Does politics suit anyone? 'It suits men. It does really'
As the Fine Gael TD Olwyn Enright leaves her job to spend more time with her family, she describes how unexpected the sheer desire to be with her child was, how the Dáil could be more woman-friendly – and lessons learned from the Enda Kenny leadership challenge
WE’VE HEARD IT BEFORE. A politician announces that he (and it’s usually a he) is stepping down to spend more time with his family. Nobody voluntarily opts out of such an exclusive club, surely? Well, we’ve had two this week: Liz McManus of Labour and Olwyn Enright of Fine Gael, both of them bright, elegant, articulate and well-educated women.
Of the two, Enright perhaps is the more surprising. With infant in hand, and expecting another, plus a husband 270km away in his own constituency, she says she is stepping down to see more of them. But wait: isn’t it only a few weeks since that unpleasantness in Fine Gael when she featured among the doomed Plinth Nine, demanding a new leader? Some connection there, surely?
Not so, apparently. First, she was unprepared for the sheer desire to see more of her child: “I didn’t appreciate beforehand how strong it would be.”
Then there is her husband, Joe McHugh, TD for Donegal North-East, and his need to disappear back there on Thursdays while she heads for Co Offaly.
Then there is the job. “It’s not that I want to be at home all day every day. But it’s the nature of the job. I could do nine to five, I could do every night, or I could do every weekend – but you can’t do all three. You’re constantly trying to work out whether you’re going to be able to do something with Darragh or if you’re going to get to that thing at six o’clock.”
Yet here is a truly modern couple, equal in earning power. The difference is that she has by far the higher profile of the two.
So would it not make more sense for Joe to concentrate on family and housekeeping? She points first to the work entailed in rebuilding the party organisation in McHugh’s constituency, which hadn’t had a Fine Gael TD since 1992, compared with the party’s more secure position in Laois-Offaly.
She also appears to attribute her own swift rise to the fact that FG offered more opportunities in 2002. She points to the fact that, as the woman, it is she who has to have the child: “I just feel it’s a role I want to play as a mother and that Joe can’t play. We didn’t have that conversation. It was me that chose that.”
She is well aware that as a well-educated, high-earning dynasty politician (her father is the former long-serving TD Tom Enright), she is offering no beacon of encouragement to less privileged women.
“That does bother me. Obviously our situation is unique, but in terms of really being able to take time out, the job does not allow it. And this Dáil has very, very tight numbers as well, so there is added pressure to be there for the votes.”
In other countries female MPs can take time off and be replaced for a while. “In Ireland, you’d never win your seat again,” she laughs ruefully. “If you could take proper maternity leave or look at the idea of taking leave of absence, then you’d consider it.” With Darragh, she took six weeks and even then was constantly fielding phone calls.
Is it compatible at all with being a mother? “It’s not. And it’s not been challenged really. And – I know – here’s me walking off the pitch and not challenging it. But the way I see it is, I don’t want to have to explain to my children in years to come, ‘Well you know, it was really important for women that I stayed in there, so sorry about you.’ I had to decide my priorities, and my priorities are them at the end of the day.”
But the system rankles. She refers to the inexplicable 2.30pm Dáil start on Tuesdays, the daft Wednesday-night sittings, the constituency meetings that stretch pointlessly into the night and the drop-everything requirement when a funeral looms (which she attends only when she personally knows the family).
Does it suit anyone? “It suits men. It does really. Women don’t have wives at home, but you are up against people who do. Anything that’s timetabled you can do, but it’s the things that happen at the last minute that are the problem. My dad will ring me about a funeral. He’s watching my back, he’s helping out, but I’d say, ‘Who’ll mind Darragh?’ and he goes, ‘Drop him down to your mother.’ ” Another rueful laugh.
Political parties have to look harder at themselves and their attitude to women, she says. “There’s a token thing about it. They say, we’ll have a percentage of women the next time or we’ll start with the town councils and work our way up. But that would take many years.”
She notes that women don’t want to take up positions in constituency organisations; they don’t go to meetings. “I think for women, meetings are too long in general. A lot of women would like more focus and purpose as in, this is what we’re here to do.”
It’s not surprising, then, to learn that she is reviewing her approach to quotas for women in parliament, which she opposed in the summer. “I’m certainly moving towards quotas now. I am beginning to think more and more that that unless we do something to get a bulk of women in there, nothing is going to change.”
