Long road from Donegal to the Dáil


SATURDAY INTERVIEW:THE DONEGAL HILLS CHANGE after dark, when the sky closes in and the big county seems reduced, and it becomes hard to get your bearings even on familiar roads. When Mary Coughlan talks about her home town of Frosses, though, it is with the casual mastery of the local; for her, the place is always lit by the imagination - and by more than two decades of tramping these roads in her life as a TD, in the footsteps of her uncle and her father, writes Keith Duggan

"This is home, yeah. My father was born and reared just up the street, opposite the chapel. My grandmother, Cristobelle, had a shop and a post office down the street," she says, waving her hand in the direction of main street.

"Her sister ran a shop here too. This used to be a thriving town but as you know, a lot of things have moved away. My grandfather was the schoolteacher here. My father taught as well - first in Fanad, then he taught up in Gola Island, then up the mountain in Ardban," - her hand sweeps back towards the notional Bluestacks - "and then when grandad retired, he got the job here. He taught us. And that was fine. He was the master and that was it. He treated us the same as anyone else - sometimes he was harder on us than he was on the other 'scholars' as he called them. And my father was elected out of here as well."

When we meet, it is one of the last nights of Christmas, crisp and clear and everybody flushed from the cold and the general giddiness that comes with seeing old faces at this time of year. This is the heart of Coughlan country. It is a pretty village that you won't pass through unless you have reason to travel to Glenties from Donegal town. Its noted architectural quirk is that the graveyard is the central feature on one side of the street, leaving the community perpetually open to the old joke that in Frosses, one half of the town doesn't talk to the other.

Although the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise has performed the opening ceremony to a new sports facility that had fallen into disrepair since her own school days, she seems happy to be able to remove the cloak of office for an evening; it is, she admitted, "fantastic" to hear known voices refer to her as "Mary" again. She is in high humour, pouring us cups of tea in the kitchen and demanding to know who takes how many sugars and who needs sandwiches, laughing in delight when her call for some quiet is met with: "You are some woman to be talking about noise pollution. Pot. Kettle. Black."

AFTER MORE THAN a decade on the backbenches, Coughlan's assumption of the second-most-important political office in the land materialised so swiftly that even her most loyal supporters in the safe house of Donegal South West must have been surprised. It had the appearance of a chess move that nobody predicted.

Coughlan had always been a likeable politician and the initial press and public reaction to her appointment was positive, with swooning tributes about her vividly healthy appearance and sunny outlook. A television appearance on Miriam O'Callaghan's summer talk show advertised her candour and warmth as she revealed some of the trials her family has faced: her husband David endured a partial leg amputation after a serious car crash while on duty as a garda and her eldest child has suffered from severe hearing difficulties. That hour won admiration and empathy - chiefly because she was seeking neither.

But who knew then that the world was on the verge of a tailspin that would leave Ireland reeling, bombarded with hopeless economic forecasts and metaphorically thrust back to the dreary 1980s? It has been a bleak and ceaseless six months of national introspection that has proven sometimes bruising for Coughlan, who rarely became caught in the more savage political exchanges prior to becoming Tánaiste.

"It has turned," she acknowledges. "There has been a bit of a mob mentality . . . On a certain level, you expect that. You do get annoyed. But you keep going. It is when you . . . burst yourself for something that is serious and important and it is glossed over that it gets to you. And I do get annoyed at myself. People do make mistakes - and pressure and time is a problem. I spent a long, long time on the backbenches. Thirteen years. Some people would have taken a grudge at that. I didn't.

"And then I got the junior ministerial experience. But this has been a tumultuous change, yeah, where you have to know everybody else's brief as well as your own. In order to refine something, you need time - which we did not get. With the economy turning as it did, everything was moving, moving, moving."

Here in Frosses, all is still. You have to stand here, outside the floodlit tennis and basketball court named after James Kelly, a young man who died suddenly two summers ago, to understand how utterly removed from Dublin this place seems. The same holds for the towns and villages in south and west Donegal. She nods at the suggestion that people here have as much in common with New York as they do Dublin. "It's true. It is like Belfast and Derry - they are more relevant as cities to people here."

