Nominee said yes straight away to Taoiseach

 

The new commissioner blamed invasion of privacy for her decision to quit Irish politics but she says she 'never had a difficulty' with being in the public eye, writes ARTHUR BEESLEY

MÁIRE GEOGHEGAN-QUINN was minding her four-year-old granddaughter during a family holiday on the Gulf Coast in Mississippi when the Taoiseach phoned.

Brian Cowen wanted to know would she be interested in becoming Ireland's next European commissioner.

That was 13 days ago. Although Geoghegan-Quinn had been mooted for many months as the prime contender for the lucrative post, the Taoiseach's call was still something of a surprise.

"It's unexpected and exciting, despite all the speculation," she said.

She gave the Taoiseach a positive reply straight away. "He didn't mention at all that he was talking to anyone else."

Geoghegan-Quinn was speaking last evening from Luxembourg, where she has worked since the start of this decade as Ireland's member of the European Court of Auditors.

Through this work she has met several times with new boss José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission. In anticipation of her nomination, she travelled to Brussels last Thursday afternoon for a private meeting with Mr Barroso in his office on the 13th floor of the Berlaymont building.

They chatted for a little over an hour. "It went very well," she said, describing the encounter as a "general get-to-know-you" meeting.

Over the weekend, Cowen spoke about the vacancy with Barroso. On Monday night, the Taoiseach phoned Geoghegan- Quinn to tell her he planned to propose her nomination to the Cabinet.

The Government is known to have the innovation and budget portfolios in its sights.

When asked what jobs she would prefer, Geoghegan-Quinn replied: "I can't share that. There was nothing discussed in relation to specific portfolios," she said, of her conversation with Barroso. It was for him alone to decide on her post and for the European Parliament to ratify the appointment, she added.

Geoghegan-Quinn will know her portfolio soon enough, as Barroso plans to allocate jobs on his new team once EU leaders choose their new foreign policy chief, who will also serve as a vice-president of the commission.

Depending on the post she receives, the new job could propel her once more into frontline politics. That was a world she left behind when she stood down at the 1997 general election, citing as her main reason the invasion of privacy caused by newspaper reports that one of her two sons had been expelled from school.

Although she maintained a low profile in Luxembourg, Geoghegan-Quinn says she was ready now for a more public job.

"I never had a difficulty with that," she said of the public aspect of political life.

Of her departure from the Dáil, she said she was not prepared to have her children dragged into politics. Her sons - "independent young men with their own lives" - were now aged 30 and 35.

In an opinion piece in The Irish Timesyesterday, columnist Fintan O'Toole questioned Geoghegan- Quinn's use of a provision in the Constitution to alter or overturn a large number of court punishments when she was minister for justice in the early 1990s.

Geoghegan-Quinn said she had no questions to answer about that, adding that she made a statement to the Dáil after a High Court ruling had criticised her deployment of the provision.

The constitutional practice was changed afterwards.

Stating that all justice ministers used the provision, Geoghegan- Quinn said the issues would be "entirely different" if she was the only such minister to deploy it.

Geoghegan-Quinn said she expected robust hearings in the European Parliament when her appointment was to be ratified, but added that she had been down that path twice before in respect of her two terms in the Court of Auditors.

The task of reading herself into the new brief will begin once her portfolio is chosen. For the moment, however, the card is Barroso's to play.

"We've had a very happy life here in Luxembourg," she said, adding that she and her husband would be sorry to leave good friends behind when they depart for Brussels.