Mary, Mary, quite contrary


MEMOIR:Just Mary: A Memoir By Mary O’Rourke. Gill & Macmillan, 243pp. €22.99

THIS MEMOIR is a fairly honest self-portrait of the Mary O’Rourke whom we have all come to love and hate. The Mary we have all seen over the years is the Mary we get in this book: emotional and exasperating; schoolmarmish and quite contrary; imbued with the Fianna Fáil gene and very party-political.

The memoir is not a catalogue of cabinet secrets, though there are a few fine political gems thrown in here and there. Rather, it is an interesting account of her background, her personal life, her climb up the ladder of the Fianna Fáil organisation, her achievements as she sees them, her relationship with the two popular Brian Lenihans – her brother and her nephew – and her love for, and support from, her husband, Enda, throughout her career.

She offers some new insights into the political events of her time – not by breaching cabinet confidentiality, of course, but by filling out the fuller Fianna Fáil picture. We all knew, for example, that when he was taoiseach Bertie Ahern had held up his voting card to Albert Reynolds at the parliamentary-party meeting in 1997 to select the Fianna Fáil candidate for the presidential election. What was not fully realised, however, was that, in a discussion about political strategy at the end of a cabinet meeting the day before, Ahern left ministers “in no doubt whatsoever that Mary McAleese was the candidate we should support”.

“That night,” according to O’Rourke, “there was another meeting in Fianna Fáil HQ at which the message was again repeated, albeit in various degrees of intensity, depending on who was being addressed.”

O’Rourke also presents an intriguing perspective on the bailout of Ireland by the troika in late 2010. Her nephew, the late Brian Lenihan, was minister for finance at this time. She claims that Patrick Honohan, the governor of the Central Bank of Ireland, rang Lenihan from Frankfurt sometime after 9pm on November 17th demanding that he call a cabinet meeting that night “in order to say that we were going to accept help from the IMF”. Lenihan told him that it was not within his remit to do so.

We all know that, on November 18th, Honohan announced on RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland that the IMF were coming in and that Ireland would need a bailout of tens of billions.

In her attempt to rationalise some ministers’ denials of a bailout, O’Rourke comes up with an unlikely story. She alleges a potential conflict of interest “between what was good for Ireland and what was good for the ECB”, arising from Honohan’s positions as governor of the Central Bank and a member of the council of the European Central Bank. He was bound to follow ECB directives in key matters, O’Rourke states blithely.

She also reveals that Fianna Fáil ministers had been given their portfolios by Bertie Ahern on the evening of December 4th, 1994, some hours before the Labour leader, Dick Spring, suspended negotiations on the re-formation of that coalition following a story in The Irish Times. She still doesn’t know why that happened but wonders whether it had anything to do with the findings of the Mahon tribunal some 17 years later! This conspiracy theory could not be true, of course, because it was around that time in 1994, with the prospect of him becoming taoiseach, that the digouts were coming in to Ahern in earnest.

The real Mary O’Rourke emerges in different ways on big and small things in her memoir. She really admired Charles Haughey as “a good leader” and devotes a whole chapter to her visit, with Terry Leyden, to Abbeville (Kinsealy to the rest of us) in the run-up to Christmas 2003. “He had an air of competence about him, a stately demeanour and a confidence which meant that he was equal to any occasion: you wouldn’t have seen him, for example, having his hair ruffled at the Council of Europe, like Enda Kenny.”

She knows, she writes, “that Charlie didn’t come out smelling of roses. Yet he did give me my first break, and in that sense, I feel that I owe him that recognition.” Some pages later, she clarifies that it was “the leftover money”, not the liver money, for Brian Lenihan’s operation that he plundered. And, 20 pages later, again, she confesses in one sentence only that “this did not and does not blind me to the venality of some of his later actions”.

She is less dismissive of Albert Reynolds than might have been expected given that he removed her from the cabinet and demoted her to minister of state. “I really feel that under his time as taoiseach, matters in the North began to move at last, and in a very positive direction. And, of course, I never had any lasting animosity towards him. Why would I?”

She has no warmth for his successor, Bertie Ahern, who relegated her to the position of chairman of the joint Oireachtas committee on the constitutional amendment on children. “I have a fear that events later on in Bertie Ahern’s political life will overshadow his crucial work in the North. This shouldn’t be overshadowed and I hope it won’t, for nobody can ever take from what he did.”

On her fourth taoiseach, her judgment is curt. “The puzzle in all of this was – and it was a question that only would emerge much, much later – did Brian Cowen himself want the leadership? It is easy to imagine in retrospect that perhaps he didn’t,” she writes, suggesting that he may have sleepwalked into the job.

It is interesting, as she is so party political, that the person for whom she reserves the most odium is the former Fine Gael taoiseach Garret FitzGerald. The politician she most admires outside of Fianna Fáil is Ruairí Quinn. And there is so much more that is so revealing of her in this book. I have often felt that Mary O’Rourke was never given due recognition for the significant role she played in Fianna Fáil nationally. She was the mammy of middle Ireland.

Geraldine Kennedy was editor of The Irish Times from 2002 until 2011

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