Monday 22 July 2019

Lunch with... Frances Fitzgerald

Frances Fitzgerald tells Miriam Donohoe how her early career as a social worker paved her way to the post of Children's Minister

Table for two: Minister Frances Fitzgerald with Miriam Donohue at La Banca in Lucan, Co Dublin. Photo: Dave Meehan
Table for two: Minister Frances Fitzgerald with Miriam Donohue at La Banca in Lucan, Co Dublin. Photo: Dave Meehan
Flower power: Frances Fitzgerald with Ruth Leon at the launch of Early Childhood Ireland’s National Pyjama Day in 2012. MAXWELLS

Miriam Donohoe

It's Valentine's Day and I have left my lunch date, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald, an Italian restaurant in Lucan, the heart of her constituency, and it slowly dawns on me I am in the wrong Italian. There are two in Lucan. A quick phone call to her press adviser and I confirm I should be down the road in La Banca. One very red face and half an hour later I turn up.

A smiling and chirpy minister is very understanding about my restaurant mix- up. She has been filling in time getting some cooking tips from the restaurant owner and chef, Keith Kenny, who has recently published a book, Cookability, with gluten and dairy free dishes. She has had a busy morning.

The news headlines were dominated by details of a gangland shooting in Lucan and she has been visiting local schools. Valentines night won't be spent having a romantic dinner with her husband, Professor Michael Fitzgerald. They will both attend the Marie Keating Foundation Ball in Finnstown House in aid of breast cancer research.

Thankfully the minister has no direct family experience of breast cancer, but one of her close friends, Christine, a mother of three, died seven years after being diagnosed. When she was chair of the National Women's Council the minister led a campaign for breast cancer screening and she is proud that the Programme for Government includes a commitment to extend the upper age limit for screening from 65 to 70 years.

"Women think that because screening ends at 65 there is no risk but the truth is the risk increases as you get older and I firmly believe it is important to extend the age," she says.

"We have made huge progress over the years. There was a time when breast cancer was taboo and I remember older women talking about it in whispers. Like mental health we have opened up on it."

Frances Fitzgerald is clearing loving her cabinet role and she talks about how life came full circle with her appointment as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs by Enda Kenny almost three years ago. Her earlier career was spent as a social worker in London and Dublin with children from deprived backgrounds, and she says having experience on the frontline is something which is a huge advantage to her now.

A late comer to politics, she was first elected in the Dublin South East constituency at the age of 42 in 1992, after being asked to run by the late Fine Gael leader Garret FitzGerald, who spotted her talents in her time as chair of the National Women's Council.

Her first job was as a social worker in St Ultan's, a small children's hospital in Dublin, since closed.

"This introduced me to social problems," she says." A lot of children were from the travelling community and were abandoned." She then worked in St James' Hospital before moving to London with her husband, who later became the first Professor of Child Psychiatry in Trinity College.

In London the minister did a Masters in Social Administration and Social Work in the London School of Economics. And her thesis was on school attendance, something which she is responsible for now.

The minister's first son, Owen, was born in the UK. The family moved back to Dublin and she had Mark and Robert. With three children under 5 she was the first job share in Mater Hospital. "It was not the done thing at the time," she says. "I was always very grateful to the Mater for giving me the opportunity."

Our lunch venue, La Banca, is on the main street of bustling Lucan and despite the recession the village seems to be thriving. Keith Kenny tells us that fresh fish has just arrived "straight from the boat in Wicklow" so we go off menu – and keep it healthy – and enjoy delicious grilled haddock with beetroot and a side salad presented magnificently on slate plates.

In between mouthfuls the minister talks about her passionate belief in quotas for women in politics.

"Fifteen percent of women in the Dáil is not enough," she says. "It does affect the nature of the discussion. There needs to be balance everywhere. As the UN says, quotas are a temporary necessary measure, unless you want to wait 200 years."

New rules which say that 30pc of those selected for the next general election have to be women is a great start, she says.

So is Ireland a good country for a child to be born into?

