'I don't care what people say about me, I will deliver jobs' - Mitchell O'Connor
The determined minister hits back at her detractors and tells Maeve Sheehan that criticism is water off a duck's back
Published 16/10/2016 | 02:30
A curious thing happens as Mary Mitchell O'Connor talks at length about the importance of job creation. She had been explaining one of her Budget "wins" - a share option scheme for small businesses. "I hate saying I secured, but we secured it. We pushed for it here in this department." Isn't "I" all part of politics though? "Do you know, for me, it's not. It's not Mary Mitchell O'Connor, it's jobs."
I could have sworn her eyes welled up with tears at this point. But she insists: "No, I'm not emotional. I just think jobs are so important, you know as I go around the country, as we announce jobs, and they transform people's lives..."
"And I'm not emotional, " she chides, like the school teacher that she is, and then bursts out laughing. "You have to have empathy. It's not all about 'inputs' and 'outputs'. And Mary Mitchell O'Connor isn't a woman that talks about 'inputs' and 'outputs'. Jobs are really important to me."
Even if she was emotional, she could be forgiven. Mitchell O'Connor is five months into her first Cabinet post as Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. Not only were some of her Fine Gael colleagues surprised that she got the job in the first place, she has since faced headlines questioning whether she is up to task in one of the most important government departments post-Brexit.
Her Budget proposals to allow high-earning returning emigrants pay less tax to entice them home was leaked to the media, then promptly torpedoed by Taoiseach Enda Kenny. He said it was "unfair". Last Wednesday night she reportedly had "strips torn off her" at the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting by TDs baying for more jobs in their regions. She is unphased. "Water off a duck's back," she says at one point.
It is Friday after 4pm. The minister is at her office on Kildare Street. She is friendly, warm and self-effacing. She says she prefers to sit at the big office table strewn with files rather than behind the ministerial desk. She insists that people call her Mary. Being called minister was "one of the things I found really hard on becoming a minister".
There is something about Mary that makes her an easy target. On her first day in Leinster House, she mistakenly drove on to the plinth and down the steps in full public view and later Independent TD Mick Wallace was caught on mic saying to his fellow male Independents: "Miss Piggy has toned it down today." Wallace was suitably mortified and apologised.
Mitchell O'Connor actually seems as tough as the hardened polish on her perfectly manicured fingernails - and you're probably talking Shellac, the type that can only be removed with 100pc acetone.
Political commentators called the Taoiseach's put-down of her proposal a hard and humiliating "political lesson". She shrugs it off. "A hard political lesson? Listen," she says, squaring up. "I've had plenty of lessons through my life and I'm sure I've a lot more to learn. I am still focused and my aim is to make sure that we drive down unemployment. I don't care what anyone says about me. That is my priority."
She says the tax incentive wasn't "100pc" her idea but doesn't say whose it was: "It was there in 2015. We would have had a submission and I would have gone through it."
She says she plans to revisit the idea for 2018. Does she agree with the Taoiseach that it would be inequitable? "Well, no. I absolutely believe that we need our emigrants back." By reducing their tax? "I'm absolutely willing to look now at a new scheme for the 2018 Budget."
As for the parliamentary party meeting, Leo Varadkar, Minister for Social Protection, reportedly gave "a polished power point presentation" while she read from her mobile phone, and tried three times to leave the meeting.
Mitchell O'Connor doesn't rise to it, except to say that she "read one piece from my phone when I was asked specifically 'where are the advance factories for 2017'", and says she was trying to leave the meeting for an appointment with a Chinese company that employs 100 people in Ireland. "As you know, by arriving late at a Chinese function, you are insulting the company."
Were they tearing strips off her: "They were making points about their constituencies, they wanted more IDA jobs. I also want more IDA jobs, but I also want Enterprise Ireland jobs, I want the local enterprise offices and I want these Regional Action Plans implemented."
Which brings her back to those jobs she wants to talk about. She sings the praises of the 186,000 IDA-supported jobs and the 194,000 supported by Enterprise Ireland.
Do people underestimate her? She doesn't answer for a minute and then she says: "You know what? Let's see what I deliver." Then: "I will absolutely. That's what I've always done throughout my career. In anything I've ever tried to do, whether it was rearing my children, whether it was teaching, becoming a principal as a young teacher in Co Meath, principal of one of the largest schools in south Dublin, becoming a TD. I brought a second [Fine Gael] member of the Oireachtas in with me and I am appointed a minister and I will make sure that I will deliver jobs for the people that haven't got jobs, and for the people that are coming through our schools, and that there will be very good sustainable jobs there."
Right then. Originally from a farming background in north Galway, she is a former principal of the Harold School in south Dublin. She is divorced, has two sons, one a doctor, the other a chartered accountant. She was first a councillor for the Progressive Democrats, then joined Fine Gael, and won her first seat for Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown in 2011. She is glamorous and well-groomed. She has complained about the "boys' club" in Leinster House in the past, but, for reasons unknown, she refused to go there last week: "All I am saying on that is I'd like to see more women in the parliamentary party."
Work is "just wonderful". She was "very happy" with getting "the biggest increase in the capital budget in this department in the last 15 years". She talks about the keynote speeches, her packed diary meeting company executives and trade interests, and her crusade for jobs. In her five months, she says she has announced 4,500 jobs. She works from 6am until late at night. Her aim is to meet the target of 200,000 jobs in the Programme for Government, most in rural Ireland.
Why did Kenny give her the job? "Because he believed in me. He's seen me at work."
During her trips to Brussels, she says she "clicked" with two powerful EU commissioners. "I met Commissioner Bienkowska [Elzbieta] and Commissioner Malmstrom [Cecilia], two very able female commissioners. I absolutely made sure that they understood the unique position of Ireland." She has invited them to Ireland.
She will also soon be meeting her Northern Ireland counterpart. His name escapes her though: "He's a red-haired fellow, with a beard..."
Later when asked what she brings to the table, she says: "What do I bring? I believe in strong relationships. I can nearly say to you that any chief executive I have met, whether they were from the US or were Irish, I have their phone numbers and can ring them or they will ring me. So I think that is really important, that I can communicate and I suppose most importantly of all that I can listen."
As for her anonymous detractors, she says she "doesn't care" if other people question her ability because "I am going to deliver jobs for rural and regional Ireland". She taps an elegant finger on her ministerial table. "I'm here though. I'm here in this office. What does that show? I am here on ability."