New Minister Madigan insists she is 'absolutely not anti-Traveller' and that 2014 newsletter contents were 'widely misrepresented'
Controversy over a 2014 leaflet which described plans for a South Dublin Traveller halting site as “a waste of valuable resources”
Last Monday, Josepha Madigan was “in a panic” getting photographs taken for election posters and buying thermals for the campaign ahead as the country seemed on the brink of going to the polls.
By Thursday, she was in Aras an Uachtarain accepting her seal of office as the newly minted Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.
“Surreal” is how the Fine Gael TD for Dublin-Rathdown describes the week that saw the resignation of Frances Fitzgerald as Tanaiste, and her own elevation from the backbenches to the top table of government by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
“I would rather have been given this appointment in other circumstances,” she says, referring to Fitzgerald’s resignation.
Madigan believes Fitzgerald was subjected to “trial by Dail” over her handling as justice minister of an email relating to the legal strategy pursued by Garda management against whistleblower Sergeant Maurice McCabe at the O’Higgins Commission.
The former Tanaiste fell on her own sword last Tuesday morning to avert an election and Madigan predicts Fitzgerald will be “vindicated” at the Disclosures Tribunal which is probing the treatment of McCabe.
Varadkar’s mini-reshuffle saw Heather Humphreys replace Fitzgerald as Enterprise Minister with Madigan stepping into her former role at the Department of Culture.
The 47-year-old mother-of-two is only the 19th woman to be appointed as a senior minister in the history of the State. She describes this as “shocking” and she has been given a special Cabinet role as part of efforts to tackle gender inequality.
“I think what’s putting women off entering politics is they look at this hostile environment. Look at Frances Fitzgerald, what she had to go through and they’re saying to themselves, ‘Why would I put myself through that?’,” she says.
Madigan insists she has never come across sexism or sexual harassment in the course of her career.
But she suggests that women — while bringing sensitivity and compassion to politics — may have to work harder than men to develop a “thick skin” amid the “skulduggery” they can encounter in Leinster House.
As Culture Minister, Madigan will be heavily involved in the continuing Decade of Centenaries commemorations.
Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the Suffragette movement and the election of Irish revolutionary Constance Markievicz to Westminster as its first woman MP.
Madigan (47) is married to Finbarr Hayes, who works in advertising and is also a personal trainer. They have two sons Daniel (14) and Luke (12) and a cocker spaniel dog called Poppy.
She says the schedule of a politician does impinge on family life but feels lucky that her boys are older than the children of some TDs.
She says Finbarr is sometimes referred to as the “other mother” but praises his support, saying: “There’s a lot of men who mightn’t like their wife doing what we do.”
Madigan said: “I do get guilt” and recalled an incident where shortly before the Budget, she was to chair an important committee meeting attended by Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe.
She had a call to say her son Luke had suffered a bad fall and had to go to hospital for stitches.
Madigan had to dash home but managed to get back to Leinster House in time for the meeting.
“Those situations are difficult,” she says, but added that had she been in court during her career as a family law solicitor it would have been a similar situation.
Madigan’s nomination as minister was challenged in the Dail last Thursday.
There were pointed remarks by Opposition TDs about a leaflet she had distributed ahead of the 2014 local elections where the then-first-time candidate described plans for a South Dublin Traveller halting site as “a waste of valuable resources”.
She later clarified the remarks, saying the land was worth several million euro and the local authority was proposing to house only four families on the site.
She says the contents of the newsletter were “widely misrepresented” and insists she is “absolutely not anti-Traveller”.
She admits she probably wouldn’t put out a similar newsletter now and given how her remarks were presented, the leaflet was something of a rookie error. “You learn from these things,” she says.
Madigan is aware there will be disappointed junior ministers and backbench TDs who were overlooked for promotion, but she thinks there were a number of reasons for Varadkar choosing her.
These include her role on as chairperson of the Oireachtas Budgetary Committee, her experience as a solicitor, and how she has proposed two pieces of legislation.
One of the new laws — to reduce the waiting time for divorce — is to be put to the people in a referendum. The other proposal would give judges specific powers in relation to social media posts that risk prejudicing a trial.
Madigan also concedes her support for Varadkar during the Fine Gael leadership contest may have helped and that gender would have been a consideration after the departure of the most senior woman in government. “I think it’s a component,” she says, but also notes that she believed Varadkar trusted her to deliver and said she will work hard in her new brief.
So will she follow the Taoiseach’s example in improving on her Leaving Cert level Irish now she’s the senior minister responsible for the Gaeltacht?
She admits her French and German — which she studied in Trinity — are better. And she makes no firm commitment in terms of trying to achieve fluency, but says she may take lessons to update her skills from her teenage years when she went to Gaeltachts in Waterford and Galway.
She also points to the support she’ll have from Joe McHugh, the chief whip and junior minister in her department, who speaks Irish.
“I think there’s a distinction to be made between the love of a language and your fluency in it... It doesn’t mean that I don’t embrace it,” she adds.
She is excited about the Culture aspect of the job, saying “literature has been a joy of mine, poetry, music...”
She has just finished the “amazing” Gospel According to Blindboy, written by a member of the Rubberbandits, and is now reading Autumn by Ali Smith.
Her favourite poem is Advent by Patrick Kavanagh and she has written her own poetry for decades.
Madigan is also a published author — one legal tome and a novel, Negligent Behaviour, which has a racy reputation.
“I had an agent at the time that told me to put sex into it,” she says, laughing.
Madigan has a draft of another very different novel in the works — a story about adoption and a mother and son relationship — but this is on hold due to the demands Lenister House has placed on her time.
She has previously cited The Shawshank Redemption as her favourite film, but says it might be more accurate to say it would be a childhood movie such as ET or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Netflix is “a treat” on evenings she gets home from Leinster House early — which for Madigan is 10pm. She is watching legal comedy-drama Suits, featuring Meghan Markle, whom she notes is quite topical “with the whole Prince Harry thing”.
Her iPhone includes 1,600 tracks with artists from Ed Sheeran to U2, but she also enjoys opera and classical music and attends the National Concert Hall with her mother, Patricia. Her mother is something of a trailblazer for women herself, training and practicing as a barrister while raising six children.
Sadly, one of those children, Madigan’s youngest sister Edwina, died from cancer last year. She also lost her father Paddy Madigan — a Fianna Fail and later Independent county councillor — to cancer in 2014, only weeks before the local elections.
In many ways, he was an inspiration for her own entry into politics and encouraged Madigan in her own career.
She recalled: “He always said: ‘You could be President of Ireland if you wanted to be...’
“It was just a cruel irony then that he didn’t get to see me elevated to any office. That’s a shame… He would really have enjoyed it,” she said.
She brushes aside suggestions that she may one day like to lead Fine Gael or become Taoiseach, saying: “I didn’t even expect to be a TD... I’m very philosophical about these things. I just take each day as it comes and I do my best.”
But what of her father’s belief that she could become President?
“Ah yeah — but that’s dads, isn’t it?” she says.