Sunday 18 August 2019

'Is Eoghan Murphy the right person for the job? I don't know'

Dublin Bay South TD Kate O'Connell spoke to Donal Lynch about ambition, bullying and wearing cardies to Coppers

Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

It's Friday evening in Ranelagh and the after-work crowd is boisterously downing that first, sweet drink of the weekend. Their TD, Kate O'Connell, is on the coffee, however - one paltry drink hardly seems worth her while. "If I'm going to go for a drink I prefer to go for six," she laughs. "My hangover time is precious. Sometimes I just have to play dead."

The scarcely repressed wildness is a bit of a theme with her. When we meet she looks sleekly professional in a beautiful suit but the tiny scar from a nose-ring is a reminder her life was not always so carefully starched.

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A few weeks ago, she found herself letting loose on the dancefloor at Copper Face Jacks. The people around her stared, not because she was a TD "having a boogie'' amid shifting nurses and gardai, but because she and her friends were all wearing cardigans. "We stood out," she smiles.

The mixture of youth and middle-age represented by cardies in Coppers is also reflected in the mixture of social liberalism and parish pump conservatism in her politics. Over recent years she has been a vocal proponent of progressive causes such as the removal of tax on condoms, free contraception for women and, of course, Repeal the Eighth. But, notably, she's also come out strongly to bat for the predominantly older, predominantly wealthy residents of her Dublin 6 constituency, throwing her weight behind plans to stave off the controversial Metro North rail link, opposing the current BusConnects plans - which would see a widening of roads in areas like Rathmines and shorter commute times for areas like Finglas.

She has also supported the property tax, which disproportionately affects her constituents, being put on the long finger. She insists none of this means the Government is beholden to the wealthy residents of South Dublin, however.

"I haven't lobbied to any great extent on the property tax", she says. "It's a wealth tax, and it very much affects people who have more valuable homes, but I don't necessarily think there's anything wrong with that. In my constituency you have a lot of older people and they may be asset-rich in terms of their home, but not in terms of income, and they are accommodated in the deferrals." The lingering fear of water charges-style revolt also came into it, she says. "I think the Government were conscious of not cutting off their nose to spite their faces."

The uproar over water charges emanated partly from the Government's inability to identify how close to breaking point an austerity-weary public had come. Just a few years later, they appear to have been caught on the hop by the speed of economic recovery. The housing crisis, driven by exponentially increased demand and a decade-long dearth of new builds, has been the most visible sign of this, and a persistent thorn in the Government's side.

Given all that, does O'Connell think her embattled constituency colleague, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy, is still the right man for the job?

"I don't know", she says. "He was given the job by the Taoiseach so I guess you could say it's above my pay grade to say that. He got into politics to make a difference and I can't doubt his work ethic. Everyone in Ireland is unhappy about the (housing) situation. I won't know whether it's politically had an impact on me personally until I go to the polls."

Speaking of a personal impact, what about the perception that the preponderance of landlords in the Oireachtas affects decision-making when it comes to housing and homelessness? O'Connell herself owns five investment properties and is about to move into a new home in Ranelagh - surely those are not good optics at this moment in time?

"People are entitled to invest and, to be honest about it, my husband is really the landlord - sometimes there are added benefits of marriage", she says smiling. "I don't think it affects my politics because I'm actually in favour of buying people houses. We need to be very careful about interfering with people's private property."

O'Connell is a relatively new TD - she was elected only three years ago - but she has, thus far, been one of the more impressive performers of the 32nd Dail, both in the media and on the floor of Leinster House itself. Her articulacy, professional background - she is a pharmacist - and openness about her personal struggles have made her a colourful addition to the political landscape here.

One wonders, however, how much further along she might be now, had she backed the right horse in Fine Gael's last leadership contest. O'Connell threw her weight behind Simon Coveney and described Leo Varadkar's supporters as "choirboys". In an otherwise sedate contest, it counted as a shot across the bow, but did she pay the price in terms of her political career?

"I've never regretted the choirboys comment or supporting Coveney," she says. "I still believe in him, of course I do - look at the job he's done on Brexit. If he had become Taoiseach, he would have been too busy to sort out Brexit, so I see the positives. But I've never had a problem with Leo as Taoiseach - he's very impressive and good at making decisions."

O'Connell's star undoubtedly rose during the abortion referendum. She was a member of the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment and struck a chord with women across Ireland with her courageous sharing of her own personal story.

Her son, Pierce, now nine, had serious and visible defects in the womb, and was given only a 10pc chance of survival. Speaking now about her memories of that pregnancy, tears spring bright in her eyes. "I was really, really devastated originally, I felt really hard done by. I wished I'd had another child, to take the edge off, to focus on. We met paediatricians before our child was even born. We dealt with it like a project to some extent."

Naturally she and husband Morgan carefully considered all of the options. "I thought abortion was probably for other people", she says. "I was well-educated, I was a pharmacist, I'd somehow managed to get through my teens and 20s without encountering this. I came up against an information wall. I wasn't sure if, because of the Amendment being in place at the time, I was being told the truth. Were they saying things were better than they were because they thought I might travel? There was a huge element of that. My husband is a great man for the sums and he said if there was a one in 10 chance you'd win the lottery tonight would you buy a ticket, darling?"

In the end the final decision fell to her, and to her great relief, it was the right one: she now has a healthy nine-year-old. The only reminder of the horror of his early years are the surgery scars on his abdomen. But O'Connell says scars are just a reminder of the life you've had - she points out several on her own face. She's good, too, at speaking about the more metaphorical edges life knocks off you.

"Probably when I was younger I would have had very little compassion for heroin addicts but I've changed my mind on things like that", she says. "You see people at their worst, sometimes, in the pharmacy."

And she has seen the worst of people in Leinster House. Besides the referendum, another issue that hugely put her on the national radar was her tackling of Barry Walsh, then a member of the Fine Gael executive council, for his online trolling of several female politicians, including herself. "I don't see any value in looking at people saying awful things about you, but the key thing about Barry Walsh was that here was a person on the national executive of our party that was across the board making derogatory comments about women", she recalls. "I thought it was a bad thing for the party. It was a consistent pattern over many months." Walsh eventually resigned.

This, along with her support for gender quotas in politics, has made her one of the principal drivers of the slow eroding of male dominance and jobs for the boys in Irish politics. But what of jobs for the girls? One sister will run for election in Tipperary, another works with Kate in her constituency office. What was it about her own sister that made her the best candidate for that State job? "Having your back," she replies, quick as a flash. "Trust is a huge part of it. Sometimes you have to go ballistic. Politics can really come at you. For example, when the CervicalCheck controversy arose I was driving to a wedding with my husband and we had to stop and turn around."

Both of our nearest geographical neighbours are now ruled by women but Ireland has never come close to having a female Taoiseach. Could O'Connell be the one to break the ultimate glass ceiling for Mna na hEireann? "I'm a bit young to be Taoiseach yet," she says, apparently discounting the fact Varadkar was younger than her when he got the job.

"In the future, who knows, people have to elect me the next time. I'm driven and I wouldn't have done all this if I didn't want to make a change. I'm deeply ambitious."

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