Monday 21 January 2019

Maire is 'all woman' -- but she never had an interest in the high life

Before she puts her head on the pillow each night, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn pours her heart into her treasured diary. It's a habit she acquired as a young Galway girl with a lust for language and literature.

From the moment she stepped onto the election hustings of Connemara more than 40 years ago, a feisty, raven-haired teenager who caught the eye of every man, the chapters of her life have had all the ingredients of a gripping read.

The most compelling would include her stormy relationship with Charlie Haughey, her steamy foray into chick-lit, her shock exit from politics and how the politician once tipped to become the first female Taoiseach wound up as the most powerful Irish woman in Europe.

But the silver lining that seemed within her grasp is in jeopardy now.

A glimpse into the pages of her memoirs from this week would reveal the frustration and distress that friends say has consumed her since the controversy sparked by her pension entitlements.

When asked by an RTE reporter last weekend if she might consider 'parking' her Dail and ministerial pensions of €108,000 while drawing her €239,000 EU salary, she aloofly remarked it was a question that she had "refused to comment on up to now and would continue to refuse to comment on".

At a time when outcry over the pay and perks of Government officials and senior bankers is at an all-time high, the newly-appointed EU Commissioner catapulted herself into the category of 'fat-cat Eurocrat'; a woman utterly out of touch with the ordinary people she has been chosen to serve.

To an increasingly sceptical public, it seemed the decision to relinquish her pensions came only after her hand was forced and a number of Government ministers suggested she change her stance.

But appearances deceive and public image is often the polar opposite of private reality. Talk to her closest allies about her evasive attitude towards the notion that she might be forced to forego her pension, and they paint a starkly different picture.

Far from being a snout-in-the-trough passenger on the Brussels gravy train, MGQ, as she is still known in political circles, had never any desire to cling onto premature privileges, they say. One long-standing friend recalls a conversation that took place with her shortly after her appointment as European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science in November.

"We were discussing her new salary and the subject of pensions came up. I expected her to say, 'I'm going to feckin well take them and thank God for them because I'm the only one who works in this house', but she had a very different plan.

"She told us she was going to give the money to Western Alzheimers because her mother had died from the condition. Her feeling at that time was that it was a completely private thing and nobody's business but her own, but she had no intention of holding onto that money.

"The idea that Maire has acquired the habits of the rich is just laughable. You're talking about a sort of person you ring up, and she says, 'I'll ring you back, I'm scrubbing the loo'. You'd expect someone like her to have servants -- but she does all the housework herself, even now.

"Yes, she has four properties but she doesn't make any money from them. One is her family home in Galway; the other a holiday home in Spain. She needed somewhere to live for all the years she was in Luxembourg and she spends as much time as she can with her son and young grand-daughter in the US so she bought a place there.

"Maire had never any interest in the high-life. In her very early years, she was just gorgeous -- all woman -- with a frame of about 5 ft 8in and long, black silky hair. But she'd just throw a comb through her hair, put on the most basic make-up and a pair of low heels. The only real personal vanity she allowed herself was a regular manicure. She likes to keep her hands in good shape."

Delve deeper into Geoghegan-Quinn's past and a pattern of contradictions starts to unfold.

Born into a well-known Fianna Fail family in Carna, Connemara, in September 1950, her dream was to become a doctor -- but her mother persuaded her to do teaching. On qualifying from Carysfort training college, she took charge of a class of 63 primary school children at Scoil Bride in Ranelagh, Dublin and "loved it".

At 23, she married her childhood sweetheart John Quinn, a car salesman, and before long, their first son Ruairi was born.

But soon her life would take a very different course when she was thrust into the political limelight after the sudden death in 1975 of her father Johnny Geoghegan, a TD for Galway West and CIE bus conductor. She left Dublin and came back home to stand in the by-election later that year, winning his seat in the Dail.

It wasn't long before the party realised they had a formidable operator on their hands. Charlie Haughey admired her steely, pragmatic vision and brought her into his cabinet in 1979, making her the first female minister since the foundation of the State.

During that time, she also became the first minister to give birth while in office when she had her second son, Cormac, in 1980.

