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'First ladies' take a low-key approach to the election

MICHELLE Obama and Samantha Cameron did it, so did Hillary Clinton and Sarah Brown.

They've all shared the harsh and at times unforgiving limelight and the rough-and-tumble of politics with their husbands in a quest for election victory.

In contrast, the wives of our main political leaders will be keeping a low-profile throughout the general election campaign.

Fionnuala O'Kelly, Mary O'Shea and Carol Hanney are likely to only step into the public glare when casting their votes on February 25.

But away from the national limelight, Ms O'Kelly is out knocking on doors in the Enda Kenny heartland of Castlebar, while he undertakes a country-wide canvass.

Fine Gael councillor Eugene McCormack says Ms O'Kelly is involved with the party's Mayo campaign seven days a week and is central to mammoth efforts to try and win four seats in a five-seat constituency.

"She's up every evening in HQ. We have meetings at 6pm and we're out until 9pm. We stick mostly to the town in the evenings and then out to the countryside on Saturdays and Sunday," he said.

Those opening the door instantly recognise her because she canvasses at every local and general election, Mr McCormack said.

Her greatest asset on the doorsteps is an ability to simply listen, spending up to 15 minutes with some people.

"But she's well fit to debate from her own corner," he added.

Ms O'Kelly is, after all, a former senior Fianna Fail press officer, a former government press secretary and chief of RTE public affairs.

Another party observer said Ms O'Kelly was the super-substitute for Mr Kenny.

"She's going door-to-door," the local party member said.

"But she's a very private person who won't be seen on the frontline. She's going quietly about her business on the doors."

In the climax to the 2007 General Election, Ms O'Kelly joined her husband at the end of his major ard fheis speech and took part in a pre-recorded broadcast -- two events that were clearly modelled on a US presidential campaign.

But party sources say the public is unlikely to see Ms O'Kelly involved with any press events, promotion materials or public broadcasts over the coming two weeks.

Mr Kenny has always tried to maintain a clear separation between public and private life -- a pattern which would continue in government, sources said.

Labour leader Eamon Gilmore's wife, Carol Hanney, is taking no active party in the day-to-day election campaign.

Local canvassers say that in past and present elections, she doesn't appear at public or private functions, and never leaflets or canvasses. That is attributed to her position as a civil servant, which does not allow for political activity.

But her independent role did not prevent her from hitting the headlines last year after revelations of the lucrative sale of her family land in Co Galway for a school site.

Ms Hanney is chief executive officer of Dun Laoghaire VEC, an organisation with a staff of 500, a multi-million euro annual budget and which caters for more than 2,500 pupils.

And the same goes for Mary O'Shea, wife of the newly elected Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, who operates "under the radar" and in the "background", according to locals.


Professor Laura McAllister of the University of Liverpool, who has been researching the role of political wives in last year's UK elections, said their frontline role had been a "backwards step" for women in politics.

"It was one of the most overwhelmingly male elections that most of us have ever observed and witnessed.

"The only females we could see were Samantha Cameron, Nick Clegg's partner, Gordon Brown's wife.

"It set a very bad example for aspiring younger women politicians," she told the Irish Independent.

And Labour Senator Ivana Bacik said she was relieved the Irish election campaign was not repeating the UK elections, which had descended into a "beauty contest".

The Taoiseach's wife, Mary Cowen, has also opted for a low-profile, and was only ever dragged into any controversy following remarks by FF backbencher Mary O'Rourke.

Amid speculation about Mr Cowen's leadership before Christmas, Ms O'Rourke said his wife should tell him "it's not worth it" and encourage him to step down.

The comments drew an angry response from the Taoiseach, who said he wouldn't advise anyone to get into "my wife's boots".

Irish Independent