Friday 17 November 2017

Lunch with: Arts Minister Heather Humphreys

Arts Minister Heather Humphreys tells Lise Hand about her bruising start to life in the Cabinet... and the terrible road accident that put everything else into perspective

Heather Humphreys and Lise Hand at lunch in Matt the Thresher Restaurant
Heather Humphreys and Lise Hand at lunch in Matt the Thresher Restaurant
Matt the Thresher's
Heather Humphreys
Heather Humphreys
Lise Hand

Lise Hand

Heather Humphreys hurried into Matt the Thresher restaurant bar on Pembroke Street, just a short hop from Leinster House, an apology at the ready. She was late, but that’s not an unusual occurrence in the schedule of a government minister.

Blonde and smartly dressed, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht blended in with the busy lunchtime crowd. Heads didn’t turn, as would’ve happened with the entrance of one of the high-profile members of the Cabinet — Leo Varadkar or Michael Noonan, for instance.

But that’s hardly surprising — until the summer, Heather was simply one of the scores of first-time backbenchers in the Dáil, with little public profile outside her own constituency of Cavan-Monaghan. However, that changed considerably in the autumn. She had been little more than eight weeks into her new job as Arts Minister following the July reshuffle, when the massive furore over John McNulty, Fine Gael’s candidate for the Seanad by-election, engulfed her after it emerged he had been appointed to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) a few days before his nomination was announced.

It was a tangled tale which involved IMMA, the Taoiseach, the nominee, outraged senators  and accusations of cronyism — and in the centre of it all was Heather Humphreys, looking most uncomfortable in the sudden media onslaught.

Three months later, over a lunch of celeriac soup and an open shrimp sandwich, the Cavan-Monaghan TD shrugs at the memory of the hooha which raged throughout September. “I made the appointment, I made the decision, and I stood over that decision at the end of the day,” she insisted. “I suppose what happened in terms of the media, I was sort of propelled into the media limelight, where I’d never been before. Until then, if I saw a camera, I went behind it.”

But Heather had a close personal reason for taking a certain perspective on the political row. “My daughter Tara had a very, very bad accident on the March 31, which was Mother’s Day,” she explained. “She was in a serious car crash, we nearly lost her. She was nine days in a coma and I suppose, at the end of the day, you have to think what’s important here and when you can get through that, you can get through most things”.

The minister, a woman with a warm smile, grew serious as she described that dreadful day. Tara, aged 19, the younger of her two daughters, was about a mile from the family home when the accident happened about 2pm. Tara had stayed overnight with a friend following a party the night before. ‘‘The car swerved and crashed into a tree,” she explained.

Heather was en route to a function and came upon the accident. She saw the car in a field, but didn’t recognise it as her daughter’s. When she got out of her own car to find out what had happened, neighbours ran up to tell her that Tara was injured. She was advised not to go to her daughter while the paramedics worked on her.

“I stood there, I didn’t get into a tizzy, but then they called for an air ambulance, so I went with her to Beaumont Hospital where she had a four-hour operation,” said Heather. Despite being in a prolonged coma, which left her having to re-learn how to walk afterwards, Tara made a full and rapid recovery, and is now back in college.

“She’s fine now, thank god. We got huge support and prayers from the local community, and I genuinely believe it was a miracle,” she said.

During that terrible time for Heather, her husband Eric and eldest daughter Eve, the deputy kept working in between daily visits to Beaumont, and many of her Leinster House colleagues were unaware of her family drama.

But then, the first-time TD — Fine Gael’s first woman elected to the Cavan-Monaghan constituency — wasn’t the sort to seek out the limelight.

Before being co-opted onto the county council in 2003 after the dual mandate ended and local TD Seymour Crawford was obliged to give up his council seat, Heather had no connection to politics. She was reared on a farm in the village of Drum, and married a farmer, Eric Humphreys. At the time she was approached for the council seat, the Monaghan-born mother of two was manager of Cootehill Credit Union. Before that, she had worked in various branches of the Ulster Bank.

