independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Enda's been hiding his party's best asset: his wife

ALL of a sudden Fionnuala O'Kelly is everywhere - as if Fine Gael handlers have just discovered the existence of the party leader's greatest asset, locked away in a cellar down in Mayo.

Yet the emergence of Fionnuala as a component of the FG election plan also presents considerable challenges.

Flaunting the leader's effervescent wife in TV interviews and from the ard fheis podium could lead the occasionally agrarian and homespun Mr Kenny to be compared unfavourably with his soignee, sharp-minded and politically sophisticated partner.

A greater difficulty is the conundrum of playing the "family values" card during the campaign: Enda's happy contented home life laid against the Taoiseach's failed marriage with Miriam and sundered love affair with Celia.

It will take a light and subtle touch from Fine Gael: too heavy-handed and they will be accused of "low-blow politics", arousing sympathy that may well work in the Taoiseach's favour.

Yet no one can blame FG for elevating the leader's wife to a prominent role in the campaign. She cuts more dash than many of her husband's front bench.

She also knows the "enemy" well, having been the first woman to head the Government Information Service under an FF government; she was also a Fianna Fail press officer - hand-picked for the job by Charles J Haughey.

And she knows the arcane and Byzantine ways of Montrose, having been RTE's PR manager during a period of great political sensitivity around the time the national broadcaster was under siege from a Ray Burke-led Department of Communications.

Fionnuala O'Kelly was born in Clontarf in 1956 but is not, on first meeting, easily indentifiable as a Dub, perhaps a result of an early education at the all-girl St Louis College in Co Monaghan.

She made it back to the Big Smoke to study French and German at UCD, later getting her Master's degree in French after studying at Universite Nancy. There remains a continental accent to her wardrobe and coiffure.

With a strong education and a no-nonsense confidence, Fionnuala O'Kelly took a course in PR run by AnCo - a forerunner of Fas.

How she fell under the influence of Fianna Fail and Charles Haughey has been told before. She replied to a newspaper advert for work with a "national organisation". It was only when she received an interview that she discovered the "organisation" was Fianna Fail.

A scary encounter with Haughey at the interview was overcome and she became FF's press officer in Leinster House. She cut an attractive, vivacious figure and was to spend 10 years at the heart of Haughey's Camelot.

These were turbulent times, perhaps among the most politically divisive since the foundation of the State.

Haughey endured various heaves against him; TDs were assaulted in the precincts of 'She was to spend 10 years at the heart of Haughey's Camelot'

Leinster House and even today senior politicians still talk of the atmosphere of fear and dread around Government Buildings at that time.

Throughout this period Fionnuala O'Kelly was at the heart of it all - calm in the midst of many crises, fiercely loyal to her employer and popular with the reporters trying to make sense of the Haughey years. She worked hard and played hard.

She even found time to collate the photographs for The Spirit of the Nation: the Speeches and Statements of Charles J Haughey (1957-86), edited by Martin Mansergh.

In March 1987 Haughey was back in power and O'Kelly became the first woman to head the Government Information Service.

It was a 24/7 regime and at the time she began secretly consorting with the enemy. Enda Kenny was the fresh-faced young star of FG under Garret FitzGerald.

Kenny was speaking in the Dail and glanced up at the press box to see a fragrant young woman in a blue dress handing out press releases. He winked at her.

They married, with a ceremony for family and close friends at Haddington Road church, Dublin, in 1992. The wedding reception was at Le Coq Hardi.

By that time Fionnuala had swopped the pressure cooker of government for the barbecue of RTE, where the politics, if anything, were even dirtier.

It was a tough job. First, RTE had to deal with the opening of the airwaves to the commercial sector and then Ray Burke was trying to cap advertising revenue.

Then, when the coalition came into power, it was Michael D Higgins at Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht who had strong ideas on how RTE and public broadcasting should be run. Fionnuala O'Kelly was sent out to bat for director-general Joe Barry and assistant D-G Bob Collins.

As public-relations manager, she was also a member of the RTE editorial board and present on interview panels. As a result, she knows how RTE works.

The couple now have three children and in the intervening years, as she raised her family, Fionnuala O'Kelly dropped out of the limelight - even when her husband became leader of Fine Gael and the alternative taoiseach.

She has rarely used her inside knowledge - at least, publicly - though she did point out at a recent Fine Gael event in Dublin that "Fianna Fail ministers refuse to debate alongside Fine Gael people".

She also said that the long period of time for which Fianna Fail has been in power means that the media "now have to play along if they want to get access".

It went down well with her audience but RTE was less impressed and denied the charge that it, and others, had to "play along" with FF.

If O'Kelly stepped back from the limelight after she left RTE, that has all changed in the last couple of months.

A polished, witty performance on TV3's The Political Party and a relaxed and warm rallying of the party faithful alongside her husband on the podium at the ard fheis last weekend are clearly signs of things to come . . . Fionnuala O'Kelly is back.

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