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Wednesday 17 September 2014

John Drennan: The Dail failed Olwyn, and us

Olwyn Enright's exit is an example of the ongoing flight of talent from Irish politics, writes John Drennan

Published 05/09/2010 | 05:00

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OLWYN ENRIGHT: The retiring Fine Gael TD has left behind 'the little girl with a curl and a dimple who silenced us all with her sweetness'

THE day I first saw Olwyn Enright, she was draped seductively across what appeared to be a row of Toyota Corolla cars. Before you get too intrigued, it was a bright summer evening in the respectable ascendancy town of Birr, and the occasion was the infinitely respectable one of a Fine Gael campaign launch.

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In the aftermath of Enright's announcement of her departure from politics, there was much talk about gender quotas and how politics fails women.

In fact, the far more depressing feature of Olwyn's exit is that it is yet another example of the ongoing flight of talent from Irish politics.

The equality professors are, of course, right about the gender quota thing. It is not good that Fine Gael now resembles the dusty old farming bachelor-dominated Ballrooms of Romance in Fifties Ireland.

But what is even of greater concern is that the political system struggles so much to make full use of our most talented politicians.

It may surprise some, but back in 2002 our excitement about the fawn draped across the cars was all about politics -- for we immediately sensed we were in the presence of a potential political star.

In fairness, we were not unique. When Olwyn entered the Dail, even the driest political hacks immediately knew how Thomas Hardy felt when Tess of the D'Urbervilles first entered his imagination.

Enright was, to paraphrase William Blake, a classic case of innocence crossed with experience. The latter came from her status as the daughter of Tom Enright, who had forged a 30-year career on the soubriquet "poor old Tom''.

So when it came to Olwyn, it was expected she would happily adjust to the traditional secondary role in the Enright political dynasty. Instead, in what was -- to put it mildly -- a bit of a shock, Charlie Flanagan lost his seat and breathless, naive, happy little Olwyn scooped the pot.

Success brought its own crises, for a Fine Gael party of bald men fighting over a comb embraced the vitality of Enright with all of the enthusiasm of a parasite latching itself on to an innocent host.

It was understandable, for Enright allowed them to say, "Look we have women, they are young and pretty, Fine Gael is not the latterday equivalent of some dying Welsh coal-mining village."

Such was the importance of this image, our heroine was drafted into the not-too-easy task of proposing Enda for the leadership of Fine Gael.

In truth, the media were no better -- and who can blame us, for there was little else to report about Fine Gael that was of the slightest interest.

Some of us even suggested she might make a perfect leader, but we should not be criticised too harshly, since the only alternative was another pretty doe-eyed blonde.

Sadly, in spite of this fine beginning, we tired of Olwyn remarkably quickly. She was, like any well-brought-up convent girl, hard-working, quiet and diligent. But the Dail is a cruel judge, and she did not distinguish herself sufficiently to retain our attention.

Too often the breathless schoolgirlish style of delivery spoke of someone who was feeling the effects of a steep learning curve. And there were other brighter comets, such as John Deasy, who were far more capable of attracting our interest.

You could not blame us for our lofty sighs about how it was simply not enough to be a lovely girl, for there was more than enough of old Tom in Olwyn to render her cautious.

In Fine Gael's great comeback of 2007, where frontbenchers were needed to carry the fight to Fianna Fail, Olwyn was peripheral. Enright could argue that she was engaged in a battle to the death in the designated Taoiseach's own constituency. But by this stage -- even as Fianna Fail, with characteristic modesty, went for the big four seats -- it was cruelly apparent that Tom "the carpetbagger" Parlon was a busted flush, and Olwyn was safe.

This peripheral role meant that, after all of the dramas of election 2007, Olwyn was overlooked. She might have, in two elections, seen off the

Flanagan dynasty and the designated next leader of the Progressive Democrats; but as withJohnDeasyin 2002, there

were other new, even more delightful toys to play with.

But even as Olwyn was forgotten in favour of the tears on the plinth of James Reilly, Lucinda Creighton's politically lethal stiletto, and the ferocity of a Varadkar, suddenly Enright began to change.

She was still too nice a girl for all that braying on the Order of Business, but that perhaps is to her credit.

However, up to the great failed coup d'etat of the innocents, she was holding her own with possible future Fianna Fail leaders like Mary Hanafin. And when the recent motion of no confidence in Kenny came in, nice Olwyn took a stand for the future rather than safety.

If Olwyn had supported Kenny, even had the aristocrats won she would, because of her rarefied status as a Fine Gael frontbench woman, have been entirely secure. But Enright was no longer willing to be Enda's dollybird.

Instead, she was blunt to the point where nice Enda dropped the mask, snarled and showed rather more of that darker side he normally keeps well hidden in the attic than he might have wished.

We had moved on a long way from the days of old Tom, for Olwyn was no longer just a photographic extra whose sole purpose was to create a sense of vitality beside the living corpse of the party leader.

She was still no Lucinda, but in fairness, few are. But she had evolved into something far more substantial than the little girl with a curl and a dimple who silenced us all with her sweetness.

It is unfortunate that she is leaving politics just at the point where she had matured into the substantial politician we thought she could be.

Some will criticise her for creating a set of circumstances which meant she could not fulfil her talents. But politics is a cruel enough old trade without setting up barriers over love and children.

And the debate over whether the political system sets women up to fail misses out on the fundamental lesson of the departure of Olwyn from politics. The current way Leinster House is organised is not just inimical to women. It is also structured to exclude most families with young children, the young and talented outsiders who are not part of some parochial dynasty and might sometimes dare to speak their minds.

And then we wonder why politics fails us all the time.

Mind you, we're sure that Biffo or Enda and Cute Oul Phil Hogan are terribly concerned about that particular problem.

Sunday Independent

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