Sunday 24 March 2019

Final Results

Repeal the Eighth Amendment?

Yes 66.40% 1,429,981

No 33.60% 723,632

  • Constituencies declared: 40/40

Referendum Hub

The most powerful woman in Ireland?

Kim Bielenberg profiles the cabinet minister who made an Eighth Amendment referendum a condition of joining government

Katherine Zappone. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Katherine Zappone. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Katherine Zappone's background as a cabinet minister is a world away from that of a conventional Irish politician.

Born in Seattle in the US, she was first elected to the Dáil in her early sixties in 2016 as an independent, and she is the first openly lesbian TD, and first lesbian minister.

She was married to a former nun, Ann Louise Gilligan, but sadly her wife died after a brain haemorrhage in the middle of last year.

Zappone has shown that she is no innocent abroad in Leinster House, and her rise to the top in politics has been remarkable, even though she enjoyed some good fortune in getting elected.

Close observers have noted her gentle but shrewd manoeuvring into a position of power.

This week, as Leo Varadkar announced plans to hold a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment on abortion, he was flanked by his Health Minister Simon Harris on one side, and Zappone on the other.

Ever since she entered government, Zappone has said an abortion referendum would be a red-line issue for her, but she has been prepared to bide her time in winning support for it.

Early on, she was heavily criticised for not backing a bill proposed by left-wing TDs for an early poll.

Zappone was reported at the time to have told a pro-choice person who emailed her office: "A citizens' assembly... will be the fastest way to achieve our goal as, through its work, it shines a light on the human stories at the heart of this issue.

"This way of building support is tried and tested, and delivered marriage equality.

"As someone who has campaigned tirelessly to repeal the Eighth (Amendment) for 30 years, can I just assure you that my determination remains absolute and that this is an issue which I am working on every day."

It is a strategy that seems to have been successful. Instead of sitting powerless on the opposition benches, she has worked inside the system to achieve some of her goals as an independent.

In recent weeks, however, she showed signs of impatience. Prior to Monday's announcement, she had been pressing her government colleagues for more clarity on the referendum, and delivered a thinly-veiled rebuke to the Taoiseach in the Dáil.

Narrow margin

"People across the country are looking to these houses, and to the Dáil, to provide leadership on a human-rights issue, where up until now there has been none. This is a time for political courage not political cowardice," she said.

In the coming referendum, her experience as a veteran campaigner will be seen as an asset.

After meeting at Boston College, Zappone and Gilligan moved to Ireland in the 1980s.

She became a prominent figure in the Irish women's movement, as chairwoman of the National Women's Council, a member of the Irish Human Rights Commission and ­lectured in ethics and theology at Trinity College.

But she really came to public attention when she and her wife challenged the Revenue Commissioners' refusal to acknowledge them as a married couple, in both the High Court (2004) and later the Supreme Court. It was a case that mobilised the gay rights movement and helped to bring about the Marriage Equality Referendum of 2015.

Appointed to the Senate in May 2011 by Enda Kenny on the recommendation of Labour leader Eamon Gilmore, Zappone developed a good relationship with the then Taoiseach.

She squeaked into the Dáil in 2016 as an Independent candidate for Dublin South West. She only won by a narrow margin on transfers having been well behind on the first count.

Political observers note how as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, she has proved quite canny in delivering funding for her department.

Almost as soon as she was appointed, she approached the finance ministers Michael Noonan and Paschal Donohoe looking for childcare subsidies in the budget, and hyped up expectations in the media.

She came away with a subsidy of up to €80 a month for children in crèches aged between six months and three years. The scheme has had its teething troubles, with complaints that crèches have simply hiked fees, but if she remains in office, Zappone will hope to iron out the difficulties.

Indo Review

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News