Wednesday 23 August 2017

Lucinda Creighton: The Iron Lady

Lucinda Creighton. Photo: Kip Carroll
Lucinda Creighton. Photo: Kip Carroll

Emily Hourican

Everything is fine with Enda. She's planning a low-key summer wedding, and despite what people might imagine, she actually thinks very carefully before releasing her broadsides.

Lucinda Creighton is much more than Ireland's sexiest and most stylish female politician -- although she is that, as these pictures show. Emily Hourican is duly impressed by the straight-talking blonde bombshell. Photography by Kip Carroll. Styling by Liadan Hynes.

Such is the taint currently associated with politics in this country that my first question to Fine Gael TD Lucinda Creighton is -- why? Why would an intelligent, articulate, attractive young women, with an undoubtedly bright career in front of her in whatever area she might choose, decide to throw all that up and enter the realm of the dinosaurs? She laughs, and mutters something about maybe having "a few screws loose", proving that she can do self-deprecation -- not always a given among politicians -- but the comment doesn't truly represent her opinion on the matter.

Because Lucinda is passionate about politics. Actively involved from a frighteningly young age, and a TD for the last four years, she is only 31. She's a kind of a Joan of Arc figure, full of conviction and strong moral force -- which isn't without its problems, but we'll come back to that. In a country where so many are born to politics, while others have it thrust upon them, Lucinda found her own way there; she achieved politics -- yes, I am mangling Shakespeare -- through her own determination.

For a politician, she is commendably clear and concise in what she says, but, for a normal person, that still means a fair amount of jargon and manifesto-speak. She waxes lyrical on things like duty to the country and political reform, but wanes on more personal matters, clearly uncomfortable with the notion of talking about herself and her journey as if she was a reality-TV contestant. Her hobbies are horse-riding, tennis and "the usual stuff, like going for a meal", but she is far more vocal when talking about service to the people and contributions to government.

"I don't have any family background in politics," she says in her cool, almost laconic way, sitting on the terrace of the Merrion Hotel. "My parents were never members of any party. Dad was a bookie, Mum was a primary-school teacher. My mother had a big interest in politics and current affairs though, and that would have been a big topic of discussion in the house. Those things do mould you."

It was just Lucinda and her sister, Niamh, growing up, and from a very early age they were encouraged to be clear-minded and confident. "My mother was a strong, independent kind of a women. She instilled in me to never rely on anybody else, to be assertive and to believe in myself. That was certainly a strong character trait of mine when I was younger. I'm probably more self-doubting now than I was when I was in my early 20s." Lucinda was bitten by the bug very young. In primary school she "started to form views on things" and by secondary school was already registering that she approved of John Bruton's government. "His and Fine Gael's pro-European outlook would have appealed to me; we would always have advocated being involved in international organisations, and were always outward looking. That's a big distinction between us and Fianna Fail, who were more inward-looking and nationalist."

She went to the local secondary school and was always 'the girl most likely' to end up in the Dail. "All my friends would have been political in their own way -- organising charities, the school yearbook, fund-raising, gigs, quizzes, but I was definitely the only one interested in party politics." Once she got to Trinity -- where she studied law -- she joined Young Fine Gael, becoming more deeply involved as time went on, and greatly helped by finding a mentor within the organisation. "Edie Wynne was chair of the Dublin South East constituency at the time. I was I don't know how much younger than the rest of them, and she used to collect me from my flat on Leinster Road and drive me to meetings. She was really encouraging, and you do need that. She would introduce me to people, which made it a lot easier."

After graduating, Lucinda did the New York Bar and the King's Inns, but all the time continued to be active within Fine Gael. "I always had it in my head, from a very young age, that I'd like to be a politician, but I thought that I would do it, like most people, when I was 50 or something. And I thought I'd like to be in an advisory role more than out front."

However, when a gold-plated opportunity presented itself, she had the sense to knock these two preconceptions on the head. "In politics, opportunities don't arise that often," she says now. Councillor Joe Doyle was retiring, and Lucinda found herself asked "by a lot of different people within the organisation" if she would consider running in his place. "I was really just to be a running mate, nobody thought I'd win a seat. Typical tokenism!" she laughs. "They wanted a young woman to run with an older man. It was expected that Paddy McCartan would win and I'd just run with him. But I ended up winning the seat."

So really, she wouldn't have got this far if she had been a man? "Maybe not if I'd been an older man," she concedes. "Fine Gael supporters were voting for me, strategically -- we'd lost our TD in the previous election, so people were voting for me saying 'because you're young and you could run for the Dail in the future.'" Those who had seen her just as a bit of window dressing may have been surprised by the outcome of that first election, but Lucinda herself didn't waste time pondering the whys. She simply forged ahead, moving from local to national politics and entering Leinster House in 2007 as the youngest member. In itself, given the track record in this country of women and politics, that is quite something.

