, the focus moved towards social protection and health.