Wednesday 22 November 2017

The accidental politician

Liz O' Donnell. Photo: Mark Nixon
Liz O' Donnell. Photo: Mark Nixon

Louise Finn

Watching a new government going into the Dail from her mother's hospital room put life – and electorate defeat – into perspective for Liz O'Donnell. Louise Finn talks to the former TD about life after politics and the latest chapter in her career as an 'Irish Independent' columnist.

There is something a little perverse about meeting former Progressive Democrats TD Liz O'Donnell in the Merrion Hotel. Through one of its Georgian windows, we are looking out on the back of Leinster House.

Liz might still be working there, had she been successful in the 2007 election. But she wasn't – she lost her seat and so ended her career in politics.

"No, I didn't feel ready to go," she replies when I ask whether she was happy for her career to finish when it did.

"We all knew it was the end of the road. It was an overnight car crash of an ending," she adds, referring to the loss of seats that soon after forced the Progressive Democrats into extinction.

Whatever her party's contribution to Ireland's current malaise, Liz spent 15 years helping to govern the country, something that is no mean feat for someone who thinks of herself as "an accidental politician".

'Accidental politician' is as apt a description as any.

Certainly in this interview she has the skill to remain on-topic and gracefully avoids questions she doesn't want to answer (she has no interest in talking about her private life and doesn't give anything away about it).

However, you get the impression that her intelligence could have been turned to any number of other jobs. She admits as much, saying that prior to entering the political arena she was a "reluctant" lawyer and would probably have moved into the media had she not encountered one individual.

Mary Harney and Liz met by chance in 1989 while Liz was working with the Women's Political Association, a group that was trying to get more women involved in politics.

"She put her evil eye on me," laughs Liz. "She really persuaded me to run for the council elections and I got elected first time and then I learnt on my feet."

As she was first elected to the Dail in 1992, Liz's career took off in one of the most turbulent and swiftly evolving eras of Irish politics.

When asked about the best and worst moments of her career, there must be plenty of good and bad memories to choose from.

Those Liz selects perfectly illustrate the old curse, 'May you live in interesting times'.

She elaborates: "I was assigned to work on the Northern Irish peace process by my party, which was hugely satisfying. Nowadays, that work is part of history. I feel like a historical figure, which isn't really a good look."

The flip side of this was her darkest memory – the one, she says, "broke my political heart".

"My worst moment was the Omagh bombing because we had signed the Good Friday Agreement," Liz explains.

"That August, I was going to a friend's christening. I drove from Donegal [through Omagh] and I was just remarking that there was no security around because everything had been demilitarised.

"I was at the christening the next morning and the bomb went off at 3pm. I remember thinking..."

Liz pauses.

"We all had qualms about the bona fide of the Republican movement, how genuine it was and would it last, and there had been so many compromises for the greater good of finding a settlement," she continues.

"It was early days and when that bomb went off, anyone who was involved in the peace process was devastated.

"It was a reminder that the deals you make in politics can go belly up." There is a silence.

Much was, and still is, made of Liz's appearance. The media gave her the rather sexist moniker of 'Luscious Liz'.

It can't be denied that in person she is attractive, looks much younger than her years and can pick out a stylish outfit, none of which can have hurt her chances of getting elected.

But she is utterly dismissive of the advantages of looks, saying, "You wouldn't survive very long in the Dail if you were just a pretty face".

Equality is something she feels as strongly about as she did before she was elected. Liz was a volunteer on Mary Robinson's presidential election campaign and reminisces about the one moment when she became acutely aware there had to be more women in Irish politics.

"Her victory was life-changing for many women," says Liz.

"When I heard her addressing the joint houses of the Oireachtas, I looked down and there were just a few little coloured jackets. It was an incredible sight and I just thought, 'This is ridiculous, our democracy is unfinished if this is the case'."

Fast forward 20-odd years and Liz says she doesn't think that things have really changed that much.

Women in government are still in the minority. She believes there are problems with a majority male government legislating.

"Women's voices are absent when critical decisions are made about social or economic policy or health policy," says Liz.

"It's an unbalanced perspective. The decision-making process, I believe, is deficient because of the absence of women in the process. There would be discernible differences in the policy formulation process if more women were involved."

She firmly backs gender quotas in politics. These are poised to become law in Ireland and state funding will be halved for parties who don't field at least 30pc female candidates in the next general election. "I support them," she says.

"They're not saying the electorate have to elect two women out of 100. All they're saying is that they deserve a choice of men and women on the ticket. Some intervention has to be made."

Unsurprisingly, five years on from her retirement, Liz says that she is definitely more relaxed than when she was helping to run the country.

It's naughty to mention it but, before the dictaphone starts rolling, we chat about a great outlet shopping centre that we've both been to, proof she has a little more time for the fun things.

The part of life she enjoys most is having time to go for walks with her dog and being able to spend more time with her family (she has two adult children, a boy and a girl).

"Very soon after [I lost] the election my mother had a stroke, so that completely eclipsed whatever way I was feeling sorry for myself," she says.

"I was down in the Limerick Regional Hospital and she was in a stroke unit and it was a life and death situation; very quickly that puts things in perspective.

"I watched the formation of the next government going into the Dail when I was in a critical unit with her. My daughter said to me, 'Things happen for a reason', and she was right.

"I was also able to spend more time with my late father. He died four years ago. Had I been re-elected, I probably wouldn't have been," she adds.

Of course, Liz hasn't retired from the public eye completely, and you get the impression the self-confessed "news hound" wouldn't know what to do with herself if she did.

She has just started writing a column for this very paper. She jokes, "It gives me a voice, rather than me shouting at the radio".

"There's certainly a book in me," Liz says, before tantalisingly adding, "I've been encouraged to write a book for a few years, but I want to wait until all the players are off the stage that I was involved in."

We can only speculate on the secrets she has yet to spill.

Right now, Liz is working on a number of charity projects with Chernobyl Children International. She holds an annual lunch each December in aid of the charity and she helped out with their Secret Art exhibition at RHA, which runs until tomorrow.

It will see anonymous pieces by art students go on display alongside those of celebrities, with viewers unaware of who painted what.

While chatting about this, I find out that because Ali Hewson serves with her on the board of directors at the charity, she has Bono's number on her phone.

"I do, but I wouldn't be calling him," she laughs.

Later, while trying to describe what it is like interviewing Liz, I tell a friend that there's a touch of the Clinton about her (sans the bad bits, obviously).

Even though she emphatically says she won't return to politics, she has this intangible air that most politicians would give their right arm for.

Her mentor Mary Harney put it best when she told Liz at the beginning of her career: "The most important thing is that you're electable."

What makes someone electable? Liz pauses, shrugs, then laughs, perhaps aware that she's not in office any more. "That's not for me to say."

To find out more about the Secret Art exhibition or to donate, see

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