Friday 28 November 2014

The accidental politician

Liz O' Donnell. Photo: Mark Nixon

Watching a new government going into the Dail from her mother's hospital room put life – and electorate defeat – into perspective for Liz O'Donnell. Louise Finn talks to the former TD about life after politics and the latest chapter in her career as an 'Irish Independent' columnist.

There is something a little perverse about meeting former Progressive Democrats TD Liz O'Donnell in the Merrion Hotel. Through one of its Georgian windows, we are looking out on the back of Leinster House.

Liz might still be working there, had she been successful in the 2007 election. But she wasn't – she lost her seat and so ended her career in politics.

"No, I didn't feel ready to go," she replies when I ask whether she was happy for her career to finish when it did.

"We all knew it was the end of the road. It was an overnight car crash of an ending," she adds, referring to the loss of seats that soon after forced the Progressive Democrats into extinction.

Whatever her party's contribution to Ireland's current malaise, Liz spent 15 years helping to govern the country, something that is no mean feat for someone who thinks of herself as "an accidental politician".

'Accidental politician' is as apt a description as any.

Certainly in this interview she has the skill to remain on-topic and gracefully avoids questions she doesn't want to answer (she has no interest in talking about her private life and doesn't give anything away about it).

However, you get the impression that her intelligence could have been turned to any number of other jobs. She admits as much, saying that prior to entering the political arena she was a "reluctant" lawyer and would probably have moved into the media had she not encountered one individual.

Mary Harney and Liz met by chance in 1989 while Liz was working with the Women's Political Association, a group that was trying to get more women involved in politics.

"She put her evil eye on me," laughs Liz. "She really persuaded me to run for the council elections and I got elected first time and then I learnt on my feet."

As she was first elected to the Dail in 1992, Liz's career took off in one of the most turbulent and swiftly evolving eras of Irish politics.

When asked about the best and worst moments of her career, there must be plenty of good and bad memories to choose from.

Those Liz selects perfectly illustrate the old curse, 'May you live in interesting times'.

"My worst moment was the Omagh bombing because we had signed the Good Friday Agreement," Liz explains.

"That August, I was going to a friend's christening. I drove from Donegal [through Omagh] and I was just remarking that there was no security around because everything had been demilitarised.

"I was at the christening the next morning and the bomb went off at 3pm. I remember thinking..."

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