“Though I was promoted to assistant manager, there were very few women managers at the time,” she recalled. “It was rough-and-tumble; if you can’t survive, get out. Men don’t do tears. I get on very well in men’s company — I used to hang out with the lads when I worked in Dublin, playing darts and so on,” she laughed.

After her political mentor, Seymour Crawford, decided not to run in the February 2011 general election, Heather was one of four Fine Gael candidates who slugged it out in Cavan-Monaghan, and she was one of the three party candidates elected, alongside Sean Conlon and Joe O’Reilly. She was one of a record 76 new TDs elected to the 31st Dail, and steered a low-key course through Leinster House — until the morning of July 11, 2014, when Enda Kenny was due to announced his reshuffled front bench.

Heather had been drinking coffee with a few Fine Gael TDs who were avidly swapping rumours. “Leinster House is the greatest gossip-house in Ireland.” Soon after, Heather was at her desk, making a call about a special needs assistant for a school in her constituency, when her mobile rang, asking her to come across to the Taoiseach’s office. “It still hadn’t clicked with me. I thought, he’s probably bringing some of us over to say ‘you’re doing a great job, keep at, the usual talk you give your staff’,” she explained.

She can’t recall exactly what Enda said to her once she sat down in his office. “It’s a bit of a blur,” she admitted. “But he said that something like, ‘some people are going to be happy, and some unhappy, and you’re going to be Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht’. All I could say was, ‘Thank you very much, I’ll work hard and I hope I won’t let you down’. And he said, ‘Now Heather, when you go out that door, it’ll never be the same again’, and I said, ‘Right, right’, thinking ‘Ah sure what will change, it’s a new job and I’ll get on with it’,” she laughed, a wiser woman several months later.

Heather admitted that she was “absolutely shocked” and truth be told, more than one political journalist hastily googled her name when she somewhat self-consciously walked in procession into the Dáil chamber with the rest of the Taoiseach’s new team. But even in the midst of her shock, her sense of humour didn’t desert her, given that she was a huge fan of the television series, Yes Minister, and had the box set of both series. Upon returning from the Aras where the Cabinet had received their seals of office from President Higgins, the new minister was asked to drop into her new Department to talk to her Secretary General, Joe Hamill, who greeted her.

“He said, ‘Congratulations Minister,’ and I asked him to call me Heather. But he said ‘No, this is the way we do things, we always use Minister’. And I said, ‘Well if that’s the way you do it, that’s fine with me’. And then he goes, ‘Yes, Minister’. And I just thought ‘here we go’,” she laughed.

But within weeks, the new Minister was embroiled in the Seanad contretemps. Even several months on, she won’t be drawn on the intricacies of the controversial appointment of Donegal businessman John McNulty on to the board of IMMA in advance of the Seanad by-election for a vacant seat on the cultural panel. “There’s a new system in place now and I can assure you that anybody who wants to get on a state board will go through the process. There’s a very clear process and that’s a good thing,” she stated firmly.

Undoubtedly, Heather’s background as a member of the Church of Ireland, who had worked closely with politicians across the border, was of the reasons for her appointment to a post with a key role to play in the centenary 1916 commemorations. She insists that government would be prepared for the events. “2016 is my number one priority,” she said. “I want it be inclusive, I want people to engage with 2016. The state events will be great occasions, but everybody should be part of the commemorations.” She added that the debate on whether to involve the British royal family in some part of the events would be “a decision of government, but what I feel about it is that most likely there will be an event for heads of state”.

Heather’s appointment wasn’t just a shock to her — the artistic community expressed some scepticism, given that her chief qualification to run the Arts Department appeared to be an involvement in drama while at school. But the Minister is unfazed by the criticism. “I just thought, ‘well, I’ll show them otherwise,’” she shrugged. “Michael O’Leary doesn’t have to pilot a plane to know how to run an airline company.

“It’s quite a job. I have the bogs, the national parks and wildlife services, heritage, cultural institutions, the Arts Council, Film Board, Culture Ireland...” she enumerated cheerfully as she bustled out the door.

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