Her constituency was not exposed to the full furnace of the boom years, never as prone to its dafter excesses - and therefore, perhaps, not as vulnerable to the fallout. She smiles at the line told at a local petrol station when the owner was asked how the recession was treating him: "When you never felt a boom," he deadpanned, "then you don't feel a recession."

"There may be a bit of truth in it. People around here didn't lose the run of themselves. There is still a fierce sense of community and 'can do' and helping each other out. Most people here are pragmatic. They are more resilient. Many have come from England or America and have no intention of going back. There is no animosity. I wouldn't say that there is anger but people are concerned. Jobs are the big thing here; keeping employment and providing new jobs."

THAT HAS BEEN the mantra in Donegal since Coughlan was first elected. In order to understand the fatalistic nature of Mary Coughlan's rise, you have to go back to a cold February morning a quarter of a century ago when, strangely, the Dublin establishment came to Frosses. The occasion was for the funeral of her uncle, Clement Coughlan. The TD was on his way to the Dáil when the familiar Irish tragedy struck: a bad stretch of road down the Midlands, a lorry rumbling the other way. His niece was a boarder in the Ursuline convent in Sligo when the news broke that Monday lunchtime - February 1st, 1983.

The previous weekend, she had been out running the roads and had bumped into her uncle. "He was the last man on earth you ever wanted to run with because he was seriously athletic. You knew when he was under pressure because that is when he went running. He went for a huge run that day - he ran to the port in Inver and swam across. I left his clothes down at the beach so he could run up home again. That was the last time I saw Clement."

Although she was a member of Ógra Fianna Fáil, her uncle's death was her first up-close exposure to the tricky machinations of Irish politics. The graveside mourners read now like a roll-call of the lions of late 20th-century Irish politics. The schoolgirl was present when the then taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, called into the house to pay his respects to James Coughlan, her grandfather. "I can still see Clement in the casket. It is funny how it comes back."

Dick Spring was tánaiste. The Fianna Fáil parliamentary party was there en masse: Charles Haughey, Ray Burke, Ber Cowan, Pádraig Flynn, Bertie Ahern - the usual suspects. To deepen the intrigue, the party was engaged in one of its periodic leadership putsches against Haughey and it was reported that the TDs stood around the graveside in strategic alliance. The funeral lunch was held in the Abbey hotel in Donegal town, owned by Dom Breslin, an uncle on her mother's side.

"We were in the hotel for about an hour and a half when we discovered that Charlie had held a parliamentary meeting upstairs about these moves to oust him. And that was the end of the disturbances - for a while. But Clement, he was young. Only 40. They were only after bringing home a new baby, Alena - their seventh child. There was no life insurance there either. Since Clement was killed, it has been made compulsory that all Dáil members have to have life insurance. They never had any. It was ridiculous. There was a lot of chat then about whether Clement was for or against getting rid of Haughey. But who knows? Clement was his own man."

His brother Cathal - "the reluctant politician" is how his daughter describes him now ("It was always said he was too nice for politics; says a lot about me, doesn't it?") - won the vacant seat and, as a student in Dublin, Mary Coughlan became a habitué of Leinster House. "I called in, like any student who has parents in the Dáil - doing the letters, getting fed, come in for a few quid." And then three years later, out of the blue, her father complained of a sore lip, had it attended to and was dead just a few weeks later, in June of 1986.

BOTH COUGHLAN MEN are buried in Frosses. There were rumours that her mother Marian might run in the by-election. But because of circumstance as much as anything, the notion that Mary might run for the "Coughlan" seat was floated. One autumn afternoon, she was clearing out her father's office on Kildare Street with the help of her brother Michael when she received word that Haughey would like to see her. "How he even knew I was in the building I will never know." There he sat: the hooded eyes, the famous purr. "Was I intimidated? Probably. Everybody was. It was Mr Haughey. And I didn't know it but that was my interview."

Even in a constituency as notoriously predictable as Donegal Southwest - "If you're not elected by lunchtime, you can forget about it" is the standard saying - her impressive debut stunned party apparatchiks. Ever since then, it would be fair to say she has been a Fianna Fáil electoral shoo-in. She grins at the assertion that Ballyshannon, the birthplace of her grandfather and a river town that has hardly thrived under the care of the State, has loyally returned her as its number one choice. "Not in 1989," she corrects. "That was hell. I felt I had to make a stand as my own person. The people of Ballyshannon didn't vote for me that year. Over the Army wives issue. I could hardly get a breath of a vote in Bundoran, Castlefin, Ballybofey, anywhere. And I scraped back in."

