'I admire anyone who survives in politics, it’s rough'
Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald has faced myriad challenges since taking the Justice portfolio, writes Shane Phelan
Published 18/07/2016 | 02:30
When asked about her political influences, the country's second most senior office-holder recites a who's who of powerful female leaders.
Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel and Mary Robinson are the first names that trip off the tongue of Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald when the question is posed to her at her office in Government Buildings.
Other less obvious influences get a mention too.
Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to run for the vice-presidency of the US, and Petra Kelly, the trailblazing and ultimately ill-fated German Green Party activist who was murdered by her partner, are also name-checked.
The latter two were both invited to speak in Ireland when Ms Fitzgerald was chair of the Women's Political Association in the 1980s.
"I admire anybody who survives in politics. This is a rough business. These were women in a man's world," she said.
Ms Fitzgerald is, of course, the only woman currently being mentioned as a potential successor to Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
She said it was an honour to be appointed Tánaiste and that she hopes other women will be inspired into politics.
Her ultimate wish is for a 50/50 split between men and women in the Oireachtas. More women "changes the tone of the debate", she said.
"Role-modelling is very important for women. When you see women breaking barriers, it encourages other women to think big."
But if the Dublin Mid-West TD, who turns 66 next month, has any leadership ambitions herself, she certainly isn't saying so now.
"I don't speculate about the future," she said. "All you have to do is look at the leadership contest in the UK and what a cast of characters we have seen.
"People who expect leadership often don't get it. People that are seen as certainties sometimes aren't so certain. So I never really speculate about it."
It is a cautious answer and Ms Fitzgerald clearly does not want to say anything which will fuel further speculation about Mr Kenny's future.
It also has the hallmarks of a politician who is seeking to stabilise affairs after inheriting a ministry where landmines have been going off all too frequently in recent years.
Ms Fitzgerald acknowledges that her appointment as Justice Minister in 2014 came about in "unusual circumstances" following the resignation of Alan Shatter after a series of controversies.
She herself has not had an easy ride. Her election campaign, for example, was overshadowed by the outbreak of deadly gangland feuding and accusations that not enough was being done to get on top of it.
Ms Fitzgerald has had to deal with an explosion in burglaries and ongoing campaigns for the reopening of rural garda stations.
The former social worker has also had the tricky task of mending bridges with the legal professions, who were none too enamoured with her predecessor's plans for regulation of the sector.
While the gangland issue remains very live, Ms Fitzgerald can point to some success on the other fronts.
The latest CSO crime statistics show significant drops in burglaries, robberies and theft in almost every garda district, while the new legal regulator is set to arrive in three months' time.
She attributes the success on the burglary front to Operation Thor, a garda crackdown which began last November.
"The approach was multi-faceted. It was patrols, making sure the gardaí had the right vehicles. It was the money to have gardaí in place doing this work," she said.
Next comes the implementation of the Legal Services Regulation Act and the setting-up of an independent regulator for the legal professions.
It will begin operating on a phased basis on October 1 and will be fully operational by early to mid-2017, she said.
Ms Fitzgerald pledged that the new regulator will be "consumer-focussed" and help drive down the cost of accessing justice.
"We will have a new legal costs adjudicator structure. That is very important. You have greater opportunities for competition. You can have solicitors and barristers working together in partnerships," she said.
Some observers felt the Tánaiste "caved in" to pressure and gave considerable concessions to the legal professions to get the Act over the line.
For example, the Bar Council will retain its power to refuse membership of the Law Library to barristers in employment, partnerships or new business models, and the Law Society will retain financial and accounting oversight of solicitors.
Ms Fitzgerald acknowledged that amendments were made, but insisted these were to make the legislation better.
"I don't regard it as a cave-in. I don't accept some of the characterisation that has been made by various people," she said.
"I believe this is a historic, ground-breaking act. It delivers independent oversight and independent regulation. We have never had this before.
"So many of the changes were to improve the bill. They weren't a row-back. That characterisation was wrong as well."
Ms Fitzgerald is also hopeful that a Mediation Bill, which will be published before the end of the summer, will help provide an alternative to costly litigation in family disputes.
The bill will oblige solicitors and barristers to advise parties to consider using mediation as a means of resolving their differences.
It will also allow for court proceedings to be suspended so mediation can be entered into even after a case has begun.
Two other pieces of legislation are also high in her list of priorities this summer.
A Victims of Crime Bill, expected in the next few weeks, will make it mandatory for the gardaí, the Parole Board and Prison Service to share information with victims.
This will include providing updates on the progress of investigations and informing victims when the perpetrator of a crime is being released from prison.
"Victims have been overlooked. We saw it in the O'Higgins Report. The guards have a lot more work to do in terms of giving a proper service," said Ms Fitzgerald.
"I think they are improving their service to victims.
"They are much more conscious of it. But the biggest complaint you will get from people who report an incident is: 'I didn't hear anything back. I wasn't kept up to date'."
A new Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill will also see the introduction of tough anti-child grooming laws, with sentences of up to 10 years for a range of offences. It will also criminalise the purchase of sex, with fines of up to €1,000.
Critics have argued that such legislation could make things even more difficult for people in the sex trade, driving them further underground.
But this is rejected by Ms Fitzgerald.
"I think it is absolutely the right thing to do. I am very struck by the evidence from other countries who are doing it now," she said.
Her hope is that the bill will have a significant knock-on effect on people trafficking, which, she said, was closely linked to prostitution in Ireland.
"Women are being trafficked into towns and villages around Ireland and being sexually exploited. Sometimes they don't even know what country they are in or what town they are in," she said.
"The bill contains a stronger offence if you buy sex from someone who has been trafficked.
"That is another degree. We need to give out a message about not supporting trafficking," she said.