Saturday 24 March 2018

Goodbye to all that - Olivia looks back on 30 years of life in politics

‘I can only guess why I didn’t make Enda’s first team... I reckon he decided I had only one more election left in me’
‘I can only guess why I didn’t make Enda’s first team... I reckon he decided I had only one more election left in me’
John Downing

John Downing

Olivia Mitchell brushes aside suggestions that she would have continued in politics if she had been promoted to even a junior ministry by Enda Kenny.

The feisty and stylish Fine Gael TD insists she is quitting public life after 30 years in politics, including 18 years as a TD, without a shred of resentment.

"I have made my peace with all of that," she says, as we mull over her relationship with her party leader, her intense rivalry with constituency party colleague Alan Shatter, and occasional high-profile controversies.

Ms Mitchell, now aged 68, was rated as very able and the party has always been short of women it could promote.

She was notably on the "wrong side" of the June 2010 botched leadership heave against Enda Kenny.

But others, including Lucinda Creighton, Charlie Flanagan and Leo Varadkar, overcame that and made Kenny's first team. Why does Olivia Mitchell believe she did not achieve "rehabilitation"?

"Well, I can only guess. But I reckon he decided I had only one more election left in me. It probably made sense to promote younger people who were more likely to be staying longer," she muses.

She argues that Enda Kenny deserves more credit than he gets for leading a government that turned around the economy dramatically in just four years. "It was not a foregone conclusion that things were going to be turned around when we came in back in March 2011. What Enda Kenny has done is nothing short of wonderful," Ms Mitchell insists.

Her decision to back Kenny rival Richard Bruton was automatic as she and he were left fighting a battle for the party in Dublin.

The pair, along with Gay Mitchell, were Fine Gael's only three Dublin TDs after the 2002 electoral meltdown. Gay Mitchell went to the European Parliament in 2004.

"It was a very intense time, stressful though enjoyable, when the party was literally fighting for survival. The decision to challenge Enda Kenny came after a series of poor opinion polls. The economy was in a mess but it looked like Fianna Fáil could still be re-elected at that point," she recalls.

Yes, there was "huge rivalry" between herself and Alan Shatter in Dublin South. "But it was no worse than that intra-party rivalry in other constituencies," Mitchell insists.

Shatter lost his seat in May 2002, re-gained it in 2007 and picked the "right side" in the 2010 Kenny heave.

Again, diplomacy prevails as she praises Alan Shatter as "a very good and reforming Minister for Justice". She says there is no point discussing the controversies that led to him being forced out of Cabinet in May 2014, or giving her views on more recent events.

"Better minds than mine have given judgment on these things. Let it rest there," she says determinedly.

The daughter of a civil servant, she grew up in the prosperous south-Dublin suburbs. After studies in UCD, she went on to teach economics in Mount Anville school.

She eventually followed in the footsteps of women's rights campaigner and Fine Gael TD Nuala Fennell as TD for Dublin South from 1997 to the present.

"I was an admirer of Garret FitzGerald and had a Fine Gael family background. I was not active in the women's movement. But I was always a liberal on social issues, conservative on the economy and a big believer in law and order," she sums up when asked about her views.

Mitchell believes she was better at policy issues than constituency work, though she also paid close attention to her local patch, as a solid vote-getting record attests.

In the February 2011 General Election she was the highest-polling woman candidate in the country.

"Clinics are a useful listening post. When the same problems recur, you know it's time for policy changes," she argues.

Traffic and transport were her biggest issues as the M50 bisected Dublin South and took 20 years to complete.

She remains unapologetic for her strident criticisms in 2002 of illegal Traveller parking along the Dodder and in Sandyford Industrial Estate. "It was utterly disgraceful," she recalls.

But we're back with diplomacy at mention of George Lee, the RTÉ journalist, briefly turned poll-topping Fine Gael in her Dublin South patch, in the by-election of June 2009.

"Well, I remember canvassing for him for about five weeks. I think he just did not realise what he let himself in for. He didn't like it and within the year, he left and returned to journalism."

Equally, she absolutely will not publicly back any of the three councillors seeking the nomination to succeed her, as five-seat Dublin South becomes three-seat Dublin Rathdown. The party members will choose between councillors, Neale Richmond, Barry Saul and Josepha Madigan.

But she does have definite views of when the general election is likely to happen.

"It will be called in February and held in March. There is no point in going any earlier. As long as the economy continues to improve, we will do well," she insists.

Right now she has no future plans. "I intend to spend three months at home and in the garden. I can't imagine what it will be like not to be busy all the time. Then I'll re-assess things."

Irish Independent

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