But she learned. Now, when she is in Leinster House, she will think of her late uncle or of the evenings she spent visiting her father when he was working. "And I think: God, I am here longer than either of them were."

The Coughlan daughter has become the family matriarch, the survivor of two seismic leadership shifts in Fianna Fáil and, with Ber Cowan's son and Brian Lenihan senior's boy, she has emerged in what represents a dynastic trinity. For some, this torch-passing of seats through families represents all that is wrong with Irish politics. She regards it simply as a reflection of the practicality of the voters.

"Reputation. They know you understand the system and are accustomed to how it works. You know the life and have the contacts. But in 20 years' time, it won't be like that - under no circumstances. Go around the Oireachtas now and you will find that most people do not encourage their kids to go into politics.

"I have a daughter who would make a fine politician but I don't know. . . she has the wrong surname for a start!" She inadvertently met her husband, David Charlton, through politics: he was a Garda working at Dáil Éireann. The couple have two children, Cathal (11) and Maeve (9).

Back in 1987, when asked why she chose to run for the Dáil, the 22-year-old Coughlan famously quipped: "I need the job." That cheerful, off-the-cuff sensibility became her chief weapon as a TD but has perhaps left her vulnerable to attack and correction now that she resides in higher office, where every utterance is scrutinised. And it is a sentiment that many Irish people will echo this year.

Now, as Tánaiste in an administration facing into what has been forecast as one of the nastiest storms in the history of the State, Mary Coughlan has reached what will surely become her defining years as an Irish politician. Opposition criticism has been caustic and the leadership pilloried - she threw her eyes to heaven as she recounted a Phoenix sketch that had her ice-skating with the Taoiseach: "Let's just say I'm buxom" - and perhaps for the first time, her ability, her grasp has been openly queried. But the optimism and vigour have not been withered.

"We have the energy for this," she contends. "There is a genuineness there in the Boss that people haven't seen yet. A lot of people don't know him that well. What has happened is that we haven't been able to hit the ground outside of what we have been at in the management of the economy and of what is going on.

"I can see him turning things around. I remember, before I was appointed, we were chatting . . . and he has a view and vision of where he wants us to be. The Taoiseach is a good listener and a good thinker and very strategic at what he does. Because of the international situation, it is very difficult to forecast where things are at. So therefore everyone is being listened to - from the doomsayers to the positive, nobody is certain of where it is going.

"I do feel that the election of Barak Obama can bring some political stability to the world. And if he can bring about that political cohesion, it becomes easier to create political stability. And naturally, the man is going to have to create opportunities for his own people - Americans are losing millions of jobs. But it is at the top end that we are looking for foreign direct investment. What we must do is get a message across to the White House and to the new establishment that we are not a tax haven - that what we are at in foreign direct investment is mutually beneficial. And on that basis I am travelling to the States in February to get that message through. Because there will be huge competition for FDI now. And we can't be over-reliant on it, but it remains very important to us."

AND YET THE PRIZE ACQUISITIONS continue to fall, with Dell the latest foreign star abandoning Ireland and relocating in the heart of Europe. Each week seems to bring grimmer news. The Tanaiste pauses for a second when asked if this Dáil can survive its natural lifespan.

"I would hope so," she says quietly. "I hope so. What I don't like is this idea that it is the Taoiseach, the Minister for Finance and myself running the show. It has been portrayed that way and I don't like it . . . it is very hard to get the message across that there is a big team there. Everyone else is working hard. It is not going to be easy next year. But sure, if this was easy, everyone would be in it."

The Coughlan laugh, warm and inclusive and recognisable to political junkies everywhere, fills the room. Outside, her voice carries in the night as she shouts cheerio to friends. Who knows what lies ahead for the Donegal woman? But you can't help thinking of her uncle trashing through the freezing Atlantic all those January's ago to clear his mind and that there is something of that toughness running through his ultimate successor. And that it will be needed in the months ahead. The Tanaiste is still calling out farewells as she sits into the State car. It moves quickly up through the town, past the Frosses graveyard, lights blazing as it disappears into the winter of discontent.