Tuesday 23 January 2018

Flashback 1979: Máire Geoghegan-Quinn becomes first Irish female minister

This weekend 36 years ago Máire Geoghegan-Quinn became the first female minister since the foundation of the State

Top of her game: Ministerial Line up with Maire Geoghegan-Quinn at the centre, in 1979. Photo: Tom Burke
Top of her game: Ministerial Line up with Maire Geoghegan-Quinn at the centre, in 1979. Photo: Tom Burke

Ger Siggins

This day 36 years ago, the new Minister for the Gaeltacht sat down at her desk for the first time. She was fully aware that she was making history, for not only was it her first time to be minister but it was a first for her gender as a whole.

Máire Geoghegan-Quinn was 29 years old, and had just been elected to the Dáil for the third time. Representing Galway West, she had supported Charlie Haughey in the leadership election earlier that week and her reward was a coveted 'Merc' - the State car which came with a full ministry.

It had been 58 years since a woman had served as minister, before the foundation of the State. Constance Markievicz, who saw action in the Easter Rising, was Minister for Labour for almost three years up to January 1922. Markievicz was only the second woman to hold cabinet rank in Europe after Alexandra Kollontai in Soviet Russia in 1917. "I'm flabbergasted", was how Mrs Geoghegan-Quinn reacted to her appointment in a piece written by Irish Independent reporters Liam Ryan, Aengus Fanning, Raymond Smith and Kevin Moore. "I am dumbfounded… I am shocked. But I can tell you that I am very pleased. The women of Ireland can take courage from seeing what I have achieved in a relatively short time. With the will, co-operation and support of all our women, we can make it to the top."

In the report she was described as a "modern-day Markievicz", and readers were told she wore a powder-blue suit. The "attractive Galway girl with the long raven hair" was described as "freckle-faced and blue-eyed". The suit, hair and eye colour of her fellow new ministers, Ray MacSharry, Albert Reynolds, Paddy Power and Michael Woods, has been lost to history.

Mrs Geoghegan-Quinn was 18 months in Gaeltacht when Fianna Fáil lost power in 1981, but she returned to the front bench in January 1992 where she served as Minister for Tourism, Transport and Communications, Minister for Justice and, briefly, Minister for Equality and Law Reform.

At Justice she oversaw an extensive programme of law reform including the decriminalisation of homosexual acts. Popular with the public, she stood against Bertie Ahern for leader in 1994 but pulled out when it became clear the parliamentary party wasn't going to make her Ireland's first woman Taoiseach. Ireland remains one of the 14 EU countries yet to have a female head of government.

In 1996, during a period in opposition, she revealed another talent when she turned to writing, producing a hot-blooded best-seller, The Green Diamond, based on the love-lives of four young women, one of whose father was a TD.

She quit as a TD in 1997 after a privacy issue arose involving her son, and two years later she was appointed to the European Court of Auditors.

European Commissioner was next stop for the woman from Carna, and again she was the first Irish female to hold the post, from 2009-14.

In July this year she was appointed chair of a Higher Education Authority review panel to investigate gender discrimination in third-level education.

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