Monday 21 October 2019

Obituary: Monica Barnes

Former Fine Gael TD was a leading light in the fight for equality and women's rights, writes Liam Collins

TOLERANT: Monica Barnes served in both Dail and Seanad
TOLERANT: Monica Barnes served in both Dail and Seanad

Ironically, as the country finds itself in the middle of another abortion debate, Monica Barnes was one of only two Fine Gael TDs (the other was Alan Shatter) who voted against putting what they regarded as the flawed wording of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution to a referendum almost 35 years ago, in 1983.

In his autobiography, former Labour Party minister Barry Desmond described Monica Barnes as someone who had "a long and passionate advocacy of women's rights" and how she made a trenchant intervention which helped get his 1985 contraception bill carried in the Dail by a narrow margin.

On the Ireland she grew up in, she said: "We are talking about bleak, guilt-ridden repressed times when a woman did not have any say, no income, no right to work away from the home and no choice as to how many children she would or would not have.

"I am talking about a period when, if she did not get married and did not have children, her value was even less."

But she also understood the position of women who regarded themselves as "homemakers" and although firm in her belief in equality, was rarely strident in her views.

Monica Barnes, who has died at the age of 82, was something of an outsider in that she was a committed feminist and liberal, but a member of Fine Gael, which at the time was in the throes of an ideological divide between its right-wing elders and the 'Constitutional Crusade' of Garret FitzGerald, who encouraged her political ambitions.

Monica MacDermott, one of a family of five, was born on February 12, 1936, in Kingscourt, Co Cavan, where her father, a committed trade unionist, worked in the local Gypsum Industries factory. She went to the local national school and later got a scholarship to the St Louis Convent in Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan.

Despite encouraging parents and teachers, she said later she "went blank" during her Leaving Certificate maths exam so, unlike many of her later colleagues in politics and women's rights groups, she did not progress to third-level education. She did a course in journalism and business studies which provided her with secretarial skills before emigrating to London where she worked in a number of jobs, including as a clerk in the London Stock Exchange, and in publishing, before returning to Ireland where she worked in Cahill's, the firm that printed the Dail Reports. She married Robert (Bob) Barnes and although she was kept on in her job, unusual at the time, had to leave when she was five months pregnant with their first child.

The couple had three children, a boy and two girls.

She later said she suffered from post-natal depression, a largely unrecognised condition at the time. After being told by her doctor to "pull yourself together", she set up a support group for women suffering from the condition and began to take an interest in equality and women's rights.

She was a co-founder of the Council for the Status of Women (now the National Women's Council) in 1973, which was the turning point in her career.

Faced with a decision to pursue a more active political role or get a proper teaching qualification, she opted to pursue her interest in politics.

Living in leafy Glenageary in south Dublin, she was active in the Dun Laoghaire constituency then dominated by the ultra-conservative Liam Cosgrave. Barnes was firmly in the FitzGerald wing of the party and ran unsuccessfully in 1979 for the European Parliament, which was not regarded seriously by mainstream politicians at the time. During a period of political turbulence caused by the rivalry between Charlie Haughey and Garret FitzGerald, she was an unsuccessful Fine Gael candidate in Dun Laoghaire in the 1981 and February 1982 elections.

In the second election of that year, November 1982, she topped the poll for Fine Gael. "I remember sitting on those leather seats in the Dail... there used to be an ad: 'happiness is a cigar called Hamlet'...

"I used to sit there thinking happiness is being privileged enough to sit here in one of these seats, to be voted for by people and represent them," she told Miriam O'Callaghan some years later.

Columnist Gene Kerrigan recalled that in 1984, when dozens of 'peace' women were arrested during the visit of US President Ronald Reagan, Monica Barnes was the only politician to visit them in the cells of the Bridewell, where they were held until the president had departed.

She lost her seat in Dun Laoghaire in the 1992 election and, although elected to the Seanad, also failed in a second attempt to win a seat in the European election of 1994.

She was returned to the Dail for Dun Laoghaire in 1997 and retired from political life in 2002. Although she was articulate and hard-working, much to her disappointment she was never appointed to ministerial office. She likened many Irish politicians she served with in the Dail and Seanad as "bold boys in school" but tended to treat them with more tolerance than they may have deserved, or would get from more recent female colleagues.

Monica Barnes, who died on Wednesday, May 2, is survived by her husband Bob and daughters Sarah and Joanne. Her son Paul died of cancer in 2003. Her funeral Mass takes place on Tuesday May 8, at Churchview Road, Killiney, Co Dublin.

Sunday Independent

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