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'I discovered I was pregnant after adopting my son and was asked if I wanted to give him back'

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Nora Owen

Nora Owen

Nora Owen meets with Andrea Smith

Nora Owen meets with Andrea Smith

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Nora Owen

When I interviewed Judge Judy, I realised that I was interviewing an icon, which was quite nerve-wrecking. She was really lovely - she's only knee-high to a grasshopper, and she's a bundle of energy. She takes no nonsense on her show, and she was exactly the same in real life. She has grandchildren, and I doubt those kids get away with anything."

I'm having tea in The Garden House cafe in Malahide with TV presenter and former Minister for Justice, Nora Owen, and we're discussing her TV presenting career.

Nora is extremely warm, fiercely intelligent and full of fascinating stories, and radiates positivity and fun. I'd go so far as to say that she has always been one of my favourite interviewees.

That she has now developed a career in radio punditry and TV presenting has come as a surprise to Nora, but TV3 were quick to spot her potential. She is now a regular panellist on Midday, and presented the Midweek and Mastermind series, and one-off specials, including one earlier this week with Feargal Quinn.

Nora was born Nora O'Mahony in 1945, a grandniece of Michael Collins and a sister of former MEP, Mary Banotti. Her father died from a gallbladder-related illness when she was just four, and her mother, Kitty O'Mahony, worked as a domestic science teacher at Cathal Brugha Street - Darina Allen was one of her students.

"When I became a politician, our experience helped me understand some of the discrimination in this country," she said.

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Nora Owen meets with Andrea Smith

Nora Owen meets with Andrea Smith

Nora Owen meets with Andrea Smith

"At that time, a man who became a widower was allowed a tax break to enable him to go to work and employ someone to look after the kids, but women weren't given that when their husbands died.

"My mother went to work, so the five girls in the family went to boarding school and my brother went to Belvedere. I went when I was four and a half and I liked it, but I don't think my sister Mary did. I became head girl in the end, and actually a lot of women in politics were former head girls, which is quite funny."

After school, Nora did a science degree at UCD, and worked in the laboratory of a pharmaceutical firm. It was here that she met her husband, Brian Owen, who was in charge of the lab. "Yes, I married the boss," she laughs.

"Brian was a real Irish bachelor, and he was 13 years older than me. We started to go out, and kept it quiet at first, but sure everybody knew. We got married in 1968, and married life has been very good to us. Brian is a wonderful husband and was a great support throughout my political career. He was so good at looking after the kids."

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In early 1972, Nora and Brian adopted their first son, newborn Vincent, and nine months later, Nora gave birth to their second son, Richard. Four years later, their third, Edward, was born.

"We decided to adopt as I wasn't getting pregnant," she says. "We were thrilled when we got Vincent when he was a few weeks old, and then, as I was making his bottles, I began feeling sick. I was pregnant - actually, I think I may have been pregnant when I collected him from the hospital. When I told the social worker, I nearly died when she asked me if I wanted to give Vincent back? I said, 'Oh God, not at all,' but even so, they wouldn't let us sign the final adoption papers until after Richard was born."

Was it a very different experience giving birth to one baby and adopting the other so close together, and what was it like for Nora becoming a mother?

"It was wonderful," she says. "We were completely bonded with Vincent when Richard came along, and I've always felt the exact same about all of my sons.

"Vincent knew from day one that he was adopted, and he used to tell everyone in the creche, like it was a badge of honour. "I'm adock-ted," he'd say. He lives in Thailand now, and has been there for almost 20 years, but he's coming home to visit next week and we're greatly looking forward to it."

Nora gave up her job when Vincent came along, as was the rule for women at that time, and in 1979 she was invited to stand for the local council in Malahide. Encouraged by her mother, she stood and was elected, and was subsequently elected as a Fine Gael TD in 1981.

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Nora Owen

Nora Owen

Nora Owen

It meant big changes, including the hiring of her wonderful housekeeper, Esther, but the beauty of the Dail starting at 10.30am was that she could still bring the boys to school .

"You don't realise until you get in just how full-time politics is," she says. "I used to do a clinic in my house on a Saturday morning, and the kids loved to show their hamsters to all the visitors waiting to see me, whether they liked it or not."

Nora steadily rose up the ranks, and served as a TD both in power and in opposition. She had plenty of ups and downs, including losing her seat for two years between 1987-89 and winning it back, and becoming the party's first deputy leader. She succeeded the tough Maire Geoghegan Quinn to become Minister for Justice in 1994, although she had a baptism of fire when the Brinks Allied robbery soon after. Many of us can recall how John O'Donoghue was opposition spokesman on justice at that time, and every crime of note led to him having a go at Nora in the Dail, usually with some vitriol. The media also judged her harshly at times.

"It was quite extraordinary because it was almost as if I had carried out the robbery myself," she laughs.

"At one point, I remember lifting up my handbag to John O'Donoghue and saying, 'I do not have the three million pounds. You are welcome to look in my handbag to check." The problem was that I hadn't been told by the Garda Commissioner that there was a report warning that this robbery might take place at some point, but the guards had already been stood down over it.

learning

"So when Mary Harney brought it up in the Dail, I didn't know what she was talking about. It was a learning exercise for me and I made sure situations like that didn't happen again.

"Sometimes the media coverage was unfair - silly things would be written, like there would be less criminal activity if there was a male Minister for Justice. As if the criminals sat around and said, "Okay lads, we have a chance now because there's a woman in there.' In politics, you have to make hard decisions, and sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, and people don't always understand what was behind your decision."

The most rewarding part of Nora's job was the setting up of the Criminal Assets Bureau, in the aftermath of the death of journalist Veronica Guerin. She knew Veronica well, and was in New York to address the UN on drugs when she was given the news that the journalist had been murdered.

"It was devastating as I knew her personally and had worked alongside in her in the New Ireland Forum," she says. "Veronica had a little boy and I couldn't believe that she had been killed. I had to go in and make my speech and I got a bit overcome. I explained why, and it was a very emotional UN gathering because we were talking about the international problem of drugs and what it was doing to lives. I was able to tell them first-hand that Veronica had been murdered by people who didn't want her reporting what they were doing. There were a lot of tears shed in the room that day by very senior UN people."

Nora lost her seat in the general election of 2002, which was disastrous for Fine Gael as the party lost more than 20 TDs. She admits her last year in the Dail was not a happy time, as there was a lot of tension in the party - Michael Noonan succeeded John Bruton and was not felt to be giving the party the boost a new leader usually brings.

"It was very difficult when my political career came to an end," she admits. "I loved politics and have a curious nature, so there is nothing like being at the cutting edge of getting information and knowing what is going on. When you lose your seat, the first six months are awful because you don't know what to do with yourself."

As Nora had been involved in development aid, she went abroad on a mission, which helped to restore her confidence. She then contacted Mary Davis and volunteered with the Special Olympics, and her areas of expertise were useful to them. She has stayed involved ever since, and now enjoys a busy life on various committees and causes close to her heart, such as the board of Concern.

"I have a very happy life," she says. "I have three wonderful grandchildren - Milo, Lucy and Alfie - and I love minding them. I will be 70 next year, but I don't mind getting older, although I would prefer if the knees and hips didn't hurt at times.

So as a loyal Fine Gaeler, what does Nora think of Enda Kenny as Taoiseach?

"I think he is doing a very good job," she says. "although I think the party lost a bit of momentum after the Troika went. It was a great discipline for them because they constantly had someone on their backs watching what they were doing, and when they left, things slipped a little bit. I felt disappointed, because even though the public didn't like the austerity, it had to be done."


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