Saturday 20 December 2014

Lunch with Aine Collins

The Cork TD talks about brushing off the fuss over 'Lapgate' and juggling family life with politics

Graham Clifford

Published 15/09/2013 | 05:00

Food for thought: Aine Collins and Graham Clifford at lunch in The Wallis Arms Hotel in Millstreet, Cork
Food for thought: Aine Collins and Graham Clifford at lunch in The Wallis Arms Hotel in Millstreet, Cork
What Aine and Graham had....
Moving on: The 'Lapgate' incident brought Aine Collins the kind of attention she would rather not have had

If Aine Collins is still reeling from the fallout over the 'Lapgate' saga, then she's certainly not showing it. On the contrary, that infamous late-night clip in July which showed her Fine Gael party colleague Tom Barry pulling her on to his lap during a debate on the abortion legislation is furthest from her mind.

She sighs heavily when I invite the elephant in the room to our table at the cosy Wallis Arms Hotel in Millstreet.

"People are completely tired of it – and so am I," she tells me, adding: "We need to draw a line in the sand."

I ask how those in her Cork North West constituency reacted to the incident.

"People are of the view that there are bigger issues to focus on. Anyone that spoke to me about it was very supportive. They thought it was a big deal about nothing, to be honest. Obviously, there have been a few jokes but that's moved on now as well.

"My husband Paul was very supportive. Our family life is very private to us. He'd be more worried about me and how I was than anything else."

In a strange way, the incident made the successful businesswoman and mother of three known to thousands across the country. But it wasn't the kind of spotlight the 44-year-old would have hoped for.

"I didn't want this to become an issue which would put women off entering politics," she explains between nibbles of her toasted sandwich.

A number of women's groups wanted Aine to be a public face for their attempts to highlight gender inequalities in Irish politics, but she wasn't having any of it.

"We were getting contacted by groups such as the Women's Council of Ireland, who were trying to make it all into something it wasn't."

So she maintains the storm has blown over – that the line in the sand has been drawn.

The great irony of the entire sorry episode is that Deputy Collins has worked her whole life to avoid any kind of 'victim' status.

She tells of a life where the hurdles that were thrown in front of her were overcome through a combination of hard work and dogged determination.

A farmer's daughter from the rural parish of Knockbrack near Banteer, Aine moved to London in her late teens after deciding an engineering course at the Cork Institute of Technology wasn't for her.

"I did some secretarial work at a legal practice on Fleet Street, but studied business and finance at night in the North East London Polytechnic (now part of the University of East London)."

In September 1990, at the age of 21, Aine gave birth to a baby girl who she named Ciara – but the following years were tinged with sadness.

"Her dad Dermot was from Millstreet and we were childhood sweethearts but, unfortunately, it didn't work out. He was a very bright guy, very intelligent and funny but he became an alcoholic at a young age and very sadly died soon after turning 31."

A single mother, Aine decided to move home soon after her little girl was born, and quickly took steps to improve her situation.

"I went back to trainee accountancy at night with the Institute of Chartered Accountants, and also did some part-time work in bars. I was on my own with Ciara and I had to do what was best for the two of us to get by."

In 1996, she opened her own accountancy practice in Millstreet, and a year later, at the tender age of just 26, bought a pub in Newmarket that quickly became known as Aine's bar.

Aine recalled the risks she took in business at a time when go-getting young female entrepreneurs were light on the ground in rural Ireland. She reels off her impressive catalogue of enterprising ventures – some didn't work out, but most did.

"Determination isn't something I'd be lacking in. When I bought the bar I suppose I saw an opportunity there. I did it all on my own, as in I took out and repaid my own loans. There was no private investment from anyone else."

We pause as Aine greets some passing constituents. I take my opportunity and dive into my tasty spaghetti carbonara.

Juggling the roles of mother, accountant and pub owner, Aine decided to sell the bar in 2001, which would prove to be a memorable year for the TD.

On the night before New Year's Eve, she met her husband-to-be, Paul Cassidy, from Galway, on a weekend in Kilkee and, two years later, the couple were married in Adare. Soon their first child, Thomas (now 6), came along and a year later, Aine's second daughter, Lily, was born.

Finally, everything seemed to be falling into place, but another setback was around the corner.

When just four-months-old, Lily was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.

"Once we were told about what she had, I can honestly say we were totally all over the place as we tried to deal with it.

"We applied for American visas as we thought the care for her there would be better but, as we researched some more, we realised huge advances had been made in Ireland in this area in recent years.

"The damp weather isn't good for her so we try to get to the sun when possible. In August, we were in Portugal. Once there, it's amazing – her cough goes in the sun."

In March, the family got great news when the Health Minister announced that a new gateway drug in the treatment of cystic fibrosis for those with a specific gene would be made available in Ireland.

It's hoped the drug, named Kalydeco, will improve the quality of life for those eligible to take it, and also allow them to live longer.

"I'll never forget the day that James Reilly told me this drug was being introduced. We were walking down a street near Leinster House and he told me it was coming. I stopped, looked at him and said 'That's great' and, next of all, I started bawling crying. I was in floods of tears."

"He looked at me with a smile and said: 'I was waiting for that. You wouldn't be a mammy otherwise.'"

With calls for more women to enter Irish politics growing in volume, Aine says that being a mother and a TD can work hand in hand once a strict schedule is followed.

She catches the 6.20am train from Mallow to Dublin on a Tuesday morning during Dail-term and then hops on the 145 bus to Kildare Street before returning home to Cork on a Thursday afternoon.

"We've been blessed with the quality of the childcare we have. An amazing lady comes in and looks after the children. It just works really well and then my husband is home every evening around six.

"The kids are used to it. They don't know any different. Sometimes, we beat ourselves up about being the stereotypical parent.

"If I wasn't involved in politics, I think I still wouldn't be at home all the time. I could never be a full-time mom. It's not that I don't love and adore my kids – of course I do, with all my heart – but I'm better when I'm out working. I need that for me to be happy and fulfilled."

Committed to the area of small and medium-sized enterprise development, she believes her experience in the business world means she has a strong understanding of what's needed to reinvigorate towns such as Millstreet.

Frustrated by the lack of investment available for entrepreneurs in her county, she helped create the Cork Foundation, which aims to raise venture capital from Cork business people based abroad.

Her drive to succeed is palpable. I ask if, down the line, she has any ministerial ambitions in the area of enterprise.

"I'd like to have that opportunity if our Taoiseach would like me to – but at the moment I'm very happy with the work we're doing."

A quick check of the watch and she's on the go again. "My sister is home from Canada and I have to cook for eight people this evening, so I better get a move on."

I can't help but think that, if her star continues to rise, this energetic dynamo will continue to make headlines in the future – with 'Lapgate' a distant memory.

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