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There really is something about Mary Mitchell O’Connor

A sense prevails that the Minister is too beholden to Kenny and simply not up to the job

She drove her car off the plinth in Leinster House, much to the amusement of others. She was one of the leading backbench brown-nosers of Enda Kenny at the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party. She enraged her colleagues and competitor TDs by being promoted straight to Cabinet.

Her big budget idea of a special tax rate for returning emigrants was shot down in public by the Taoiseach himself, hours after it was floated. She was monstered at a meeting of her own parliamentary party.

But now more serious questions are being asked everywhere in Government about her capacity and capability, her talent and temperament.

There’s clearly something about Mary Mitchell O’Connor, the Minister for Jobs and Enterprise. But what is it exactly?


Leinster House is a competitive and often bitchy environment. Lurid tales of politicians’ mishaps and malfeasance are part of the general discourse there. Exaggeration is not exactly unknown. Your rival’s fall is another inch up the greasy pole for you. And of course, nearly everything said is off the record.

Still, even adding all those caveats, there is a widespread sense throughout the entire Government apparatus that Mitchell O'Connor is struggling in her new role, something several Ministers, TDs, civil servants and business people confirmed in dozens of conversations with The Irish Times over recent days.

That sense is at its keenest in her own party.

“I just don’t think she’s up to the job. I don’t think any of us do,” says one Cabinet colleague. You can see the eyes go to heaven around the cabinet table sometimes, he adds.

Another Fine Gael Minister who knows her well says that Mitchell O’Connor works hard, extremely hard. Puts in long days, travels around the country.

“She shouldn’t do so much running around the country, announcing 30 or 40 jobs here and there,” the Minister said. “She should stay in Dublin, do the big stuff, master her brief.”

Civil service gossip suggests that her officials are not greatly impressed with their new mistress. Stories about her performances at events circulate, perhaps exaggerated, but not to her advantage.

In front of an audience of largely American business figures, for example, she responded to a rousing speech by the broadcaster Philip King by declaring, in a what seemed a stage Dublin accent, "Folly-er dat!" to their mystification.

She told another meeting of overseas executives that she had painted her nails in the country colours for the day. They had no idea what she was talking about.

"I wish she would stop getting Julie Sinnamon's [chief executive of Enterprise Ireland] name wrong," laughs one TD. "I mean, just call her Julie from Enterprise Ireland or something. But stop mangling her name!"

Individually, none of these foibles or gaffes amount to very much. But together they draw for Mitchell O’Connor’s critics an unflattering picture.

For some observers, Mitchell O'Connor bears comparison with former minister Mary Coughlan, whose informal – and occasionally profane – style sometimes horrified them. The current Minister's officials are said to be nervous about a forthcoming trip to China and Japan, where meetings can be extremely formal and protocol-dominated.

Schmooze work

One source cited a recent jobs announcement in Dublin. “Her job is to sit with the big American guy, schmooze him, tell him he’s a great fella and tell him her door is always open,” he said. “She turned up late, hardly spoke to him and left early.”

However, other people who have worked with her say the criticism is unfair.

“I thought she was very polished, very polite, she turned up and did a good job,” says one person from a corporate background who had recent dealings with her. She says to her officials, ‘Why can’t this be done?’ and she says it in front of businesspeople. I’d say they don’t like that.”

Several Fine Gaelers say that criticism of her is magnified because she is seen as a proxy for Enda Kenny. “It’s a way of attacking Enda without actually attacking Enda,” says one TD. “But that’s because she is seen as a bad appointment by him.”

Others put the criticism down to sexism. However, female TDs were just as critical of her, and there are, after all, other women in the Cabinet who don’t attract the sort of reviews that Mitchell O’Connor is getting.

“She works hard, but is not up to it,” says one TD, a woman. “That’s the common consensus, unfortunately.”

Of those who speak in defence of her, however, few if any venture that she is on top of her brief and performing well. Instead, they express sympathy for the criticism she is getting, and say that it takes time to settle in as a Minister.

“She’s getting a hard press,” says one Minister. “It takes six months to learn a brief, especially for a first-time Cabinet Minister. Give her a chance.”

Nonetheless, much of the recent bad press was generated entirely by Mitchell O’Connor. The pre-budget leak, proposing a special low tax rate for returning emigrants, was hardly the work of anyone else.

That morning in Leinster House, the Minister was delighted with the idea. It was only when the Taoiseach publicly dumped on it in the Dáil that she was forced to scuttle away from the notion. She later told TDs that she was abandoning the idea.Last weekend, however, she told the Sunday Business Post that she would bring it forward again next year.

She also revealed that she didn't meet Minister for Finance Michael Noonan before Budget 2017 "because he was unavailable, he was ill". But Noonan was only in hospital for two days; the meeting could have been rescheduled if they really wanted it.

A spokesman for the Department of Finance said the two Ministers had spoken in Limerick at a jobs announcement the Monday before the budget.

Quixotic responses

Some of Mitchell O’Connor’s responses to questions have been . . . quixotic.

Asked about Brexit, for example, she said: “There one thing that is certain is that there’s huge uncertainty out there, and the other thing that it really certain is that this is not an event.” Make of that what you will.

A few weeks ago, in another interview with the Irish Examiner, Mitchell O'Connor was asked what her department was doing to promote women in business.

“So, here, what we are doing here is obviously I mentioned about confidence and all of that,” she replied. “So every group I go to I would seek out the women. Say, for example, I was at the Bloom festival. There was loads of young women, of women entrepreneurs there, all involved in home cottage industries,

“That’s not the name for it, but you know what I mean. And again, just to make sure that they know what’s going on, so we will have a whole kind of thing around, we will have a whole women’s forum putting that together.”

The Post interview was one of two she gave to Sunday papers last weekend. She also spoke to the Sunday Independent, telling the paper that "one of the things I found really hard on becoming a minister" was that people would call her "Minister".

She also mentioned that she was shortly due to be meeting her Northern Ireland counterpart. But she couldn't remember his name. "He's a red-haired fellow, with a beard."

Trump disgust

Later in the interview, Mitchell O’Connor said that Donald Trump “disgusted” her, before adding: “But if I had to work with him, if he is the president of the US, I will absolutely work with him and I will have a working relationship.”

“If I were her,” says one TD, “I would give up doing interviews for a while.”

This week sees Mitchell O’Connor is on a trade mission to Silicon Valley. Officials say person-to-person contacts on these trips are vital to securing future investment in Ireland.

“There’s a vice-president for international development or something and this is his big play,” one source says. “He’s got to make a recommendation on a 10- to 15-year investment. So you want these guys to meet the Minister and think: ‘These people are on our side. We can work with them.’”

Mitchell O’Connor’s office declined to supply an itinerary or details of the trip, citing commercial confidentiality. But it supplied a statement from the Minister, published in advance of her departure.

“During this busy week I will be meeting 11 companies from a wide range of sectors that are considering creating new jobs in Ireland,” it reads. “When I meet senior executives from multinationals like these, they are highly impressed by what Ireland has to offer as a gateway to a European market.”

They might be impressed by Ireland. But will they be impressed by Mary?

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times