Politician whose career was defined by feminism and search for social justice

Obituary Monica Barnes: Former TD opposed the Eighth Amendment in 1983


Monica Barnes

Born: February 12th, 1936

Died: May 2nd, 2018

Monica Barnes, who died suddenly aged 82 years, was a former Fine Gael senator and TD and an influential campaigner for women’s rights for many years.

She came from a Fine Gael family background and was drawn to the socially radical policies of Dr Garret FitzGerald when he took over as party leader in the 1970s.

After a brief spell in the Seanad, she was elected to the Dáil for the Dún Laoghaire constituency in 1982, lost her seat in 1992 and won it back in 1997.

She retired from politics in 2002.

She served on the Council of State during Mary Robinson’s presidency.

Her feminism, and her quest for social justice, defined her political career, and she refused to compromise on what she considered to be issues of principle.

Timing and circumstances, and a reluctance to lobby for personal advancement, meant she never served in ministerial office. The consensus was that she would have excelled in a portfolio requiring social reform.

Former Labour minister for health Barry Desmond, who introduced a Bill liberalising the family planning laws in the 1980s, recalled in his book, Finally and In Conclusion, the strong support he received from Barnes, as he piloted the Bill through the Dáil in face of strong opposition from Fianna Fáil and some within Fine Gael.

He wrote of a telling intervention from Barnes, who by then had a history of “a long and passionate advocacy” of women’s rights.

“We are talking about bleak, guilt-ridden, repressed times when a woman did not have any say, no income, no right to work away from the home and no choice as to how many children she would or would not have,’’ Barnes said in the Dáil debate.

“I am talking about the period when if she did not get married and did not have children, her value was even less.”

Eighth Amendment

Before her death, she was planning to campaign for the repeal of the Eight Amendment to the Constitution, in advance of the referendum later this month.

This would have been a repeat of her trenchant opposition to the wording when it was first inserted into the Constitution following the bitter and divisive 1983 referendum.

Like other politicians who opposed the amendment at the time, she was subjected to harassment and vilification by some of those who backed it.

She later recalled she was referred to as a “tool of the devil’’ and a “disgrace to the women of Ireland”.

Representatives of the pro-amendment group hissed at her when she met them in the Dáil corridor, and she had to take refuge in the members’ bar.

“I was absolutely shaken,” she recalled. “I remember trying to have a coffee and I could hardly hold the cup.”

Born in Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, and reared in Kingscourt, Co Cavan, Monica McDermott, as she was then, won a county council scholarship as a boarder at St Louis Convent, Carrickmacross.

Even then she was a rebel, railing against the strong Catholic ethos that prevailed, not least the required membership of the Children of Mary with its emphasis on passivity, modesty and humility.

After school, she did a secretarial course in Belfast and later worked in London.

Back in Ireland, aged 26 years, she married accountant Bob Barnes.

It was the 1960s and they lived with their three children in a flat in Rathmines, Dublin.

Given that it was flatland, she was surrounded by people who went out to work every day, and she soon felt the isolation of a young mother of that era.

She suffered from post-natal depression, although it was not identified as that at the time.

“I became anti-social to such an extent that if I saw people I knew coming down the road I would rush up a side street to avoid them,’’ she later recalled.

Women’s group

When the family moved to a new housing estate in Killiney, she was able to share her difficulties with other young mothers. They were, she later said, her first women’s group.

She read Women in Chains, a pamphlet published by the Women’s Liberation Movement, which expressed many of her own views. She became a founder member of the Council for the Status of Women and embarked on a journey that would take her all the way to Leinster House.

Along the way, she remained unfailingly polite, helpful to everybody irrespective of their views, with her keen sense of humour always evident in conversation.

Monica Barnes is survived by her husband, Bob, daughters Sarah and Joanne, sister Angela and brother Colm, grandchildren and extended family.

She was predeceased by her son, Paul.