The ear-piercing sound of the Dáil voting bell is ringing through the Dublin Convention Centre and Helen McEntee is laughing behind her pink face mask. The Sunday Independent has just asked her if she wants to be Fine Gael leader.
"I am ambitious," she responds in what can only be viewed as a clear declaration of intent. The usual caveats follow. "But what I would say at the moment is that my ambition spans to my ambitious justice plan for 2021.
"I am about to have a baby and my ambition is that I get back safe and sound after that and that I get back focused. I am ambitious, as I've said, but my focus is on that and I think we have an excellent leader in Leo Varadkar."
When prodded further on the matter, McEntee (34) says she doesn't believe anybody should ever rule anything out, but she is focused on working in the "amazing" Department of Justice.
And after that?
"Who knows? One day is a long day in politics, so if I get to that point maybe we can have that conversation again."
With the Tánaiste under criminal investigation for leaking a confidential government document to a friend, it's a conversation that could theoretically happen sooner than many would have thought if charges are brought.
Varadkar's public commentary on the garda probe - he believes he has done nothing wrong and said last week he does not believe he will be charged - has been the source of disquiet within Fine Gael and, more significantly, An Garda Síochána.
While he is willing to talk about the case, McEntee would rather not. She repeatedly dodged questions on the appropriateness of the Tánaiste's commentary when we sat down last Thursday evening.
"While he's the Tánaiste, he is still not the minister for justice, but I am and I really can't comment on something that is before the gardaí at the moment. I don't think it would be appropriate for me to do so," she says.
McEntee's deft avoidance of a controversial issue is perhaps one of the reasons some colleagues have marked her down as a future leader.
"Responsive to backbenchers," is how one TD describes her. It is a trait that usually befits a minister who is thinking about their future career prospects. She is, says another Fine Gael colleague, "100pc" future leadership material. They describe her as "politically very astute" and "more interesting and dynamic than some would assume".
In the Department of Justice, the three-term Meath East TD has put a major focus on tackling violence against women. Last year she launched Supporting a Victim's Journey, a landmark strategy aimed at making it easier for victims of rape and other sexual offences to not only engage with the criminal justice system but be treated with more dignity, respect and compassion when they do.
Given that less than 10pc of victims report sexual assault or rape to gardaí, organisations like the National Women's Council (NWCI) and the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC) are full of praise for McEntee.
NWCI chief executive Orla O'Connor said the minister's approach was from a victim's perspective rather than that of State institutions. "She has shown a real commitment and also an understanding of the issue of violence against women," she said.
"It's been very clear from the moment she came in she has made this a priority. Her approach is to seek out views of frontline services and civil society groups and respond to them."
DRCC chief executive Noeline Blackwell said the minister recognised tackling the issue is a "long-haul" project.
"She has given a lot of her personal time and resources to advancing safety and equality. She has put her money where her mouth is," Blackwell said.
Like every young woman, McEntee was affected by the recent kidnap and murder of 33-year-old marketing executive Sarah Everard in south London, a story that prompted an outpouring of grief from many women who shared their experiences of being catcalled on the street, followed late at night, or worse.
"I just had a dreaded feeling because you know you're reading the article [that Everard had gone missing] and you kind of get a sense of this isn't somebody who just upped and left, that something had happened," McEntee says.
"I think like any woman when you read those stories, you're dreading what's coming down the line because sure as a few days later... we saw what happened."
McEntee says she felt "deflated" when Everard's body was discovered a week after she went missing. A Metropolitan police officer has been charged with her kidnap and murder.
"I have friends who live in that area in London, I've lived in cities myself. You shouldn't be a young woman not able to walk home in this day and age, for something like that to happen, so it's frustrating and it's upsetting," she says.
On Friday she convened a short meeting of stakeholders to discuss what more might be done to make women feel safer as they go about their daily lives.
"Sometimes you feel that the attitude is still what can the woman do, when can she take herself out in an environment, why was she there, what time was it, was she on her own? We need to get away from that type of attitude, but also what can men do to help women feel safe," McEntee says.
She believes boys at primary school should be taught about what is acceptable behaviour towards girls and women. "It's about respecting women, it's about understanding how your actions can impact on a woman," she says. "Do men sometimes even realise that their actions are causing a woman to feel unsafe or to feel insecure? And I mean that's not necessarily something that they intend to do. So I think it's about creating that awareness from a much earlier age."
After Easter she will bring forward draft hate crime legislation that will include a provision making gender-based violence an aggravating factor.
This will mean, for example, a sexual assault or harassment aggravated by prejudice against a woman (or a man) will be a different and more serious offence to ordinary assault or harassment. It will be classified as a hate crime which could potentially carry a heavier custodial sentence and impact on any future Parole Board hearing. The effect, McEntee argues, will be the same as if misogyny were classed a hate crime - something campaigners in the UK have been calling for in recent weeks - while protecting freedom of speech.
