After a tragic start in politics, the Meath politician has risen fast through the ranks. Now speculation is rife that she could eventually replace Leo Varadkar. Kim Bielenberg profiles the Justice Minister
Helen McEntee now seems to have a stock response when asked if she hopes to become Fine Gael leader. She gave it another airing this week when talking to Claire Byrne on RTÉ Radio 1.
Asked about succeeding Leo Varadkar, she made it clear that she has ambition, but she is focused on her current role as Justice Minister. Of course, she added Leo has her full support.
Yet she certainly isn’t ruling out the leadership — and it is a prospect that has been discussed more frequently in political circles in recent times.
At the last general election, she was hardly among the potential leadership candidates. The list would have included Simon Coveney as the heir apparent, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe and the Instagram-friendly longer-term choice Simon Harris.
But since she joined the cabinet as Justice Minister, McEntee has been added to that conversation. Could she be the second female Taoiseach after Mary Lou McDonald, or even beat the Sinn Féin leader to the post?
One former minister says: “The shine has come off Coveney and both he and Leo Varadkar were affected by the Zappone affair [over the former minister’s appointment as a UN special envoy], which didn’t go down well with members of Fine Gael.”
Both Coveney and Donohoe could be tempted by powerful jobs in Brussels or for international quangos further afield rather than waiting until Varadkar steps down. That would leave the field open for a younger candidate such as McEntee.
Asked if she could take the job eventually, the Kerry backbencher Brendan Griffin first insists that there is no vacancy, but adds: “She possesses all the necessary skills. It’s not something she would obsess about. Whether she realises it or not, she has all those skills — absolutely.”
Few in political circles would have predicted that McEntee would become such a powerful figure when she was elected in the midst of tragedy in the spring of 2013. She won the Meath East by-election after her father Shane, a junior minister, took his own life.
At the time, she was cast as a political ingénue, possibly too young and inexperienced to hack it in the tough environment of Leinster House. There were also concerns about how she would cope with the pressure when she was still grieving.
To some who met her at that time, she could come across as shy, reserved and unfamiliar with some of the pressing political issues of the time. But she seems to have been a figure who was consistently underestimated, and few doubt her self-confidence and grasp of the issues now.
She was the second-youngest TD in the Dáil when she was elected. There is no doubt that a sympathy vote played a decisive role in her initial success, but that would only ever take her so far.
Noel Rock, the former Fine Gael TD, says McEntee had already served a political apprenticeship as her father’s parliamentary assistant and had helped him with his campaigns.
A graduate in politics, law and economics from Dublin City University, she was steeped in Fine Gael from childhood. She grew up in the party’s heartland in Meath, where she helped out on the family farm.
“There were always four ‘Fs’ at home: family, football, Fine Gael and farming,” she said in an interview with the website Agriland. “My granddad was one of the founding members of the local Irish Farmers Association branch. Fine Gael and farming were married together.”
Two of her uncles are Gerry McEntee and Andy McEntee. Gerry is a two-time All-Ireland champion with Meath and Andy is current Meath senior football team manager.
She said of her childhood: “Dad was the farmer and he never wanted to leave anyone out. If there was cattle to be moved two miles up the road, if fields needed to be ploughed, he’d appear with about 10 different children from around the place; we’d all be helping out.”
She has fused this rural, farming GAA background in Castletown with the sensibility and concerns of a modern woman in her thirties, who posed for a selfie with Varadkar and colleagues at an LCD Soundsystem gig and has seen the Prodigy six times.
Since she took on the challenging job of Minister for Justice last year, she has pursued an energetic programme of reform. She enacted legislation on online harassment and the sending of intimate images and focused on new measures connected with sexual violence and domestic abuse.
Noeline Blackwell, chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, says: “She is keeping a spotlight on a type of crime that was previously hidden, and has committed herself to dealing with issues that have been around for a long time, but were always put on the back shelf.
“She is conscious that she is coming at it from the point of view of her gender and generation and is impatient to see the old order changing.”
McEntee may be keen to reform the legal system, but to her critics her start as Justice Minister showed that certain aspects of the old order would remain.
Her approval of Fine Gael supporter Séamus Woulfe nomination to the Supreme Court after he had finished his term as attorney general made her a target of criticism. The controversy blew up over his attendance at the notorious Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in Clifden.
Attention then focused on how the appointment had been made and whether proper consideration had been given to other candidates.
McEntee told the Dáil that after her appointment as minister, Varadkar remarked to her informally that “Mr Woulfe would make a good judge”.
Shane Ross, the former independent cabinet minister, says of the appointment: “It was pre-destined and pre-arranged that he would get the job.”
Referring to Varadkar’s endorsement of Woulfe, he adds: “It was the same thing as giving her an instruction. It’s absolutely inconceivable that she would have said, ‘I don’t think you’re right’. It was a stitch-up.”
But despite the criticism, McEntee has said that proper procedures were followed.
A source close to the minister said: “She followed the processes that are there for the appointment of members of the judiciary. Séamus Woulfe’s name came through the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board. They recommended him for appointment, and she brought that name to cabinet.”
