Thursday 30 October 2014

In front of every great woman, stands a highly fortunate man

First wives are dragged into the fray whether they want to be or not, says Eilis O’Hanlon, so they might as well speak up

Published 06/07/2014 | 02:30

POWER COUPLE: Enda Kenny and his wife, Fionnuala O’Kelly, who was Fianna Fail’s press secretary for much of the 1980s

There are many reasons to criticise the Taoiseach, but giving Fionnuala O’Kelly a “big role” in helping him decide who gets what job in the coming Cabinet reshuffle, as Fine Gael insiders revealed last week, isn’t one of them.

It would be extraordinary if Enda Kenny didn’t take his wife’s views on board. O’Kelly has been at his side for more than 20 years, and she was very much a political animal even before that, having been Fianna Fail’s press secretary for much of the Haughey-dominated 1980s — hardly a job for cissies. When it comes to who’s in and who’s out of favour, O’Kelly has been there, done that and got the bloody T-shirt. She was in the heart of Fianna Fail when such power struggles were more like the Night of the Long Knives. Enda would be mad not to heed her advice.

If anything, it’s a relief to know that powerful people still take comfort from political pillow talk. It makes them look almost human. In most cases, anyway. There seems to be a marked distinction between couples who are indulged when they behave like this and those who are lampooned.

Michelle and Barack Obama are considered quite cool, as power couples go. The popular image of them fist-bumping their way to decisions together seems to charm voters. Hillary Clinton wasn’t so fortunate. She was lambasted for having too much sway over  Bill. Even when the roles reversed, and she was the one possibly heading to the White House, the critics were still sneering. Once they were “Billary”. Now it’s “Hillbilly”. She just can’t win.

This bias against certain couples is particularly virulent when the one behind the throne wears high heels. The proverbial woman behind the great man is either likely to be regarded as a Lady Macbeth figure, pulling the strings for her own malicious ends, or a little lady who’s embarrassed herself by getting ideas above her station.

That was the fate of John Bruton’s wife, Finola, when she made a speech criticising feminism for not being more inclusive towards women with conservative views. She was right. That was 1995, and it hasn’t got any better. That hasn’t stopped her being dismissed down the years, by other women, as a “Meath housewife”.

When Enda Kenny was asked in March to participate in a question-and-answer session with the Irish Times, he singled out his other half for praise for raising the children, but seemed to downplay any wider role she might play, when asked by PR consultant Caroline Kennedy how he managed to come to decisions when he was taking advice from “any number of paid and unpaid advisers, including your wife.”

“My wife is my wife,” replied Enda. “She’s not . . .” He trailed off, before adding: “She’s given of herself completely to our family and to working with her husband and so on.” Then he concluded: “At the end of the day you’ve got to make your own mind up.”

This is most bizarre, given the acknowleged ‘big role’ that she represents. It’s almost as if male politicians still need to play along with the macho image of the lone wolf leader to counter any suggestions that his missus is wearing the trousers. It’s sad really, because it should be possible in this day and age to challenge those stereotypes rather than pandering to them.

Why those stereotypes persist at all is baffling. It makes no sense to consider a man worth voting in as Taoiseach if you value his judgment so little that you don’t even think he chose a wife with whom he could discuss important decisions. At the very least, wives don’t cost the country a single cent. That’s more than can be said for the ranks of paid political advisers who come and go through the corridors of power, all paid handsome wages for doing… well, that’s anybody’s guess.

Who are these people? Where do they come from? All we know is that they pop up suddenly like moonshine sellers in the Wild West, dispensing hokey remedies for a price, then disappearing again before anyone notices the remedies don’t work, except to make things worse; by which point they’ve already been replaced by the next lot. Some are, no doubt, geniuses, worth every penny. Now and again, there may be a genuine connection. Blair’s adviser Alastair Campbell was once asked what he missed about Downing Street. He replied: “I don’t miss the limos and the jets. What do I miss? I miss Tony.” Which was quite sweet.

But mostly it’s business rather than bromance. At least political couples who actually do get married are in it for love and the long haul rather than the large payouts.

They’re also dragged in to the fray, whether they want to be or not, so they might as well make their opinions heard. Vanity Fair judges them on their wardrobes. They’re expected to stand by their husbands if he

gets caught sexting teenage interns.

Things are not yet as bad as all that in Ireland, but spouses are still expected to deal with a lot of business at home whilst Himself is up in Dail Eireann. They’re the ones answering the phone and replying to emails.

It’s not a question of whether first wives should or should not be involved in their husbands’ political careers.

They already are. It’s simply a matter of how much we choose as voters to know about, and value, their involvement.

