Ex-TD Liz McManus: 'Sean's the love of my life: he lives in his house and I live in mine'
The former Labour TD talks to Edel Coffey about life after politics, her new novel and the man who shares her world
'There's nothing more ex than an ex-politician," says Liz McManus, the recently retired long-time Labour TD for Wicklow. "You're just out of the loop. . . and it's wonderful."
Today, she's relaxed and healthy looking, with a glamorous glow about her and it's hard to believe she is now in her late 60s. She's great company too, easy to laugh and with a pleasing smattering of swear words peppering her conversation, a hangover perhaps of decades working in the cut and thrust of politics. We're sitting in the trendy restaurant Etto on Merrion Row, just a stone's throw from her former office, Dáil Éireann.
McManus is back in the headlines as she has just published her second novel, The Shadow in the Yard, 24 years after she published her debut novel. Politics intervened and now that she is retired, she is making a return to her first love. Even with a second passion like writing to distract her, does she not find being out of the loop, as she puts it, difficult to deal with after so long spent in the exciting world of politics?
"I really had hit the end of the road and it was very nice to be able to say I'm going to retire. I didn't lose my seat. I was dying for it actually. I was really ready to go."
She's not the kind of woman who lets the grass grow under her feet. She immediately started an MPhil in creative writing in Trinity College, notoriously difficult to get in to. And she's busy with her family too, minding her grandson Daniel once a week, keeping up her writing group once a month and keeping up with her four children and her partner, Sean as well. Sounds like she has plenty to be getting on with.
She says she thinks women are better at maintaining a life outside of their career so when it comes time to retire there isn't a huge vacuum as there can be with some people.
"I think I always had a reserve tank. I always had another life. Even though I was writing very little, I still kept writing with the writers I meet once a month. I read, I had a home life that was and is very important to me, and I always kept that parallel life going. It wasn't always easy! But if you look at male politicians, this becomes their identity. Women are better at avoiding that pitfall."
She is enjoying life now. She describes her partner Sean as 'the love of my life'. They'll be together 10 years next year, having met three weeks after McManus's marriage broke up. She describes him as totally different to her - he plays bridge, does the garden, and is not neurotic at all. They met at a Labour Party march in Wicklow. He was a steward from the local walking club who volunteered to help out on the walk. "We're having great adventures now. He's a Kerryman and very easy-going. He does his own thing, I do my own but we're really, really great together. I live in my house and Sean lives in his house - it's to be recommended," she says with a wolfish smile. "He's only up the road and he has a big garden and he grows vegetables and I have no garden so I cook the vegetables."
It sounds idyllic. We talk briefly about the difficulties of meeting someone in the modern world and get on to internet dating. "My friend has just found a lovely man on the web. Now, it took her five years of agony and bloody lunatics. . . Obviously, women my age do it all the time," she says breezily. I ask her what she thinks of the odds of meeting someone online. She has a pithy, and probably accurate, response. "A third are lunatics, a third are playboys and a third are fine. . ." she says.
McManus was a woman in the Dáil long before it became an issue and certainly before the notion of quotas ever came up. I wonder what inspired her to go into politics. "I was involved in women's rights and I was always saying, women aren't elected in this country. I kept on mouthing off about how women should be in places of power." It came back to bite her when she was asked to run as a candidate in Wicklow. Does she understand why women don't seem keen to enter politics? Is it a thankless job? "It was much tougher being a councillor than being a TD because you had no supports and I was in Democratic Left and I was completely on my own, so it was nice to go into Dáil Éireann where there was a Ceann Comhairle who would say, 'no, no, you can't do that.' It was much more formalised. And I had a secretary! It's a wonderful job," she says.
"It challenges you physically, emotionally, intellectually, and every day you're doing something challenging and interesting, even though there's a lot of tedium in the Dáil, there's still a lot happening. I was in my 40s, I had four children, the youngest was 11. I had been a housewife. Nobody would employ someone like me until the people of Co Wicklow employed me so from that point of view it's a very open system. You stand for election, people either vote for you or they don't vote for you. One minute I was a housewife with no chance of getting a job and the next I was on track to becoming a minister of state."
Naturally, her novel has a political aspect to it, but not of the parliamentarian variety. It's set in Derry and Donegal in 1969, and tells the story of a young mother called Rosaleen McAvaddy. The story mixes the burgeoning political violence of the time with the newfound women's rights.
"One of the problems I had about this book is I wanted to write about women but if you write about women, men don't want to read the book.
"I was interested in the changes I've seen over my lifetime, particularly for women, in Irish society. There was this idea of freedom, personal freedom, and to a great extent it was contained in my generation, it doesn't mean women of this generation don't face the same problems, which you do.
''In a lot of ways, things are the same but they also have changed and I'm just fascinated with the way that people are coping with the same things, but from different perspectives."
There are other themes too of course and by focusing on the story of one ordinary mother, she is trying to highlight the fact that the Troubles caused the deaths of so many innocent, uninvolved bystanders. "I went in to support Mairia Cahill in the Dáil. She is exactly the collateral damage that still hasn't been resolved."
McManus's mother was from the North, but was 'apolitical' and didn't suffer the church. She tells a story about her mother refusing to kiss a bishop's ring at an Áras garden party. Her father was a civil servant who didn't have any time for politicians. "In Ireland in the 1930s and 40s, there really wasn't a lot of private enterprise so a lot of really bright people went into the civil service, with a strong sense of patriotism. TK Whitaker was one of them. Da was another."
Her father represented Ireland at the Marshall Plan talks, then worked as a diplomat which saw McManus live all over Europe before returning home to Ireland at the age of 10. He ended up as the first head of Bórd Fáilte.
She may be a retired politician but she is still a Labour Party member and says she doesn't think they're doing too badly now. "I think it's amazing that social welfare wasn't ransacked. A weaker minister than Joan would have capitulated but she stuck very tough and I think they got the country back on track. I think they're paying an enormous price for it, but the reality is the country had to be salvaged out of disaster and had it been just Fine Gael on its own or Fine Gael with right-wing TDs it would have been much tougher and the Labour Party did make a difference but nobody's going to show them any gratitude for that, and I can understand that too because people are so cross.
"Whoever is the junior party is always going to be hammered. It happened to the PDs. It's inevitable to an extent, and people put so much reliance on you. Of course mistakes were made. The hype around the Labour Party at the last election was far too much. Maybe they should have been tougher about dampening down expectations. I had to laugh when you look at Sinn Féin in the North - huge cutbacks in jobs, water, all sorts of things. . ."
She smiles and says, "that's politics" and she might as well be saying, "that's showbiz".
"There's no way around it. It's a kind of a magnet that pulls people in, particularly to be in government, and they don't let go. They can't let go, particularly once they're in. I mean Sinn Féin could have walked when they were told this is the price you pay in the North, and they didn't, and I can understand that because it is such a powerful drug, it's intoxicating. It's a magnet."
McManus clearly still feels the pull of that magnet, but our time is up and she's off to get the DART home - "I have the travel pass now," she says with a smile, before setting off in the direction of Dáil Éireann and Pearse Street train station.
The Shadow in the Yard is published by Ward River Press.
A life in brief
Born: Montreal, Canada, in 1947.
Family: Four children. She minds grandson Daniel once a week.
Married: She was married to John McManus, a doctor and Labour councillor in Bray, where she lives. But their marriage broke up nearly 10 years ago.
Relationship: She is now happy with 'the love of her life', Sean, who she met at a Labour Party rally.
Dislikes: Populist socialists whose policies don't actually match their actions.