She seems to have put that controversy behind her and has encountered less trouble since.
One of her concerns as Justice Minister will be politicians’ safety and security, an issue that has been heightened by the recent killing of the MP David Amess in England and regular protests outside politicians’ homes here.
Speaking at the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors conference in Killarney this week, she said there had been times when she had felt unsafe as a politician.
Earlier this year she was the target of an alleged hoax bomb threat, which is now the subject of legal proceedings.
In the aftermath of her father’s death in December 2012, there was widespread commentary about how he had been the target of social media abuse.
His brother Gerry suggested this may have been a contributory factor, but Helen has since expressed doubts about this.
“He wasn’t using Twitter and I managed his Facebook account, so I’d know if there was an issue — and he wasn’t using separate social media,” she told Review in 2015. In another interview on RTÉ radio, she said: “I don’t think he would have seen anything that was put up, to be honest. So it wouldn’t have really affected him.”
She said in the same interview that she did not take any notice of abusive social media posts. “When I see something like that, I read it, forget it, move on,” she said. “If somebody wants to come to me personally, face to face, write to me or ring me, that’s fine; I’ll deal with that. I don’t agree with this anonymous barrage of abuse, but it happens. It’s part and parcel of putting yourself in the public eye.”
McEntee has established herself as an accomplished political campaigner and vote-getter. She retained her seat in 2016 and strengthened her position in 2020 in an election where Fine Gael fared poorly and her more senior running mate and party adversary Regina Doherty lost out.
Like other successful senior politicians — including Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin — she can rely on a spouse who has worked behind the scenes on the nuts and bolts of campaigns.
She met Paul Hickey when he was working as a parliamentary assistant for Donegal TD Joe McHugh. He also comes from a staunch Fine Gael background in Roscommon and now works for Novartis, the pharmaceutical company. His name has appeared on the register of lobbyists after he made representations on pharmaceutical matters on behalf of Novartis to the MEPs Frances Fitzgerald and Maria Walsh last year.
The remarkable fact that McEntee became the first cabinet minister in the history of the State to give birth while in office has inevitably helped raise her profile.
Unlike previous generations of politicians, she and her husband seem like the quintessential modern couple, juggling work and family commitments. She took maternity leave for the first six months after their son Michael’s birth in April, then Hickey following with six months of paid parental leave.
Hickey told the Business Post that having shared parental leave for the first year of a child’s life was something that could improve gender equality in the workplace.
McEntee may hope to be party leader at some point, but she is mindful that she has a sprawling and wide-ranging department where it is easy to slip up.
Among the issues that she wants to tackle are the reform of family law, liberalisation of antiquated licensing laws and regularising the situation of thousands of undocumented migrants.
She will no doubt be aware that the Justice Ministry can bury political careers with its complex web of problems. Two out of three previous ministers, Alan Shatter and Frances Fitzgerald, resigned over controversies involving the gardaí, but were both later exonerated.
Noel Rock says serving as Justice Minister is a bit like doing weights in the gym. “They can give you definition and add muscle,” he says, “but they can also crush you.”
Enda Kenny gave McEntee her first taste of office as Minister of State for Mental Health and Older People in 2016. But she showed she had arrived as a force to be reckoned with the following year when Leo Varadkar appointed her Minister of State for European Affairs at the peak of the Brexit crisis.
One former minister said: “Enda gave her the break, she put her head down and worked extremely hard, and Leo would not have given her such an important position if he did not rate her.”
Colleagues say that in her dealings with others, she tends to avoid confrontation and focuses on the outcome.
Inevitably in the tough world of politics, it is not all plain sailing. Her relations with the former minister and constituency colleague Regina Doherty were said to be poor.
In an interview with The Irish Times in 2017, Doherty said she and McEntee did not get on, and she claimed that her colleague would “walk past me in the corridor and wouldn’t even blink her eyes”.
A colleague of McEntee’s said this characterisation of was unfair because she was the sort of person who would stop to talk to anybody.
Rock says that constituency rivalries are a fact of life in politics, but “it is always dispiriting when disputes spill into public view”.
“They were two competitive, able politicians, who were fighting for what they thought would be one seat,” he says.
Some question whether McEntee has the charisma as a public speaker to be leader, but the same was said of Enda Kenny before he became Taoiseach.
If she has aspirations for the top job, it will not just be down to her public image, but also her ability to cultivate her party’s grassroots and win over her fellow TDs.
In the last leadership battle, Simon Coveney lost out to Leo Varadkar because of his inability to attract backbench support while his opponent courted TDs relentlessly.
TDs say McEntee is obliging as a minister when it comes to helping backbenchers with constituency problems. One former ministerial colleague says: “She has one quality that is seriously underestimated in politics and that is an ability to listen.”
Barring a major disaster, it seems likely that Varadkar will continue as leader for the foreseeable future and then serve in his second stint as Taoiseach. But as a 35-year-old minister, McEntee has time on her side.
“She definitely has the capacity and skills to be a leader,” says Rock. “It’s just a question of when the opportunity will arise and at this point there is no such opportunity.
“People will be judged on their performances between now and whenever that contest might happen — but I still think it is a long time away.”