Does she think politics is a particularly unforgiving career for women? "I think it is. I've had people tell me they won't vote for me because I'm a woman. It's a traditional view, it's mostly older women who say it, but it's pretty startling. They think it's a man's world and a woman can't have the sort of influence a man can have." And is it a man's world in Leinster House? "Oh it is, yeah. It is to an extent, but to me that wouldn't justify not voting for a woman. We have to change it, make it a more egalitarian workplace."

But is she ever made to feel that the real business will be conducted without her? "Yeah, I suppose when you have an environment that is predominantly made up of men, they have their own norms -- you may not be included in the invitations to go for a pint at night. Which doesn't bother me, because I don't drink during the week anyway," she stoutly insists.

But it must be hurtful all the same? "No, not really. But I would certainly challenge anyone who suggested that my view wasn't as valid as anyone else's simply because I'm a woman or because I'm younger. I have stood up for myself in that regard," she says sternly, "and sometimes it has backfired -- well, not backfired, maybe it has made some people take me more seriously, but maybe it has made other people see me as a little bit of a pain . . ."

Because being Joan of Arc is never without its complications, and Lucinda has several times found herself in trouble due to her convictions, and the outspoken way in which she can sometimes air them. A speech to the MacGill Summer School last year, in which she took her party leadership to task for accepting developer donations, detonated a number of bombs. She was accused, at the time, of targeting Enda Kenny with her criticisms. So, does she ever worry that she's too outspoken and uncompromising? "Being outspoken has led to a manifesto commitment from Fine Gael to ban corporate donations in government," she responds. "So I think that was a positive outcome. I think it is something that we will get credit for, and that will have a profound influence on Irish politics." When I ask if she ever feels that Fine Gael are worried about her tendency to speak as she finds, she is adamant. "No, I don't think so. I don't see that a lot of what I've said has been very controversial," she insists, "other than how it plays out in the media subsequently, and I suppose I have to take that into consideration."

And of course, that's the nub. Lucinda is a highly visible politician. Partly it's being young, stylish and attractive -- the Blonde Bombshell, as some of the media have dubbed her; partly it's that she's good copy -- she speaks clearly, thinks for herself, is unafraid; and partly it's because she is a rising star, someone who might go all the way. The combination is irresistible, and so anything she says tends to get more airtime than the pronouncements of other colleagues. And she's well aware of this rather double-edged sword.

"I have the capacity, by being young and female, something that I say tends to be taken . . . tends to be focused on more than if somebody else said it," she admits, giving as an example her comments about 'cute hoor' politics last year. "One of my colleagues said the same thing the week before, and there was no notice. I said it, and it turned into a 10-day tsunami of everything from media attention to abuse from members of the public. It just seems to generate a massive storm." So what will she do about this? "I do have a responsibility to be conscious of that, but is the response to that to say nothing? To be silenced because people may take my comments out of context or blow them up? I don't think that should be the outcome. Maybe that would suit some people -- to have less vocal voices in politics, but I don't think that would be a good thing."

And she is definitely having none of the idea that she is a loose cannon or liable to blurt out inanities. "People may think I shoot my mouth off, like Lise Hand calling me Loose-Lips Lucinda. I can assure you I'm not loose-lipped," she almost snaps. "I think very long and hard about anything I say, and I don't just come out with things without thinking them through, and I don't open my mouth to say things unless I believe them. And that isn't always the case with others."

As for the Enda Kenny thing, she says that she never intended her speech at MacGill to be an attack on him, and that he himself, "never said a word about it. He knows to shrug these things off." In fact, she insists things with Kenny are just fine. "We have a very cordial and amicable relationship," she says. "I took a position on the leadership last summer, that was not about the personality, but very much about what I felt was the right thing at the time in terms of the direction of the party. I've no regrets about it. I'm glad it happened, I think it cleared the air and got us over an issue that had been bubbling there beneath the surface for quite some time, and I think Enda came out of it a lot stronger." It's a good line, but is one ever really forgiven for speaking out in such cases? "There is no lingering animosity there," she claims.

And, of course, events seem to prove her right on this. Exactly a week after we meet, Lucinda is made a junior minister, for European affairs, on a salary of €130,000 a year. Whether the appointment means last summer's water is truly under the bridge, or that Enda Kenny is busy practising his Machiavelli, Lucinda says she "wouldnt be so bold as to try and decide", but, whatever the motivation, she is, obviously, delighted. "Yes, I was surprised. I had no expectations, which is the best way to be," she tells me when we catch up shortly after the news is announced. So is this where all the fun ends and real life begins? "With the pace of the brief, it's going to be like a whirlwind. Given the massive issues coming at us right now, it's going to be a huge, huge challenge."

But back to the Merrion Hotel: Lucinda is smartly but discreetly dressed in a well-cut charcoal jacket. Her style has definitely improved over the last five-odd years, but she seems a bit baffled when I say this. In fact, the only time I see her discomfited by a question is when I ask if she has a personal stylist. "No, my God, no! What a funny thought," she says. Given that everyone in the public eye, from Bertie Ahern to your bank manager seems to have an image consultant these days, I'm surprised by her surprise. No matter, she puts any improvement in appearance down to exercise -- "I'm probably fitter than I was. I ran the Dublin City Marathon in October, and I look after myself more."

