Saturday 27 May 2017

'What were you expecting, a size six blonde?'

Harney jokes about her reinvention after political career

Avril McHugh, marketing director of CPL Resources, with former Tanaiste Mary Harney at the WXN breakfast talk on the subject of ‘Reinventing and Reimagining’ in the Westin Hotel, Dublin. Photo: Frank McGrath
Avril McHugh, marketing director of CPL Resources, with former Tanaiste Mary Harney at the WXN breakfast talk on the subject of ‘Reinventing and Reimagining’ in the Westin Hotel, Dublin. Photo: Frank McGrath
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

If it seems like Mary Harney has gone off the radar, that's because she has. The former Tánaiste and leader of the Progressive Democrats has candidly admitted her favourite benefit of life these days is her precious privacy.

She doesn't do interviews any more, and when asked her opinion of the new 32nd Dáil, she wryly says: "No comment" - pausing only to add: "I wish them well."

Nevertheless, cajoled into giving an address to the Women's Executive Network (WXN) breakfast event at the Westin Hotel in Dublin, she explains: "Believe it or not, I am very shy. You might find it extraordinary, but it is true."

Harney (63) looks relaxed and wears her hair longer, joking about her billing at the WXN event under the heading "Reinvention and Reimagination", quipping: " I suppose when you saw reinvention and reimagination . . . you probably thought you were going to see a size six Mary Harney on the stage with long blonde hair."

She tells them that the distilling and analytical skills she honed in the political arena translate well to the world of industry and commerce.

She speaks frankly - but perhaps not quite elaborately enough - about her time as Health Minister and makes a veiled reference to her reform of the health service.

"In each job you can only do incremental change," she says, adding that if she has learned anything over the course of her political career it is that "getting bogged down in structural change is not a very worthwhile task."

" And I would tell anybody in a ministerial role to avoid structural change unless it's very necessary, because it is all-consuming for the people who work in an organisation," she says.

"Sometimes there's confusion between structural reform and the real reason the structure is in place which is to make things happen."

She mentions the "incredibly controversial" reform of national cancer services - consolidated into eight centres, recalling how there were "posters in Monaghan up with my picture, saying; "wanted for murder' because we had taken away the service. Effigies of me were burned on bonfires in many parts of the country."

Such criticism hurt her family - but she remained thick-skinned, she says.

"I just say that as a sample of when you try to do the right thing, how very often it can be a challenge," she adds.

And she speaks of the financial collapse, admitting that one of the key mistakes the government made was in benchmarking the public sector against private-sector pay instead of public-sector pay in other countries.

"Of course, when there's a downturn the private sector can make reductions much more easily. It's much more difficult in a public-sector environment."

The government had accepted the consensus in the country of a 'soft landing' and didn't listen to those giving a different view.

She chimes in with Enda Kenny's concerns about young people being "always on the phone, heads down".

Harney has come around to the idea of quotas for women in politics, is enthusiastic over the appointment of new Senator Lynn Ruane and says how awful it was how a psychologist on TV once claimed Joan Burton "moved her lips a certain way because she was adopted".

Politics is harder for women, she concedes.

Irish Independent

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