Saturday 16 December 2017

Loyal Frances: the safe pair of hands among the young pretenders

In the third of four in-depth profiles of those hoping to take over the reins from Taoiseach Enda Kenny, John Downing looks at Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald, the women's rights activist who never gave up during her slow, stop-start rise up the political ladder

Frances Fitzgerald and Taoiseach Enda Kenny after she was appointed Minister for Justice in May 2014;
Frances Fitzgerald and Taoiseach Enda Kenny after she was appointed Minister for Justice in May 2014;
Frances Fitzgerald with, from left, Jim O'Keeffe, Brian Hayes, Jim Higgins and Alan Dukes in 2001. Photo: Tom Burke
AFrances Fitzgerald poster from the ill-fated 2007 election
Frances Fitzgerald and Alan Dukes at the 1992 Fine Gael conference: Photo: John Carlos
Frances Fitzgerald with her children in 1992. Photo: Tony Gavin
Frances Fitzgerald with, from left, Simon Harris, Leo Varadkar, Seán Kyne and Simon Coveney last March. Photo: Tom Burke

John Bruton knocked on Frances Fitzgerald's front door on St Valentine's night. But the embattled Fine Gael leader was thinking political survival - nothing to do with romance.

His travails began four days earlier, on February 10, 1994, when four TDs - Charlie Flanagan, Jim Higgins, Jim O'Keeffe and Alan Shatter - told him to his face he "should consider his position" as they feared they were all bound for political oblivion. Bruton had been with his confederates counting heads for the upcoming fightback, and all that day had failed to get Frances Fitzgerald, a first-term TD from Dublin South East, to answer her telephone.

Bruton's main anti-heave strategist, Michael Lowry, who would soon become notorious for the wrong reasons, had the solution. "Call to her house on your way home tonight. Castleknock is on the way to Meath," one party stalwart vividly recalls.

Fitzgerald did not vote for Bruton. But he survived that challenge, and by an extraordinary turn of events was Taoiseach leading a Rainbow Coalition just 10 months later.

She was dropped from Bruton's post-heave frontbench and did not get one of eight junior ministries he had to give his party colleagues in the Rainbow government. Bruton allies from that time dismiss any suggestion of vindictiveness.

"She was new to the party, some said she had nothing to do with the party, and she had failed to register any great Dáil presence," the former 'Brutonite' insists.

The "nothing to do with the party" taint persisted for years and may have links to another Irish political tradition, begrudgery. In the run-in to the November 1992 general election, any of the mainstream parties would have taken Frances Fitzgerald as a candidate, as one of the most high-profile women in the country, chairwoman of the Council for the Status of Women, and a leading light in the European movement.

The Fianna Fáil government had appointed her to the Health Promotion Council shortly before she agreed to run for Fine Gael. She would later insist that she chose Fine Gael because she admired Garret FitzGerald and his just society policies. Subsequent events, including a 10-year battle to win back a Dáil seat in the Fine Gael colours, tell their own story.

But she certainly had trouble in the tricky business of "picking winners" during Fine Gael's marathon "family at war" machinations over the following decade. In January 2001, she steadfastly backed Bruton, who this time was ousted as leader by Michael Noonan.

A tough political decade later, in June 2010, she was a Senator with a parliamentary party vote when the heave began against Enda Kenny. Happily for her, she called that one right and backed Kenny from start to finish, playing a leading role in his successful fightback.

Backing Kenny was key to an ongoing ministerial career for Frances Fitzgerald and one of the factors which sees her name these days cited as potential party leader and Taoiseach.

*****

Lucinda Creighton stepped in to Dublin South East just as Frances Fitzgerald stumbled rather than stepped out again. But this one is a more complex political story than a political catfight.

The young woman, soon to be known only as "Lucinda", was extremely ambitious politically, and at age 21, she had grafted herself on to Fitzgerald's constituency as a student Fine Gael volunteer in 2001. Creighton also worked on the 2002 ill-starred general election campaign when Fitzgerald lost her seat.

"I have always wanted to be involved in electoral politics at some level at some stage of my career. The general election disaster in 2002 has given me the chance to get involved a little earlier than I had planned,'' Creighton said in an interview in July 2004, just weeks after she had become the first councillor elected to Dublin City Council's Pembroke ward.

Right at that time, things were going very badly for Fitzgerald's political career. She had lost the Fine Gael Dáil seat in May 2002 in the constituency once represented in turn by Fine Gael Taoisigh, John A Costello and Garret FitzGerald. She was part of an underperforming party ticket along with barrister Colm Mac Eochaidh, just recently appointed an EU Court judge. She was just 605 votes behind then-Labour leader Ruairí Quinn, for the last seat, and it was all part of the party's nationwide meltdown.

"It was a big blow and she took it very hard," one friend recalls. Worse again, she failed to win a fall-back Seanad seat weeks later in July 2002.

