Saturday 24 August 2019

'Sometimes I'm the only woman in a room, but it doesn't matter - I'm well able to speak up'

Blocking out criticism: European Affairs Minister Helen McEntee in Slane, Co Meath. Photo: David Conachy
Blocking out criticism: European Affairs Minister Helen McEntee in Slane, Co Meath. Photo: David Conachy
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Helen McEntee regularly finds herself debating global politics with the leaders of Europe. It's a responsibility she wears lightly as one member of the Irish Government's Brexit team.

The 32-year-old's rise to become both Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney's right-hand women in Brussels has been meteoric - but it's far from simple.

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Often she finds herself being the only woman in the room, surrounded by male diplomats and politicians from other countries.

Reflecting on German Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit to Dublin this week, Ms McEntee says she thought that country would be "more progressive".

"But I went to Germany and most of the meetings we were in were just men.

"Seven, or eight, or nine sitting across from us, and actually my team is quite balanced," she told Independent.ie's 'Floating Voter' podcast.

"I often find myself in scenarios where I'm the only woman. It shouldn't make a difference. I like to think that I speak up and talk the same as everybody else."

When Ms McEntee became European Affairs Minister in 2017, whispers pervaded Leinster House that it was an appointment based on gender rather than talent. Regularly she stood side-by-side with her two senior colleagues, but often it appeared the Meath East TD had little to say.

"I try to block out comments like that. You have that always. From when I was elected, 'I'm only 26 and I'm only there because my dad [former TD Shane McEntee] died. I came in on coattails. I don't have enough experience'. You're constantly battling that anyway, from the moment you get into politics there's always going to be some criticism about what got you there and whether you should be there or not," she says.

"I think I've worked hard over the past two years. I have a husband who hasn't seen too much of me."

Ms McEntee's view is that her work speaks for itself, even if the journalists direct their Brexit questions to Mr Varadkar or Mr Coveney.

"I might try and come in the odd time. I'm a big girl. I understand people want to hear from the Taoiseach and Tánaiste," she explains.

It's a learning curve. She was only a few days in the job when her friends all took off to a music festival while she headed east in the Government jet. "They were sitting on the grass in their armchairs or deckchairs looking at the phone and there's a picture of me with Angela Merkel. They were like 'what's going on'," Ms McEntee recalls.

The Brexit situation is now more tense than at any stage. Britain is less than a week from crashing out without a deal and questions are being asked about whether Ireland pushed too hard on the backstop. The minister insists there was no other option.

"If there's no deal, and I could be proven wrong, I don't think people will turn around and say 'you shouldn't have fought as hard for the backstop'," she argues. "I think we have every right to stand our ground on the position we have taken. If it doesn't work out what we need to do is show that we're prepared."

She adds: "The sticking point is the Border of course and that's something we have to cross if we get to that point next week. I hope that's what we're judged on. It's how you react to the situation you're in."

What then a young woman whose rise so far has been meteoric? She doesn't deny wanting a Cabinet promotion if Fine Gael is back in power after the next election, but "wouldn't expect anything".

Asked what her ideal job would be, Ms McEntee is quick to answer: "Simon [Coveney] will kill me now, but Foreign Affairs is a really fantastic department."

She continues: "I think we could do with a female minister for sport at some stage. Whether that's me or somebody else is another question."

Perhaps when Brexit is sorted, she can move on to the FAI.

Irish Independent

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