Saturday 18 November 2017

From the outer fringes to the centre of power

If someone had said five years ago that new senator Katherine Zappone would be a minister in the next government, they would have been laughed out of the Dáil bar. So how did the Government newbie ­become the big winner of Budget 2017, asks our reporter

Quick rise: Minister for Children Zappone at the launch of an Early Childhood Ireland report. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Quick rise: Minister for Children Zappone at the launch of an Early Childhood Ireland report. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Katherine Zappone with her wife Ann Louise Gilligan
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

From a position on the outer fringes of Irish politics, Katherine ­Zappone has shown some skilful footwork to put herself at the centre of power and lauded as the biggest ministerial winner from Tuesday's much-leaked Budget.

Regarded as a 'one-trick pony' from the equality industry, the American-born academic, who miraculously leapfrogged into the Dáil as a TD for Dublin South West, has shown a single-minded streak, ditching the other independents, and diving between the covers with Enda Kenny.

It not only made her the first openly lesbian in Dáil Éireann, but conferred on her membership of a select band who attained a full-blown ministerial position as a first-term TD.

The Minister for Children was also one of the first non-Fine Gael ministers to knock on the door of power couple Michael Noonan and Paschal Donohoe, to get her budget negotiations boxed away and neatly tied up in a pink ribbon before some of her more vocal colleagues realised the ­ministers in charge of the purse strings were even open for business.

"It was like an election campaign," said one insider after the initial salvo from a cabinet sub-committee about four weeks ago that the childcare sector needed a complete overhaul, and those working in it needed to be properly paid. Almost every day from then to the Budget, she met the media in Leinster House or at some contrived 'doorstep' to hammer home the message.

While the new childcare subsidies secured in the Budget largely ignored 'stay-at-home mothers', there has been no major backlash against these proposals - although there has been low-level grumbling that may grow over time, unless Zappone finds a way to placate them in the future through Child Benefit.

She has also formed a close relationship with Kenny. She travelled to Mayo to spend a day with him in his constituency, something many other ministers wouldn't countenance. But she also laid down the law with her boss from the beginning. A stickler for timekeeping, she openly criticised Kenny after she and the Independent ministers were left waiting for 45 minutes before he and the other Fine Gael ministers turned up for a scheduled cabinet meeting.

Zappone, a Seattle-born academic who will be 63 next month, studied theology at the Catholic University of America. She had finished a 13-year lesbian relationship when she went to prestigious Boston College to do a doctorate in 1981. There she met Dublin-born Ann Louise Gilligan, who is nine years her senior and was doing the same theology course, although still in doubt about her sexuality. The couple moved to Ireland in 1983 where Zappone got on the inside track of the Irish women's movement, becoming chairwoman of the National Women's Council, a member of the Irish Human Rights Commission and lectured in ethics and theology at Trinity College.

Gilligan, from Dublin 4 was educated at fee-paying Loreto, Foxrock and returned to the school as a teaching nun. She later became a primary school inspector. She lectured for 33 years in St Patrick's College in Drumcondra before taking early retirement.

The couple live in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains. Their tasteful home, self-deprecatingly called The Shanty, described as 'a contemporary interior space with soft furnishing, piles of books and cabinets filled with crystal and antique china' featured in the RTÉ series Room to Improve in 2013.

Described in one profile as "fun-loving lesbians", they enjoy hill-walking in the mountains as well as civilised pursuits like theatre and luxury weekend breaks. On the wilder side, Gilligan drove a red BMW motorbike before a brain haemorrhage affected her sight, while Zappone was better known around Blessington for her red ­convertible than a Ministerial Merc.

When they arrived back in Ireland as an openly 'married' couple, they were aware of the ­homophobic elements of everyday life. "We had to lead a double life," they told one interviewer. "Our friends know about our relationship, but we couldn't be truly open about who we were in the Ireland of the 1980s, especially because of the nature of our jobs in theology and ­education."

But they agree that they had it easier that most gay people of their generation.

"Our education, being middle class, the status jobs - all those probably layered us with an easier experience than lesbian and gay people who didn't have that," said Zappone, although both regret they were of a generation where children were out of the question.

Zappone and Gilligan eventually put their heads above the parapet when they challenged the Revenue Commissioners refusal to acknowledge them as a married couple, in both the High Court (2004) and later the Supreme Court. It was a case that galvanised the gay movement and an important factor in bringing about the Same Sex Marriage Referendum of 2015.

Appointed to the Senate in May 2011, by Kenny on the recommendation of Labour leader Eamon Gilmore, Zappone soon got a name as a hard-working self-publicist with political ambitions. In the aftermath of the Referendum, she decided to run as an Independent in Dublin South-West, a politically tough five-seater constituency which, apart from the election of middle-class radical Paul Murphy, seemed wide open.

Her election was one of those 'miracles' of proportional representation. With 4,463 votes she had 6.6pc of the first preferences, compared with Fine Gael's Ann-Maria Dermody, who polled 9.6pc and stayed ahead of Zappone for 15 of the 16 counts that followed. The elimination of another Independent, Peter Fitzpatrick, gifted Zappone 2,000 preferences and the last seat by 152 votes.

Kenny rewarded her support with a cabinet seat. Her main policy advisor is Patricia Ryan, who worked for Mary Harney and Kathleen Lynch and is regarded as "politically savvy" and knows her way around Leinster House. Her press advisor Jerry O'Connor previously worked with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, and former Daily Star journalist Catherine Halloran has recently been appointed deputy government press secretary with a brief to 'look after' the Independent ministers.

"They are a mixed bag, so mixed that their arrival certainly raised eyebrows," says one political observer. In the midst of the formation of the Government, Zappone had to defend herself against reports that she stands to earn €80,000 in expenses by claiming she lives more than 25km from Leinster House when a route planner put the distance at less than 22km. "All my expense incurred as a public representative are filed within the rules of the Oireachtas," she replied, insisting that the route she uses to get to the Dáil is the fastest and most efficient. "There's no wrongdoing here, so I don't think there's a story."

Zappone has certainly proved that anything is possible in politics. If someone had predicted, as she entered Leinster House five years ago as one of the Taoiseach's nominees, that she would be a Minister in his next government, they would have been laughed out of the Dáil bar. But with an extra €150m in her ministerial purse, Zappone is the one laughing now.

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