I said to Charlie Haughey, ‘No thank you, Mr Haughey, I don’t want that job’

The Time of My Life: Mary O’Rourke on a phone call from the Fianna Fáil leader

Mary O’Rourke (back row, second right) at Áras an Uachtaráin for the swearing in of the new Fianna Fáil Cabinet in March 1987. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

I was elected to Dáil Éireann in November of 1982, and on a Sunday, in January of 1983, Enda – my late husband – and I were at home in Athlone. I was getting the Sunday lunch and Enda was reading the Sunday papers. He read out for me that the following day, Monday, Charlie Haughey was forming his front bench in opposition to Garrett FitzGerald, who had been elected as Taoiseach.

About an hour later, the telephone rang. That time, as you know, phones were on the hall table and I had the very modern matter of an extension to the kitchen. I lifted the phone and a voice said, "Is that you, Mary O'Rourke? This is Charles Haughey here."

So I said, "Hello, Mr Haughey." (We were very polite in those days. He was Mr Haughey, and for a long while that's what I continued to call him.) And he said, "Tomorrow I'm forming my front bench in opposition to the government and I would like you to be up at 11 o'clock. I'm offering you the position of Women's Affairs, opposite Nuala Fennell."

I like Nuala Fennell and thought she was a fine, normal person, particularly for someone in <a class="search" href='javascript:window.parent.actionEventData({$contentId:"7.1213540", $action:"view", $target:"work"})' polopoly:contentid="7.1213540" polopoly:searchtag="tag_organisation">Fine Gael</a>

Now I’m coming to the moment that changed my life. From I don’t know where, deep in my gut, I said, “No thank you Mr Haughey, I don’t want that job.” And he said “Oh I see. Fussy, are we?” I said, “No, I don’t want to be Women’s Affairs, put in a cupboard with ‘Women’s Affairs’ hanging outside the cupboard, and whenever contraception or divorce or family planning or any of these things are to be discussed I’m to be taken out for an airing, give my opinion, and put back in and the door closed. I will be talking about all of those issues anyway in my normal political life, but I don’t want to be labelled just for Women’s Affairs.”


Now just why did I say that at that time? I don't know. I had never discussed it with anyone. I like Nuala Fennell and thought she was a fine, normal person, particularly for someone in Fine Gael. In fact, I was friendly with her. But I knew deep inside in me I did not want that job. So Charlie said to me "And what would you like?" "Oh I'd like anything to do with education," I said.

Enda was listening to just my end, and he said "What was all that about?" So I told him and he said, "Well that's you gone anyway. You'll never get another offer." "Well, fair enough so," I said, and we had our lunch. Our two sons, who had been out playing games or whatever, came back in, and we all had a nice evening. After a few hours the phone went again, and lo and behold it was, "Charles Haughey here. Is that you Mary O'Rourke? I would like you up in the morning at 11. I am offering you the position of front bench spokesperson on Education, to be opposite Gemma Hussey."

Now, that was quite a surprise and I didn’t really expect it, but anyway up I went the next day and Charlie Haughey launched his opposition front bench, January 1983.

I regard that interlude of conversations with Charlie Haughey, particularly the first one, as one that changed my life. After four years in opposition front bench politics there was a general election in early 1987 and Fianna Fáil were returned to government, and Charles Haughey put his faith in me as a rookie TD and appointed me minister for education. And I continued in that role for almost five years.

So I think the moment that changed my life was my reaction to Charles Haughey’s telephone call to me that Sunday afternoon in January of 1983, all those years ago.