Lucinda Creighton: Enda, Eddie and me
Renua leader talks to Kathy Sheridan about setting up a new party, abortion and other issues
Lucinda Creighton: “Fine Gael has become Fianna Fáil, full stop. I don’t see any difference.” Photograph: Dave Meehan
The optics are not ideal. The new party, determined not to be defined as the popish one, is sandwiched between a talk about thanksgiving letters to a religious magazine and another about religion and science. Still, Lucinda Creighton is the only politician on the Percy French Festival programme, and one of the few in the place under 40.
The half-dozen local Renua activists who have turned up for Creighton at Castlecoote House, a few kilometres from Roscommon town, include Anne Farrell, a former community-welfare officer and the sister of the local Labour TD John Kelly. Not bad for a party only four months old.
Poised and bright-eyed, Creighton delivers a predictable stump speech that lashes into cronyism and what she terms its “self-satisfied smugness” in relation to Greece, then accuses the Government of returning to “heady social partnership” and “giveaway budgets”.
Plus ça change, she sighs. “Fine Gael has become Fianna Fáil, full stop. I don’t see any difference,” she says later.
As the gentle strains of The Mountains of Mourne drift into the library she recalls the night, exactly two years ago, when she voted against the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill. The upshot was immediate ejection from a ministerial office she had occupied for 27 months, and a full stop to her stellar rise within Fine Gael.
Creighton and the Taoiseach were seen exchanging a few words in the chamber after the vote. Was Enda Kenny wishing her a wistful Godspeed?
“I went over, shook his hand and said, ‘No hard feelings’. And he said, ‘I need a letter of resignation from you, because otherwise we’ll have to convene a Cabinet meeting’ [to sack you]”. He never said he wanted it that night, she says. But within 90 minutes he had asked her three times for the letter.
“I knew exactly what they wanted: to replace me immediately, to show I was no loss to the Government. So I went to my office and wrote it. And then he convened a Cabinet meeting that night anyway. He lied. He was always going to have a Cabinet meeting.”
The anger is still raw.
‘Evolving in the public glare’
What Creighton terms the right-to-life issue might be perceived as her public breakpoint with Fine Gael. In fact the mystery is how she made it to 2013 as a Fine Gael party member, never mind a minister. Her opposition to abortion is unequivocal, and that includes cases of fatal foetal abnormality.
“I met with a group of parents last week who were told their children had fatal abnormalities, and they all survived, and almost all of them lived – some for years . . . I don’t know where you draw the line. I think it’s presented in such a black-and-white fashion . . . There is no such thing as ‘incompatible with life’.”
Creighton’s response to a recent Red C poll for Amnesty International Ireland, suggesting that 80 per cent are in favour of widening access to abortion, is that there must be a referendum.
“I just think there is no debate about it at the moment; there’s just a massively one-sided position adopted by the media, pretty much every commentator, all those organisations, including Amnesty.”
Her stance on abortion is in sharp contrast to her evolution on same-sex marriage, a journey that went from No – “I didn’t see why it had to be redefined to give people equality” – to a live-and-let-live Yes. She came to believe that marriage became “such an important recognition for gay people of their role in society – and how could you be against that?
“I felt that by voting Yes I was giving people the acceptance that they yearned for, and there could be no damage and no negativity flowing from that. I never bought into the notion that gay marriage would damage other people’s marriages. That’s the most bizarre argument ever.”
So she is evolving? “Shouldn’t everyone be?”
True. But the problem for Creighton is that because she was elected to Dublin City Council at 24 and to the Dáil at 27, her evolution has happened in the public glare. Plus, unlike others, she has never been the type to soft-pedal her views, however inconsistent they might seem.
In the process her support for abortion rights flipped to total opposition. The same happened to her relationship with Fine Gael, the party she joined as a fresher at Trinity College Dublin.
Donnybrook Fine Gaeler
There was never any doubt about Creighton’s work ethic. She attributes that to her father, John, who left school at 13 and ran a betting office in Claremorris, Co Mayo, for 30 years. “He would come home for his dinner at five,” she says, “drive to the dogs in Galway, Longford or Mullingar, back home at midnight – and he worked Saturdays too.”
Her father got cancer when Lucinda was 11. He sold the office but kept his pitch at greyhound and pony racing. She often came home from college to drive him to the courses and clerk for him.
Her political interest was probably inspired by her mother, Mary, a primary teacher – “I find teachers tend to be political.”