"Where you have a particular crime that takes place, whether it's an assault or harassment, you can have an aggravated factor based on gender, which will do the same thing and we're sure it will do the same thing as identifying misogyny specifically. So that will be an aggravating factor and that could be taken into account in a crime," she says.
Campaigners are impressed by McEntee's commitment and focus on the issue but stress it requires long-term focus. "There isn't any sort of simple solution, we need structural change," said O'Connor.
In the shorter term there are other issues McEntee can perhaps have a greater impact on.
This week, she will bring a long-awaited bill to make perjury a statutory offence, and therefore easier to prosecute, before the Cabinet. One of the main aims is to crack down on people who commit insurance fraud by lying in affidavits or in court.
Fine Gael in government has been criticised for years for not doing more to tackle the cost of insurance. The Judicial Council recently approved substantial cuts to personal injury payouts by up to 50pc - but still well short of the 80pc reduction sought by insurance costs campaigners - and still leaving Irish payouts out of kilter with the UK.
But the new guidelines for judges, the Government hopes, will reduce the cost of premiums and McEntee is clear that if this doesn't happen then she reserves the right to take further action.
This would include capping personal injury claim payouts by way of legislation, something the Law Reform Commission said last year would be constitutional. "It's an option that we have there. So that's something that we can use," she says.
A review will be carried out by the end of the year to assess whether the industry has reduced costs for consumers. "People are frustrated, I share that frustration and I want to see the changes that have been brought in actually reflected in people's overall insurance costs," she says, pleading to "absolutely" act if that does not happen.
By the end of this year she also hopes the long-flagged and controversial Judicial Appoints Commission Bill will become law. The process of appointing judges landed McEntee in a significant controversy last November when she was forced to defend the appointment of former attorney general Séamus Woulfe to the Supreme Court.
A fellow Fine Gael Cabinet minister describes McEntee as someone who has an "impressive ability to stay very cool and calm" - a trait that was evident in her response to the Woulfe controversy, albeit she initially refused to answer Dáil questions on the matter, prompting fury among the opposition.
To recap briefly, Woulfe, a long-time Fine Gael activist, was appointed to the Supreme Court in mid-July last year, three weeks after his spell as attorney general had ended. Despite some raised eyebrows at the time, it passed without much comment until Woulfe attended the infamous Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in August. His steadfast refusal to resign over his attendance - despite being asked to do so by the chief justice - and subsequent revelations that other judges had expressed an interest in the court vacancy prior to his appointment prompted a political firestorm.
Reflecting on the controversy, McEntee somewhat bizarrely maintains Woulfe was the right appointment even with everything that transpired. "I stand by the fact the best person I believe was put forward for the job, and I still believe that. I think Séamus Woulfe as an attorney general was very good, and I think he will bring the same experience and knowledge and work ethic to his new job as he did in his former role," she says.
She insists she adhered to a process of considering recommendations from the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board - to which Woulfe had applied - and a list of judges who had expressed an interest, as well as consulting with the Coalition leaders and current Attorney General Paul Gallagher.
But much of the decision-making and deliberation over the Woulfe appointment remains murky. Asked specifically six times if she discussed other candidates for the job with the Coalition leaders last summer, McEntee is evasive, insisting she adhered to a "process".
"I had many conversations with the attorney general and with the three leaders and we discussed many different things," she says. "The name that was put forward was Séamus Woulfe, and I'm not going to get into individual conversations that I had."
In its 10 years controlling the department, Fine Gael has had four justice ministers, two of whom were forced to resigned over garda controversies. While such scandals have abated in recent years, the department can be treacherous territory for a minister.
McEntee will at least get some respite for much of the rest of this year when she goes on maternity leave at the end of next month.
Her first child with her husband Paul Hickey is due mid-May and will see her become the first Cabinet minister to give birth while in office. In another first, she will take her full maternity leave - which has forced the Coalition to come up with an ad hoc solution, given there is no provision for politicians, including office-holders, to take parental entitlements afforded to every other citizen.
McEntee does not have to resign, but will instead become a minister without portfolio. Her justice responsibilities will be temporarily devolved to Cabinet colleague Heather Humphreys and junior ministers Hildegarde Naughton and James Browne.
It is an arrangement that will allow her to fully disengage from politics for the six months. She will return to work at the beginning of November when Hickey will take "lead responsibility", as she puts it, for the newborn. She does not know yet if she is having a boy or a girl.
"I really do intend to try and switch off. I often find in politics that the minute you make one phone call or you start one conversation it leads into the next, and before you know it it's five hours later and you're still working," she says.
"So I know myself and I know how I work and if I'm somewhat engaged I become fully engaged. So my intention is to try and really take that time and to focus on being a first-time mum - but of course I'm not going to not speak to anybody for the six months."