 

power couple: Enda Kenny and his wife, Fionnuala O’Kelly, who was Fianna Fail’s press secretary for much of the 1980s

 

‘It’s a relief to know that powerful people still take comfort from political pillow talk. It makes them look almost human’

 

In front of every great woman, stands a highly fortunate man

 

There are many reasons to criticise the Taoiseach, but giving Fionnuala O’Kelly a “big role” in helping him decide who gets what job in the coming Cabinet reshuffle, as Fine Gael insiders revealed last week, isn’t one of them.

It would be extraordinary if Enda Kenny didn’t take his wife’s views on board. O’Kelly has been at his side for more than 20 years, and she was very much a political animal even before that, having been Fianna Fail’s press secretary for much of the Haughey-dominated 1980s — hardly a job for cissies. When it comes to who’s in and who’s out of favour, O’Kelly has been there, done that and got the bloody T-shirt. She was in the heart of Fianna Fail when such power struggles were more like the Night of the Long Knives. Enda would be mad not to heed her advice.

If anything, it’s a relief to know that powerful people still take comfort from political pillow talk. It makes them look almost human. In most cases, anyway. There seems to be a marked distinction between couples who are indulged when they behave like this and those who are lampooned.

Michelle and Barack Obama are considered quite cool, as power couples go. The popular image of them fist-bumping their way to decisions together seems to charm voters. Hillary Clinton wasn’t so fortunate. She was lambasted for having too much sway over  Bill. Even when the roles reversed, and she was the one possibly heading to the White House, the critics were still sneering. Once they were “Billary”. Now it’s “Hillbilly”. She just can’t win.

This bias against certain couples is particularly virulent when the one behind the throne wears high heels. The proverbial woman behind the great man is either likely to be regarded as a Lady Macbeth figure, pulling the strings for her own malicious ends, or a little lady who’s embarrassed herself by getting ideas above her station.

That was the fate of John Bruton’s wife, Finola, when she made a speech criticising feminism for not being more inclusive towards women with conservative views. She was right. That was 1995, and it hasn’t got any better. That hasn’t stopped her being dismissed down the years, by other women, as a “Meath housewife”.

When Enda Kenny was asked in March to participate in a question-and-answer session with the Irish Times, he singled out his other half for praise for raising the children, but seemed to downplay any wider role she might play, when asked by PR consultant Caroline Kennedy how he managed to come to decisions when he was taking advice from “any number of paid and unpaid advisers, including your wife.”

“My wife is my wife,” replied Enda. “She’s not . . .” He trailed off, before adding: “She’s given of herself completely to our family and to working with her husband and so on.” Then he concluded: “At the end of the day you’ve got to make your own mind up.”

This is most bizarre, given the acknowleged ‘big role’ that she represents. It’s almost as if male politicians still need to play along with the macho image of the lone wolf leader to counter any suggestions that his missus is wearing the trousers. It’s sad really, because it should be possible in this day and age to challenge those stereotypes rather than pandering to them.

Why those stereotypes persist at all is baffling. It makes no sense to consider a man worth voting in as Taoiseach if you value his judgment so little that you don’t even think he chose a wife with whom he could discuss important decisions. At the very least, wives don’t cost the country a single cent. That’s more than can be said for the ranks of paid political advisers who come and go through the corridors of power, all paid handsome wages for doing… well, that’s anybody’s guess.

Who are these people? Where do they come from? All we know is that they pop up suddenly like moonshine sellers in the Wild West, dispensing hokey remedies for a price, then disappearing again before anyone notices the remedies don’t work, except to make things worse; by which point they’ve already been replaced by the next lot. Some are, no doubt, geniuses, worth every penny. Now and again, there may be a genuine connection. Blair’s adviser Alastair Campbell was once asked what he missed about Downing Street. He replied: “I don’t miss the limos and the jets. What do I miss? I miss Tony.” Which was quite sweet.

But mostly it’s business rather than bromance. At least political couples who actually do get married are in it for love and the long haul rather than the large payouts.

They’re also dragged in to the fray, whether they want to be or not, so they might as well make their opinions heard. Vanity Fair judges them on their wardrobes. They’re expected to stand by their husbands if he gets caught sexting teenage interns.

Things are not yet as bad as all that in Ireland, but spouses are still expected to deal with a lot of business at home whilst Himself is up in Dail Eireann. They’re the ones answering the phone and replying to emails.

It’s not a question of whether first wives should or should not be involved in their husbands’ political careers.

They already are. It’s simply a matter of how much we choose as voters to know about, and value, their involvement.

Eilis O’Hanlon

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