Despite the Mayo heritage she shares with her former party leader, Creighton has the indelible look of a Donnybrook Fine Gaeler. That may have some of its roots in the summers spent in the Rathmines home of Prof Sean Freyne, her father’s cousin. They were as close as brothers, she says.
It was never any secret that she thought little of Kenny. Her early admiration for the Fine Gael of Cosgrave and FitzGerald dissipated rapidly “once I saw his style in operation . . . He’s part of an ancien regime, 40 years in the Oireachtas and never expressed any interest in reforming anything . . . I supported Richard Bruton” – in the 2010 heave – “because I felt there was more authenticity, more desire to change things.”
Yet Creighton wasn’t above sounding the charge when required. Does she recall introducing Kenny to a 2007 conference with the words, “With his humanity, his vision, he mended our broken spirit”?
She winces, and laughs. “Yeah, that’s a bit embarrassing, all right.”
It was downhill from there. The nadir came when details of a parliamentary-party meeting were leaked in 2010. It was said she was close to tears, claiming that a dirty-tricks campaign was being waged against her by one person and that her experience did not tally with the image of Kenny as a great team leader, as he had done nothing to help her and stop the rumours.
Sense of victimhood This incident seemed to encapsulate Creighton’s sense of victimhood within Fine Gael. She felt she was being “completely condescended to, spoken down to by the party leader . . . almost like, ‘There’s the little girl in the corner,’ like, ‘How dare you have an opinion that differs to the party line?’
“It was a shock to me, because my view was that you were working in a team and you might have differences of opinion. But isn’t that what politics is supposed to be about? You don’t go out and pick up the phone to journalists in order to try and portray someone in a bad light – which is that they did to me permanently, from 2007 to 2011.
“Every day there was something. And they did it in my constituency as well, all the time”.
Why would they do that ?
“It’s a lads’ club. These guys are lads. They have no difficulty with women who will be compliant, who make up the numbers, who will sit and smile and doughnut the leader for doorsteps and press conferences, but they cannot cope with a woman who has an opinion of her own. From day one that was apparent to me.”
She was also “talked down to” by staff, she claims. “I commented [publicly] on cuts to personal assistants for people with disability, and I had some unelected adviser shouting and screaming and roaring at me, telling me what I could and couldn’t speak about.”
So it just happened to be the abortion Bill that tipped her over? “Yeah, the bill was symbolic. The idea that someone can be forced to vote against their conscience in my view is unconscionable, but it was the way in which that decision was arrived at.”
Suppose Kenny and Phil Hogan – for whom she reserves a special tone – had vanished. Would she have stayed ?
“No. Obviously the personalities reflect the attitudes within the party, but it’s not a personality thing. It’s about who is the person who’s going to stamp out the cronyism, deal with the legacy issues, and I just never had confidence in that”.
On top of that, she adds, Ministers of State were ignored and had no power.
Renua, ‘a totally mixed bag’
So now there is Renua, the political party born out of an RDS rally in January 2014, where Creighton claims the media went “looking for people who would be wielding crucifixes . . . But I think you’ll find that the candidates we’re running and the people in the organisation are a totally mixed bag in terms of views on abortion. While people want to pigeonhole us, it’s much broader.”
But with signs of the electorate drifting back to larger parties, has Renua dawdled too long?
She knows she can be rash and so didn’t “want to be bounced into things”. And there was the “small matter” of having a baby (Gwendolyn, now 15 months). Then there was the “endless, fruitless talks with independent TDs, who are great at talking but very difficult to get to make decisions.”
“The other thing is that there were very different views. I feel if you’re going to go to the trouble of organising, the whole point is to give people a clear choice, a clear outline of what you intend to do.
“Other independent TDs didn’t want that at all,” she says. “They didn’t want policies that they’d have to stand over, or be controversial or unpopular that they would have to defend. They wanted to be all things to all men – and I have no interest in that. And that went on for quite a number of months.”
Anyway, she claims, she hasn’t detected any huge change in the past 12 months. “The anger is palpable. There is going to be a huge number of independents standing, but Renua is a party. It has a brand, it has an identity, it has a policy platform.”
It will make an impact only when all the policies and candidates are in place, she believes. “We’ll have close to 20 candidates by early August. The more candidates we get on the pitch, the more opportunity we will have to get the message out.”