She reckons that proposals for a list system could go a long way towards addressing both how politics operates and the standard of Dáil debate. For certain TDs, to find themselves pitted against people unencumbered with the burden of electability could only be a good thing; there would be a little less exhibitionism and artificiality and a little more thinking.
“It depends on what you want: do you want to be a TD just to be a TD or do you want to be a TD to change things a bit?”
Enright is a natural for the job at one level: relaxed, humorous, easy company and able to do small talk without being trivial.
She claims to love the “cut and thrust” of political life, but others would say – for good or ill – that she was never one to go for the jugular. “I suppose I can be too reasonable about things. I can kind of see most things from both sides. And I tend to think that, whatever side they’re on, most people are at least trying to do the best thing for the country. And that’s a drawback almost. Sometimes, it’s a help in politics if you’re the kind who thinks, ‘I’m right and I’ve no doubt about it’.”
Would it have helped to be more like, say, Leo Varadkar or Lucinda Creighton, who clearly have the killer instinct? “Leo has learned a lot from the time he’s been here. Three years ago he might only have seen his own argument, whereas now he’s able to engage in a very positive way. And I like the way Lucinda is out there, and that she says what she thinks. But sometimes you have to be, well . . . I’d prefer to be a little more measured.”
Which leads us neatly to her less than measured appearance with the Plinth Nine and that heave against the leader. She really, really doesn’t want to go into the reasons for that.
Well, we know she said that Enda didn’t “strike an emotional connection with people” and that the party needed change. Above everything, she did what she did “for the right reasons”, she says. It wasn’t about Mercs or ministerial perks for her, because she was already working through her decision to stand down anyway. “And I don’t believe anyone else was doing if for those reasons either. For someone like Denis Naughten it was a really, really tough call to make. You know these people well. I was at Enda’s by-election when I was one year old – that’s how we spent our holidays back then.”
Indeed, she seconded him for the leadership in 2002, although she recalls that the vote then was taken against the wishes of the new TDs, who felt they hadn’t time to evaluate any of the candidates.
At the parliamentary party leadership confrontation this year, where she admits she became quite emotional – “and I really hate that” – she and everyone else acknowledged the enormous work Kenny had done in rallying the party. “But on the other hand, a lot of the people elected in 2002 worked very, very hard as well, around the country.”
But they were “up against better political strategists – who obviously had a back-up plan. Those of us who weren’t involved in giving out, or complaining, or in plotting, didn’t because we weren’t actually looking for this to happen.”
Richard Bruton, when asked a direct question on television about confidence in the leader, “failed to lie about what he thought. He is very straight. The whole thing moved on quicker than, maybe, it should have.”
Did Enda single her out for particularly cruel remarks? For the first time she feints and waffles, finally agreeing: “I suppose he did, but we said things to him. And he singled about seven people out.”
She says the issue is dead anyway. “I do feel he’s come out of it stronger than he was when he went into it.” But does Fine Gael still have a problem? “That’s only the leader poll. It’s not the party poll. Enda won the argument.” So that’s it? “Well, Enda has that challenge ahead of him.”
Would the heavers do things differently given a chance? “I think we’d be better organised. We’d get the numbers first – get them before you go anywhere. You’d also have a more limited number of people. That sort of thing has to actually be plotted. That’s the bottom line,” she says, doffing her metaphorical cap at the other side, who “by and large, lived up to their stereotypes”. But there will be a heave sometime, because that’s the nature of the beast, she says, “and anyone who’s there now will know a lot more the next time”.
Meanwhile, the old pictures of Enda, perpetually flanked by Olwyn and Olivia, have given way to new pictures of Enda, perpetually flanked by Catherine Byrne and Frances Fitz-gerald – “and Deirdre [Clune]”, she adds quickly.
For a woman deep dyed in Irish political culture, she appears to be walking away with little sentiment. But it has nothing to do with the heave, she insists again. “That would be stupid. I’m 36. Even if you had a problem with Enda, he’s only going to be here for a certain length of time.” So after the next election she will be moving to Carrigart, in Co Donegal, to raise her family and help Joe in his constituency.
She doesn’t have the option of returning to her old calling as a solicitor because – unlike some cute Dáil operators – she gave herself full-time to politics and did not maintain the annual hours required to keep her registration.
“I haven’t really thought about it. I’ll do something, though. Giving up this job is a really big decision. I will miss it, but I’m not a regretter. Joe is worried that I’ll regret it or that I’ll resent it or whatever. But I know that what I’m doing is right for me and right for my family.”