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Colonel's daughter who wouldn't give Mick his marching orders

She is the firebrand socialist who spent two decades of her life struggling to get a seat in the Dail. But this week, Clare Daly TD seemed willing to risk it all for a dishevelled tax cheat whose name is synonymous with the worst excesses of capitalism.

The 44-year-old deputy's refusal to call for the resignation of her close friend and political ally, Mick Wallace, in the wake of his €1.4m tax scandal, has left her dustbin-banging comrades in the militant-left mesmerised.

During the boom years, she was one of Dublin's fiercest critics on developer-led planning. Yet here she was jeopardising her political career and the reputation of her party to defend a debt-ridden man who sank millions into a property bubble that left the country bankrupt.

In Daly's working class heartland of Swords, where she took a seat for the Socialist Party in Dublin North last year, some constituents were feeling duped and vowing to dump her the next time around.

"For a woman who spends most of her time attacking the double standards of others, it's just astonishing she would stand by someone who has ripped off the taxpayer and the working people who elected her," said one. "She needn't come knocking on my door next time around."

It's not the first time Daly's friendship with Wallace has attracted attention. Pictures of the pair dining in Dublin's plush One Pico restaurant before Christmas left some red-fisted followers red-faced.

But probe more closely at the woman behind the placard-carrying rabble-rouser and a pattern of anomalies starts to emerge.

She grew up in a staunchly apolitical home in Newbridge, Co Kildare, but became a hardened activist when her peers were still playing spin the bottle. She trained as an accountant in NIHE (now Dublin City University), but took a job in the wash-up section of Aer Lingus catering, packing sausages into foil breakfast trays for a living.

She brought forward a Bill to legalise abortion in Ireland in certain circumstances and is a long-standing atheist -- although her brother and an uncle are in the priesthood.

What also becomes evident is that Clare Daly did not get where she is today by toeing the party line or caving in to political pressure.

From the moment she joined the ranks of the Labour party, a curly-haired teenager who played piano and seemed to eat, sleep and breathe Trotsky and Marx, it was clear this was a woman who did not take orders from anyone.

To some other young activists in her midst, her presence seemed unusual, given that she came from one of the best-known military homes in the town. Her late father, Kevin, was a colonel in the Irish Army and Director of Signals.

A contemporary of Daly's in Labour, Dr Noel Kavanagh, who lectures in philosophy at Carlow College today, recalls his memories of the new recruit.

"At the time, Labour Youth was militant and very Marxist in its outlook. Clare was slightly younger than most of us who were involved. She was extraordinarily well-read and interested from a theoretical point of view, but with her father being a military man, it was a case that her family couldn't be political.

"It also struck us that she was the daughter of an army officer. In Newbridge. In the 1980s, that would have designated her in class terms, as very middle, if not upper class, yet here you had someone who had emerged with very, very left-wing views."

At college, Daly threw herself into politics, and served as president of the students union for two years in the late 80s.

By the age of 18, she was elected to the Labour executive as a youth representative, but at 21, was expelled from the party when it was ridding the organisation of members with 'militant tendencies'.

After graduation, she joined Aer Lingus as a catering operative, a role that was far beneath her educational qualifications. But before long, it proved a gateway to the political career she craved.

She became SIPTU's shop steward at the airport, and a champion of the workers, fighting for their pay and conditions at a time when the airline was engaged in extensive cost-cutting and outsourcing.

"She was so well-read and well-spoken, we asked ourselves, 'why is she washing dishes?'" one former colleague recalls.

"She was certainly intellectually capable of a lot more, but taking on that role meant she had a very good chance of rising to the top in terms of political representation.

"She was a lot more educated than most of her peers and wanted to represent them and their interests.

"Before long, she could garner a bigger audience than a lot of the more senior people in the union. You'd know going into the room that she was there. Everyone looked towards her as a leader. When she spoke, everyone listened."

On more than one occasion, Daly, who is married to fellow socialist Michael Murphy, clashed with SIPTU leadership. In 2001, she was suspended as a branch trustee after refusing to sign blank cheques for cabin crew expenses arising from union activity. She said she had only been insisting on properly validated claims.

In 1999, Daly was elected as a councillor to Fingal County Council, after successfully spearheading a mass anti-water charges campaign in north Dublin.

In 2003, she led a similar one against bin charges, spending a month in prison, along with 20 others, including Joe Higgins TD, for refusing to end a rubbish truck blockade. When she was led away in tears to Mountjoy -- her only child, Kate, was three.

Despite her anarchical approach to politics, in her constituency, she is well-regarded by most of her opponents in mainstream parties.

"I have always got on well with her and would trust her impeccably as a constituency colleague," says FF Senator Darragh O'Brien and former TD for North Dublin.

"Her public persona is very different to the person she really is. There are some angry socialists who want to keep people disaffected about things. I don't really find that about Clare. She is a reasonable individual who has the best interests of her constituents at heart."

"Whatever cause she is involved in, she is utterly committed to it," says Councillor Anne Devitte, formerly of Fine Gael.

"She and I had a very good working relationship on the council, which is strange given that we were from ideologically opposite camps.

"She burnt her way into that Dail seat through sheer hard work. Had she not had this relationship with Mick Wallace she would have been one of the first out to condemn him. Her stance in this case is atypical of her normal behaviour."

Some say Daly has mellowed since entering the Dail, and smartened up her look, exchanging her trademark jeans for sharp suits, glossing her hair and wearing make-up. Although the sight of her chewing gum in the chamber this week revealed her contempt for the establishment is never far from the surface.

In an interview last month with community channel 'Dole TV', she summed up her impression of Leinster House and her constituency colleagues in a less than complimentary tone.

"Once you go inside that gate, it is a sort of an institution of privilege where the staff call you deputy, people move out of your way and stuff, which is absolutely ridiculous carry-on. Some of them get off on that.

"There are government back benchers in my own constituency who think they are great.

"They think they have just made it. It's terrible, terrible, really bad but hopefully they won't be around next time."

Some observers believe that, after her support for Wallace, Clare Daly might not be either.

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