A high-risk strategy paid off for the Louth woman described as being ‘a great mixer with a tremendous sense of fun'
Mairead McGuinness sets a lot of store in what she calls the ‘Dinny’ principle. It’s a playful adaptation of the acronym for “Do It Now”, and it has driven much of her career in journalism and politics.
Her elevation to a heavy-hitting job in the Brussels executive is probably not the end of her political ambitions. Many observers see her as a contender to be President of Ireland in elections due in 2026, after the current Commission’s term ends in November 2024.
The new Commissioner for financial services is seen by some people who worked with her as being good with people, while also managing to be on top of policy. Few politicians manage this combination and are known to excel at either one or the other, and sometimes neither.
“She is a great mixer with a tremendous sense of fun,” one former colleague says.
Not all her Fine Gael party colleagues like her, however. In the run-up to the unsuccessful June 2010 leadership heave against Enda Kenny, she was seen as privately supporting the malcontents. But once the heave became public, she loudly backed Mr Kenny.
Then again, in the May 2017 Fine Gael leadership election, she strongly and publicly backed the loser, Simon Coveney. Some people thought she would never get to the starting gate for this Brussels post because of that – but she was unrepentant about her decision as recently as last week.
The new Irish EU Commissioner used ‘Dinny’ to overcome anxiety and indecision in her earlier years and it stood to her since. It drove her to go on RTÉ radio last Sunday week and frankly stake her claim for one of the biggest, and most lucrative, jobs available to Irish politicians.
The basic rate for this EU job is €273,000 per year – about €86,000 more than the Taoiseach gets. But a range of allowances, including a 15pc per year “overseas allowance,” bring the gross salary package well above the €300,000-mark with about one third of that likely to go on the preferential EU income tax regime.
Taking to the airwaves was a very high-risk strategy. At that point the job was set to go to Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney, as Fine Gael urged Taoiseach Micheál Martin to ignore EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s request to send two names, one male and one female.
Ms McGuinness corrected assertions that Ms von der Leyen was seeking “the names of a man and a woman”. The nuance actually landed her the job.
“Listen to what she said. She said she wanted names of ‘a woman and a man’,” Ms McGuinness chided this writer.
There is an irony in her succeeding the former Irish EU Commissioner Phil Hogan, because he played a big role in launching her in politics. He was Fine Gael director of elections in spring 2004 when she was chosen to run for the European Parliament in Ireland East.
McGuinness had a high-profile as farming editor of the Irish Independent, and presenter of the RTÉ television rural affairs show Ear to the Ground. Hogan was pleased to get her as a candidate as she had offers from the now defunct Progressive Democrats, who had recruited former IFA president Tom Parlon to take a Dáil seat two years earlier.
But soon much of the campaign focus became a straight battle between Ms McGuinness and sitting Fine Gael MEP Avril Doyle of Wexford, both of whom had a “posh rural air” about them.
Political colour writers had a ball: “Designer handbags at 100 paces” and “Horseboxes drawn” were among the headlines.
There were ill-tempered clashes when Doyle campaigners “invaded” to canvass “McGuinness turf” at Fairyhouse Racecourse in Co Meath. Soon McGuinness posters appeared in Doyle’s native Wexford, causing further fury.
But the infighting meant big publicity, which in turn meant votes, and when the counting was done both Avril Doyle and Mairead McGuinness were elected to the European Parliament.
Ms McGuinness was re-elected in 2009, 2014, and again in 2019 with impressive vote tallies and gained considerable recognition across the country.
One blip in her political career was her failed attempt to win a Dáil seat in May 2007 for her home constituency of Louth, when she polled less than half a quota and was off the pace. This led to her parking domestic political ambitions for future government office and concentrating on the European Parliament where she is currently senior vice-president and had been tipped to be president of the assembly.
There was another blip in July 2011 when she failed to get the party nomination to contest the Irish presidency. It was a blow at the time – but many believe that ambition remains.
As a graduate of agricultural science from UCD, she already knew much about the EU’s cornerstone Common Agriculture Policy and this was enhanced by frequent trips to Brussels as a journalist.
During 16 years in the European Parliament she has learned how the system works, building contacts in all the EU institutions.
The chemistry is very good between herself and her new boss, Ms von der Leyen, whom she got to know on her arrival in Brussels last autumn. That contact proved invaluable in landing the big one.
Simon Coveney rang Taoiseach Micheál Martin early on Friday and told him: "Look, I'm not gonna put my name forward". The Foreign Affairs Minister's view on taking the vacant European Union commissioner post had crystallised in the preceding 24 hours. He veered away from the idea when it became clear Ireland was not going to retain the Trade portfolio vacated by Phil Hogan.
Reports that the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was irritated that it took a week for Ireland to nominate two candidates to succeed Phil Hogan as European Commissioner may be overblown somewhat. However, the process did look uncertain as the Government took soundings throughout the week.