It has been a week of two halves. A little pixie dust never goes astray, so the announcement that Finbarr Filan, a 47-year-old manufacturing engineer – and brother of the Westlife star Shane Filan – will run for Renua in Sligo-Leitrim generated positive headlines. (He was, incidentally, the party’s 12th candidate to be selected.) But Renua lost its Galway West candidate when Councillor James Charity, a barrister, announced he was leaving only two months after joining, mainly because of Creighton’s stance on water charges.
But setting up a party is hard.
“Really hard. The hardest part? Managing volunteers and managing expectations. They want things yesterday, rightly. But we have just one paid employee. That’s John. As in Drennan, the former Sunday Independent journalist, who is now Renua’s director of communications and political strategy.
“I have my own staff in my office, three TDs and one Senator” – her husband, Paul Bradford – “and my office was party HQ, effectively, for the first couple of months.”
The dependence on volunteers slows everything down. The requisite interactive website is being built by volunteers. “If you’re paying you can say, ‘Get this done.’ But we can’t do that. Then there is the job of identifying the right candidates. That’s taking up an awful lot of time.”
And, finally, there is the business of the “good few hundred thousand” euro needed to run the election campaign.
Meanwhile, for media purposes, Creighton is Renua. She doesn’t say so, but the launch-night two-hander with Eddie Hobbs on the Late Late sofa was not a success. Hobbs, says a party member, “is like Marmite: you love him or loathe him”. But Creighton gives him credit for fronting up.
“If you go back to the last election,” she says, “there were all those economic commentators and pundits who were talking about getting involved, talking about offering something new – and they all just disappeared. Eddie said at least a year and a half ago, ‘If you’re going to do something, I would like to help.’
“We have different views on some issues, but he has a really strong following in some parts of the country and has a good view of where the economy needs to go. And he’s now doing all of this work for the party, on fundraising, on SME policy, meeting chambers of behalf of Renua . . . He has gotten off the fence, and he’s doing it, and everybody wants to knock and criticise him.”
Everybody? “Yes, a lot of people do. Maybe it’s because he’s not standing, but he is doing it . . . I just think it’s really easy to be a hurler on the ditch, and that’s what most people are.”
The women in politics problem
Women present another problem. Even highly successful businesswomen say, “I could never do what you do.” Observing the gulf between male and female mindsets, Creighton reckons the vanity element is key.
“Men tend to go, ‘Jesus, I could be a TD. Sure why wouldn’t I. Sure I’m really popular. Everybody loves me.’ Whereas women go, ‘God, what if I didn’t get elected? It could be humiliating. I’m not good at speaking in public. I’m not an expert on every single topic under the sun, so I could get caught out.’ ”
There are the politicians “who need to be in every single catfight in the constituency”, Creighton says. “It’s not just about getting elected. It’s about being the top dog, the one who tops the poll. It’s a popularity contest.
“I think women are not innately that way designed or inclined – and that’s a big obstacle. So trying to encourage women, and appeal to their inner sense of social justice, that trying-to-change-the-world thing, is probably going to appeal to them, rather than that you can be the most popular person in your community.”
‘A very small house’
Lucinda Creighton could never be accused of being in it for vanity or gain. She could be a highly paid Cabinet Minister now, sitting pretty with a chauffeur, if she had kept her head down.
Instead she is driving herself around the country in a dusty old four-wheel-drive, dating from the days when she had time for a horse and showjumping.
Home is a “very small house” in Sandymount, in south Dublin, made even smaller by the au pair required to help with Gwendolyn’s care. Her life with Bradford (also formerly of Fine Gael) can best be described as peripatetic. He is back and forth to his home constituency of East Cork, where his farm is leased, but he is slated to stand for Renua.
They are an unlikely pairing.
“Yeah, he’s so laid-back, we’re like chalk and cheese,” Creighton says. “Sometimes he needs a kick in the backside, and sometimes I need somebody to be a bit more mindful and Zen than I am. There are times when I want to kill him and when he wants to kill me, but that makes it a bit more interesting.”
She was a student when they met. They got together in 2007, when she offered to drive around Co Mayo and introduce him to councillors for his Seanad run.
By the time they married, in 2011, he was 46 to her 31. So he was a late adaptor?
“Obviously he was nearly over the hill,” she says, laughing. “He was lucky he found me. He’d be on the shelf . . . He’s a really lovely person, and a good person.”
Would she go back to the Law Library if she lost her seat?
“I think I’m a bit old,” she says. “I’ll move on and do something else. I’m very philosophical. I would hate to be one of those people desperately trying to be re-elected. I take constituency work very seriously, but I would hate to be a slave to just trying to be popular.”