Sunday 22 September 2019

Frances Fitzgerald: The Fine Gael 'matriarch' who fought her way up long before gender quotas

Fitzgerald is a women’s right activist who fought for divorce and marriage equality

Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald Pic Steve Humphreys
Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald Pic Steve Humphreys
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

When Leo Varadkar officially launched his Fine Gael leadership campaign last May, Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald appeared by his side, hailing him as the man who could renew the party and take on the Opposition.

Just days after Enda Kenny had announced his departure, Fitzgerald — once considered a leadership contender herself — was the most significant figure yet to throw her support behind the would-be Taoiseach.

And it gave Varadkar serious momentum in the early days of the campaign which helped him sweep to victory.

Frances Fitzgerald had clout in Fine Gael where she was a proven survivor despite electoral setbacks and turbulent times for the party.

Often spoken of as the presidential candidate that could finally see Fine Gael win Aras an Uachtarain, there is some disbelief in the party that she found herself in her current predicament.

Accused of inaction by the Opposition after receiving the now infamous 2015 email outlining a clash between legal teams for the Garda and whistleblower Sergeant Maurice McCabe, both Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail called for her head.

Fine Gael — and Varadkar, who considers Fitzgerald as something of a mentor — were clear in their view that she hasn’t done anything wrong and in fact would have acted improperly and in contravention of advice in the email had she intervened.

Those who know her in the party expected the defiance shown in recent days and didn’t expect her to resign, with one saying: “I don’t think it’s in her make-up”. They added: “She is a fighter beneath the matriarch role. She’s steely and people are finding that out this week.”

Others pointed to her experience backing Kenny in the ill-fated 2010 heave, saying this instilled a sense of “not giving up” in Fitzgerald.

The 67-year-old’s history with Fine Gael dates back more than 25 years but before she joined the party Fitzgerald was a social worker. A mother of three adult sons, she is married to TCD Professor Michael Fitzgerald, an expert in child psychiatry and autism.

A campaigner for women’s rights throughout her career, Fitzgerald rose to prominence as the chairperson of the National Women’s Council between 1988 and 1992.

The current director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, Orla O’Connor, says Fitzgerald has a “really strong” track record in promoting women’s leadership in politics and business. She also credits her with championing measures to combat domestic and sexual violence during her time at Justice.

On the ‘‘liberal wing’’ of Fine Gael, Fitzgerald worked her way through the political ranks long before gender quotas were event talked about. She was in favour of introducing divorce in the 1990s and campaigned hard for marriage equality in 2015. Appointed Business, Enterprise and Innovation minister by Varadkar when he became Taoiseach, she is one of the ministers with a key role in preparing for Brexit.

Fitzgerald was first elected to the Dail in 1992 but spent time in the wilderness during the Rainbow coalition after she failed to back John Bruton when his leadership was challenged in 1994.  Originally a TD for Dublin South-East, Fitzgerald lost her seat during Fine Gael’s election disaster in 2002. She persisted however and moved constituency to Dublin Mid-West where she is said to have worked hard to build the party’s organisation in an area where it wasn’t particularly strong.

Fitzgerald didn’t get elected to the Dail in 2007, but took a Seanad seat and three years later backed Enda Kenny in Richard Bruton’s heave.

It was support Kenny didn’t forget and he appointed her to Cabinet when she returned to the Dail in 2011 as the first ever minister for Children and Youth Affairs.

She established Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, and led the charge in the 2012 Children’s Rights referendum which was blighted by low turnout and a Supreme Court finding that government information wasn’t impartial. But the referendum passed.

Fitzgerald was seen as a safe pair of hands when the crisis-ridden Department of Justice brief became vacant after Alan Shatter was forced to go as minister in 2014.

The Department hasn’t exactly been free of controversy since. Issues that emerged during her tenure included the revelations about the legacy of serious financial irregularities at the Garda College at Templemore and the scandal of the recording of up to 1.9m bogus breath tests by gardai.

Throughout her stormy time at Justice, Fitzgerald didn’t waver in her support for the embattled and now departed Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan.

The whistleblower controversy and alleged smear campaign against Sgt McCabe blew up at the start of the year, leading the Government to establish the Disclosures Tribunal led by Mr Justice Peter Charleton. Fitzgerald’s defenders say she drove a reforming agenda while she was at Justice, pointing to her support for whistleblowers and establishment of the Policing Authority.

With the country on the brink of going to the polls, Varadkar was challenged on RTE as to why he won’t simply remove Fitzgerald to avoid an election. “What that would mean is me throwing a good woman under the bus for political expediency... that would be the wrong thing to do,” he replied.

But the release of new emails showing that Ms Fitzgerald was briefed on how to handle media queries about Garda taking an “aggressive stance” against Sgt McCabe at the O’Higgins Commission proved fatal.

She will now look to her own creation, the Charleton Tribunal, in order to prove she did nothing wrong.

But regardless of its findings the damage has already been done.

Online Editors

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