'For 85pc of children yes, but there are serious issues for the others," she says. "There is work to be done, on childcare and early years and on getting services for children with a disability and special needs. If you want to support those who combine work and family life you need to build up infrastructure. It is expensive and fragmented. You need to have the whole of government signed up to this. Resources is always an issue. You see with the recent flooding tens of millions going into relief but this money has to come from other areas."

The establishment last month of the New Child and Family Agency was a big moment for Frances Fitzgerald. "When I was a social worker on the frontline if you told me we were going to create an agency bringing all the child services together from top down I would have said 'great'. There is a staff of 400 and budget of €600m."

She rejects the notion that this is another quango. "Not at all," she says. "If you have a dedicated focus on something with clear responsibility from top to bottom that is how you get results. Child services were lost in an overburdened HSE. Inter agencies were a big problem."

The minister is convinced that there needs to be emphasis on improving training and standards in child care, and says the 'Prime Time' programme on crèches last year was an eye-opener.

"In the good years we focused on bricks and mortar ahead of quality and training," she says. "We pay childcare workers very poorly, yet parents think we pay too much for childcare. How do you make a career opportunity for people with such low pay? People do degrees and further training and then get the minimum wage."

She is concerned about the drinking culture and sports sponsorship in Ireland. "Drinking is one of the biggest issues facing the country. I always felt the drinks industry had too much influence in the Dáil. I come down on the side of public health. There is an Exchequer contribution and an industry side but I think it is the Government's responsibility to get the balance right.

"Alex White (Minister of State in the Department of Health) is working on an Alcohol Bill which will be the first time government makes a clear statement that we are dealing with the issue of alcohol advertising. I am in favour of a ban on alcohol advertising.

"If you rear three sons you know all about these issues and you see the pressures on people. You see at firsthand the influences and the culture. Those years from 17 to 24 are the ones that give you the grey hairs. Risk taking is part and parcel of being a young person."

In relation to sex abuse she says the church has been "extraordinarily slow" right up to Vatican level, to move. "There has been a lot of secrecy and it has been about the institution rather than the person.

"I think now the church has put in place a lot of safe-guarding mechanisms but I would never be complacent with any institution church or state in regard to child safety."

The minister is keen that I don't get the impression she is serious. In fact she didn't come across that way at all. Feisty and warm are how she strikes me after spending three hours with her. "We are here having a serious discussion but there is so much else to life," she says. "I go to films and have lots of very good friends. Like every woman I try to be fitter."

She would say to any woman who wants to come into politics that it is a "great job, fascinating". "But you don't go in if you watch the clock," she adds.

And there is no grand future plan for the minister, who turns a young 64 later this year. She will be contesting the next general election and kicks to touch on the issue of ever seeking the Fine Gael party leadership.

''We have a great leader in Enda and I am concentrating at the moment on my job in cabinet.

"I don't believe in retirement or the concept of retirement. I have my interests and will be pursing them as long as I can.

''Health is the issue."

We wrap up with a coffee and forget the healthy eating thing and succumb to a Valentine's chocolate.

And then the feisty minister heads back into her constituency.



Born Frances Ryan in Croom, Co Limerick, August 1, 1950.

Background The eldest of four children. Her father, Tadhg, was in the Army and played hurling with the great Christy Ring. He died six years ago. Her mother, Anna, is now in her 90s and lives in Kildare.

Family She is married to Adjunct Professor of Child Psychiatry in Trinity, Professor Michael Fitzgerald. Mother to three boys, Owen (a student), Mark (a professional actor) and Robert (who works with an accountancy firm in Dublin).

Education Attended secondary School in Sion Hill Blackrock, and did a Social Science degree in UCD. She did a Masters in Social Administration and Social Work in the London School of Economics.

Career Trained and worked as a social worker. She was appointed chair of the National Women's Council in 1988 and was elected to the Dáil for the first time in 1992 (left).

On women quotas "We need quotas unless we want to wait 200 years."

On being serious "I am not really serious. People presume I am serious because I am a politician!" 1950.

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