Sunday 17 February 2019

Kevin Doyle: A win for Justice Minister is seen as impossible . . . but her story suggests she might well run anyway

Frances Fitzgerald. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Frances Fitzgerald. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Frances Fitzgerald's career path indicates she is not a woman for making 10-year plans. With three young children, she gave up on a successful and balanced life as a social worker to enter politics in her early 40s because Garret FitzGerald challenged her.

In the coming weeks another challenge will be presented to the 66-year-old. Few would bet on her being the next leader of Fine Gael, but her story suggests she might run anyway.

Some in Leinster House see her enthusiasm for the contest as a way of securing her position at the Cabinet table or even a roundabout way of winning a presidential nomination in 2018 - but sources close to the minister insist she is not "a plotter".

A speech she gave behind closed doors to the Central Bank Women's Network in Dublin yesterday may give some insight into her thinking though.

"It's about supporting younger women and pushing them to achieve all they can. It's about fighting for older women to prevent them being pushed aside. It's about promoting the interests of your own age-cohort with generosity and vision. Just do it. Every day, do it," she said.

While Ms Fitzgerald knows it would take an unexpected twist for her to win the leadership race, she also realises the impact she could have on the debate.

How she runs a campaign could influence the large swath of middle-ground TDs, senators and councillors who see problems with both Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney.

Given their Dublin bases, it would be easy to assume that Ms Fitzgerald's candidacy would be damaging for Mr Varadkar.

But as things stand, Mr Coveney is likely to pick up the so-called 'Kennyites' who are loyal to the outgoing Taoiseach. The Tánaiste would give them an acceptable alternative, particularly the ones outside Leinster House who are not jockeying for jobs.

Then there is the female factor. Although they will line up for a photocall to mark International Women's Day in Merrion Square today, Fine Gael does not have a 'sisterhood' in the same way other parties do.

Yet Ms Fitzgerald's background as a "committed feminist" and a campaigner on women's issues plays well with the grassroots.

Before entering politics, she was chair of the National Women's Council and her department is currently finalising a National Women's Strategy to promote the theme of female leadership across a range of sectors.

There are 17 female members of the Fine Gael parliamentary party, including Ms Fitzgerald.

While many of these have privately pledged their alliances to Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney, there are some, such as junior ministers Marcella Corcoran Kennedy and Catherine Byrne, who might delight in seeing a woman put herself forward.

Ms Fitzgerald spoke yesterday about "setbacks", "disappointments" and "kicks in the teeth".

She's had a few, most notably losing her Dáil seat in 2002. At this stage in her career, the biggest risk would be to run and not get a respectable vote.

But as she told the audience: "Being a successful woman is not defined by reaching the top."

The Dublin Mid West TD argued it was "defined by doing what you want to do when you want to do it".

"It's about being daunted by the impossible and doing it anyway."

Irish Independent

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