independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Is this the face of Fianna Fáil's future?

Kim Bielenberg

She is definitely a name for the future, and some have even put her forward as the woman who could become Ireland's first female Taoiseach.

Kate Feeney has already made history in politics as the first woman to be the leader of her party's youth wing, ógra Fianna Fáil.

A glance at the list of previous occupants of the post offers hints about where the 27-year-old from Sligo may end up in decades to come.

The post has previously been held by former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and the present party leader Micheál Martin.

Feeney brushes aside the prospect of such high ambitions and laughs diplomatically without ruling them out entirely: "For next year I am focused on ógra Fianna Fáil," says the Arts graduate from NUI Galway.

The young Dublin-based tax consultant has already been described, somewhat condescendingly, as "a perfect poster girl" for a party desperately trying to rebrand its tired and tattered reputation.

She presents an image of Martin's Fianna Fáil Nua as a squeaky clean, liberal progressive party that supports gay marriage and greater participation of women.

Nevertheless, she is firmly against the idea that there should be gender quotas, requiring parties to select a certain number of female candidates.

"I would hate anybody to ever say that I was only on the party ticket because I am a woman," she says.

Two years ago, she was a member of a party that was almost left for dead after the general election.

Fianna Fáil was a byword for economic calamity and incompetence, and Martin was being dismissed as the "first leader of his party who will never be Taoiseach".

But the youth wing of Fianna Fáil is at the forefront of an extraordinary revival that could propel the party back into government at the next election.

Feeney told Weekend Review that ógra Fianna Fáil has recently enjoyed a surge in membership.

"We have recruited 1,500 new members in the past year. We are now the biggest party on every college campus in the country except Trinity College."

The buoyant mood was obvious at the party's annual youth conference, where Martin moved easily among delegates, dressed in open-necked shirt and casual shoes.

Feeney grew up with Fianna Fáil blood coursing through her veins as the daughter of the former party senator, Tullamore woman Geraldine Feeney. She considers Brian Cowen a close family friend.

The Feeneys and the Cowens are distantly related through the former Taoiseach's wife, Mary.

When Cowen was told that she had been elected to the top post in ógra, he rang her immediately to congratulate her.

So what does she think of his legacy as the man in charge when the country faced economic calamity? She seems uncomfortable with the question.

"In hindsight he was only one man of a number of people who were involved, and there were more issues going on in the background than people realised at the time.

"I am less interested in looking back and more inclined to look to the future."

Feeney does not like to be seen as part of one of the Fianna Fáil dynasties. "I was elected by my peers," she says.

At times, ógra has been prepared to joke about the party's near-death experience.

One of its posters depicts a man wearing a badge bearing the name 'Lazarus', and the tag line: "Join Fianna Fáil today. Be part of the comeback."

Another recent ad had a slogan paraphrasing a line from Samuel Beckett: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fianna Fáil again. Fianna Fáil better."

Kate Feeney may have been cast as "poster girl" for Fianna Fáil Nua, but her emphasis is on substance over style.

She believes part of the reason why women do not put themselves forward is that they can lack confidence in their own abilities.

"I know of women who were extremely capable. They may have been the heads of college societies, but they think they would not be able to make a good candidate.

"They might be much more impressive than some male counterparts, but it's the men who show no reluctance to put their name on the ticket."

At a young age, she seems to have developed a skilled politician's knack of giving a non-committal answer to certain questions if a forthright response could cause difficulty.

She says the issue of abortion is extremely sensitive, and is reluctant to set out her beliefs on whether it should be allowed in cases where a woman is suicidal.

She says her party has extremely wide-ranging views on it.

"As a young woman I was shocked by the death of Savita Halappanavar. It was a hard thing to hear and it was terrible to think that something like that could happen.

"It is an issue that will have to be addressed, but we will wait for the legislation to be drafted and look at it at that stage."

She is keen for her party to be relevant to the concerns of young people. The theme of the party's recent youth conference was mental health.

"Suicide is a huge issue for young people in the country and it affects all of our families. We believe that there should be a new independent suicide-prevention body."

So how does the single woman relax away from politics?

"I am a 27-year-old girl and I love hanging out with my mates, going out for meals and to the cinema and in the summer back in Sligo I play tag rugby.

"As well as the work there is a social element to ógra. You make great friends."

With women like Kate Feeney leading the revival of its youth wing and an electorate with a short memory span, Fianna Fáil seems to have found its mojo again.

Members can put away their Lazarus badges, as the party is well and truly back from the dead.

Irish Independent

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