She was not held in high regard at party headquarters where a revamp of Dublin operations was now afoot. The young Creighton had been part of that Dublin revamp since 2002. She later took a Dáil seat in Dublin South East in 2007 and held it in 2011, becoming EU Affairs minister.

By contrast, in spring 2004, Fitzgerald failed to get on the party's European Parliament ticket for the four-seat Dublin Euro constituency, as headquarters opted for a single candidate, Gay Mitchell. Worst of all, she failed to get a party nomination for the Dublin City Council seat she had held in the Rathmines ward since 1999. Speculation that she would be added to the ticket proved wrong - she had lost her last toehold in elected politics 12 years after she started out.

Fitzgerald persisted, however, and took up an offer from the party to switch to Dublin Mid-West. It had the advantage of being where she lived with her husband and three sons for many years, and the political benefit of going from three to four seats as population increased. But it had a shattered party organisation and her supporters argue that this is where and when she really earned her political spurs.

"When she lost that Dáil seat in 2002, she was 50 years old and well qualified. She did have other options - but she chose to stay with politics," one supporter argues. "She started with nothing in Dublin Mid-West and worked extremely hard. She frequently convened and presided at Fine Gael meetings attended by four, five people. It was a long, hard slog."

*****

She is married to TCD Professor Michael Fitzgerald, an expert in child psychiatry and autism, and they have three adult sons. In 2004, he caused a political stir by producing a book with writer Antoinette Walker which argued that a number of historic Irish figures, including Éamon de Valera, had Asperger's syndrome.

In May 2007, she stood for the first time in Dublin Mid-West and was third on the first count behind Fianna Fáil's John Curran and the former Progressive Democrat leader and Tánaiste, Mary Harney. But, starved of transfers, she was overtaken by both Paul Gogarty of the Green Party and Labour's Joanna Tuffy, who won. Weeks later, she did win a Seanad seat and was back at Leinster House, and already preparing for the next general election. Her political career was on course, but truly a slow-burner.

In the March 2011 general election, Fitzgerald was elected TD for Dublin Mid-West, helping deliver the biggest swing to Fine Gael-Labour from the outgoing Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition. Four out of 10 voters switched sides, and the four-seater had two Labour and two Fine Gael TDs, as Fitzgerald was joined by party colleague Derek Keating.

In the last election, in February 2016, Fitzgerald bucked the national trend against her party and polled over 9,000 votes to take a seat on the first count. She was just fractionally behind the constituency star turn on the day, Eoin Ó Broin of Sinn Féin. But notably she made no attempt at party vote management, and colleague Keating lost out badly.

It was clear that all the lessons of constituency operation were well learned. By contrast, Creighton had burnt more brightly but briefly, leaving Fine Gael in a row over abortion in 2013, her venture founding the party Renua Ireland foundered, and she lost her Dáil seat in February last year.

*****

Frances Fitzgerald took almost 20 years to establish herself in Irish politics. On March 9, 2011, she was appointed to Cabinet for the first time as Children and Youth Affairs Minister, a post she held until May 2014 when she became Justice Minister after Alan Shatter was forced to quit. She was reappointed Justice Minister when the current minority coalition was elected on May 6 last year.

Latterly, some at Leinster House argue that she is a "lucky politician" who benefited from Kenny's patronage and the political defenestration of Shatter from Justice. That infuriates supporters, who point out that she has always been a trailblazer for women in Irish politics and who argue that she is a serious contender for the top job.

Doubters about the political glass ceiling should recall that she and Joan Burton of Labour were the only two women in Enda Kenny's first Cabinet. Fitzgerald is a keen supporter of female quotas in politics.

Many activists in the childcare sector concede that she succeeded as the nation's first ever Children's Minister. As a former social worker with a lifelong interest in the issue, she presided over the establishment of a new department and the Child and Family Agency.

She delivered a children's rights referendum in November 2012 - though not without glitches and controversy. Professionals in the sector argue that she got little government support, just one in three Irish people bothered to vote, and four out of 10 voters said 'No'. And there were nervous moments when the Supreme Court condemned official government information as not impartial - but allowed voting go ahead.

"All that said, it was held and it passed. The incident says more about Irish people's attitude to children than Ms Fitzgerald's actions," a child welfare advocate says.

Her move to the crisis-ridden Justice Department in May 2014 was seen as Enda Kenny putting in someone personally loyal to him who would manage quietly and take close direction from Government Buildings. Amid ongoing turmoil in An Garda Síochána, she has had her moments of difficulty and public squirming in the Dáil and on television.

Many fierce critics will never be satisfied but in government circles she is seen as "a manager" who has managed to "calm things" and she has not made too many errors. More recently, she has managed to progress things such as the single asylum process and the DNA database which had been delayed for years. She has at times been left trying to make do with legal answers to intensely political questions around crime. But that is sometimes the lot of a Justice Minister.

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