Does it annoy her that so much of the media attention female politicians get is around what they wear? Even women's magazines are guilty of this -- profiling the women who run our country as if they were tailor's dummies. "Not really. It's just a fact of life. Whether its Berlusconi's babes or Sarko's cabinet, it's just a fact that people look at women's style." However, what does annoy her is the tendency among Irish female politicians to wear truly garish colours. "I find an awful lot of women in politics wear these luminous red and pink jackets -- I can't bear it," she says. "I don't know if it's a thing that people want to be seen in photographs, standing beside the leader or whatever, and it's much easier to be seen if you wear red or pink. I think there's probably an element of that. I don't go down that road myself. I tend to wear muted colours. I don't really want to be remembered because I wore a pink jacket. I'd rather be remembered because I had something to say for myself."

Ah yes, being seen standing beside the leader. There is a very definite regard in which top-level politics resembles the school yard -- the confined space, a defined hierarchy -- and descends into a popularity contest. Who's hot, who's not, who's in, who's out -- doesn't that get irritating at times? "Yes, and of course it's also analysed as well. Whoever's the master spinner gets their version in first."

Lucinda is engaged to party colleague Senator Paul Bradford, and planning a "very low-key, family-only" wedding sometime this summer. Does she ever think about having children and the difficulties involved there? After all, the two careers are notoriously incompatible. "The hours are the biggest problem," she agrees. "The lifestyle of a politician. And the problem isn't necessarily the Dail sitting, it's the fact that every other night of the week you have to be attending party meetings, branch meetings, residents meetings, funerals . . ."

As she speaks, I get a sudden vision of the endless, arid round of social and party obligations. The petty, pedestrian nature of most requests -- a neighbour with a loud-barking dog, traffic lights, litter -- and the way you have to encourage each person to believe that their issue is of importance to you. So much for the glamour of politics. Does it ever get desperately boring? "It can," she laughs, then insists that, "you're either cut out for it or you're not. You either have sympathy and empathy for people's problems or you don't. If something is a big problem for somebody, and is making their life a misery, no matter how small it may seem objectively, you have to try and empathise with that person's situation. I find that quite easy. I like talking to people; I would see myself as a people person." She goes on, "sometimes committees can be boring, or if you're in the chamber and you have to listen to ministers and backbenchers reading out scripts that somebody else has prepared for them. That's much more mind-numbing than engaging with people on a one-to-one in the constituency."

Lucinda clearly, and rightly, prides herself on speaking her mind and being true to herself. "People are great at modelling and moulding themselves and creating impressions. I don't really play that game. Maybe that gets me in trouble sometimes as well. I don't like to varnish what I have to say, and I don't like to create an image of myself. I just see myself as who I am," she says, although I wonder if any of us is really capable of that much self-knowledge. However, she has a litmus test: "Friends who have been friends all my life will see something I've said, and they'll say, 'Yes, that's consistent with who she is.' Once I feel comfortable that that test can be passed, then I'm happy. I don't want to say things just to please the crowd. I try to be as true to myself as I can be."

It is this aspiration that resounds with the electorate. Lucinda tells it like she means it, and, in doing so, manages to sound quite like the rest of us: a normal person rather than 'a politician', despite the occasional lapse into jargon. It's her ability to connect and convince that makes her a bankable proposition.

So will she go for the top job one day? "I dunno. I suppose it depends on my shelf life in politics, how long I feel I can contribute to it. I don't believe in this system we've had in Ireland since the foundation of the State, that people have to be years and years and years in politics before they move up the ranks. I believe in a meritocracy; I believe in the best person for the job. If at some point in the future I believe I'm the best person for the job and my colleagues agree, then of course I'll go for it. If that opportunity doesn't arise, I'll be going off doing something else."

Fine Gael, you have been warned.

Dress, Anne Klein, to hire, Covet

Dress, Lanvin; shoes, Prada, both Brown Thomas

Jacket; blouse, both Zara.

Skirt, DKNY; shoes, Prada, both Brown Thomas

Suit, Alexander McQueen, Brown Thomas.

Blouse, Zara

Dress; jacket, both John Rocha, Havana.

Shoes, Miu Miu, Brown Thomas

All jewellery, Lucinda's own

Covet, Top floor, 59 Powerscourt Townhouse Centre, Sth William St, D2, tel: (01) 679-9313

Havana, 2 Anglesea House, D4, tel: (01) 260-2707

Photography by Kip Carroll, see www.kipcarroll.com

Styling by Liadan Hynes

Assisted by Jen O'Dwyer

Make-up Cara Casey; hair by Kellie Smith, both at Dylan Bradshaw, 56 South William St, D2, tel: (01) 671-9353 or see www.dylanbradshaw.com

Shot at Bellinter House, Navan, Co Meath, tel: (046) 903-0900, or see www.bellinterhouse.com

Relax and unwind with Bellinter House's Royal Retreat. One night's bed and breakfast, evening meal, followed by an Irish coffee and one peat bath per booking, from €129 pps

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