But her relationship with Haughey soured as rumours spread of his growing dislike towards his young protégée. He derided her in public claiming she'd become 'bone idle' and unable to pull votes.

She famously fought back, telling him in 1991 that the voters of Galway West never wanted to see his face on an election poster again.

When Albert Reynolds came to power in 1992, Geoghegan-Quinn, by now a signed-up member of his 'country and western' faction which finally forced Haughey to step down as Taoiseach, was subsequently made Minister for Justice.

During her tenure, she shook up conservative Ireland by decriminalising homosexuality and played a vital role in brokering the Downing Street Declaration signed by Reynolds and British Prime Minister John Major.

"Geoghegan Quinn, in my view, was ahead of her time in Fianna Fail," says Sean Duignan, Government Press Secretary 1991-1994 and author of 'One Spin on the Merry-Go-Round,' a political memoir of his time in the administration.

"She manifestly had more ability than many of her colleagues. She enjoyed the backing of Reynolds who freely acknowledged she was among the foremost of those who had risked their career for him.

"I remember Albert telling me that he wanted Brian Cowen to become leader but he was still too young for the job. He said Maire would be suitable in the meantime.

"Her wonderful personality meant she was liked by all the TDs but she was never one of the lads. Although she wanted to become leader, she didn't want it enough. She signally failed to build her own independent power base in the parliamentary party.

"Whether this was because Fianna Fail is irredeemably misogynist or because Geoghegan-Quinn was too domineering or aloof for most backbenchers has generated considerable debate."

One member of her tight-knit inner circle believes it had more to do with the latter.

"She can come across as haughty, detached, superior, and because of this she always had great difficulty amassing sufficient votes at election time. She never played the game, wouldn't go to funerals of people she didn't know, didn't drink with the lads.

"She had this almost schizophrenic political profile in that she was the darling of the West when she was in Dublin but at election time she couldn't pull in the votes in Galway.

"I would say it's all masking an inherent shyness. Think about it. This is a newly married woman with young children thrown into politics at very short notice having just lost her father.

"Yet she rose above that predicament and her innate shyness and is still probably, to this day, the best communicator in both the Irish and English language since the foundation of the State."

In 1996, during a period in opposition, she revealed another aspect to her complex character when she turned to writing, producing a hot-blooded best-seller, The Green Diamond, based on the love-lives of four young women, one of whose father was a TD.

"The novel raised a few eyebrows in Fianna Fail," a friend recalls. "It was pretty raunchy and some said it was semi-autobiographical, but Maire always had a streak of pure girl in her.

"I remember once when she and two friends went off on holiday to the Continent one year and they were talent-spotting over the balcony throwing comments around about the guys below. Of course they were able to because they were speaking as Gaeilge.

"Next thing, they heard a man's voice coming from a balcony above saying in Irish he didn't think respectable young Irish girls would talk like that. It turned out to be a local bishop. The three of them froze rigid -- but they all had a great laugh about it later."

In 1997, at the age of 46, Geoghegan-Quinn shocked the nation when she decided to resign from politics after reports that her son Cormac had been expelled from boarding school in Galway following a clash between students.

She said she believed Cormac had been made a scapegoat by the media because he was her son and that her public profile was disrupting family life too much. Sceptics claimed it had more to do with the fact that she was unlikely to retain her seat in that year's General Election.

Two years later, Bertie Ahern appointed her to the European Court of Auditors, a low-profile institution in Luxembourg which examines how EU money is spent.

For almost 40 years, her husband John has been by her side. He gave up work to focus on her career. She says she couldn't have done it without him; that he 'was always there for me through good times and bad,'

She describes their nine years in Luxembourg as some of the happiest in her life, not least because of her passion for European politics but also because of the freedom and anonymity it gave her.

"In Luxembourg, you can walk around all day every day and only by chance bump into a colleague or someone from Cumann Gael," she told a TG4 documentary in 2006.

"Outside of that, you won't meet anyone else who knows you. We couldn't walk the prom in Galway without someone saying hello."

Given the mood of public despair over the on-going pension controversy, that is one dilemma she might not find quite so vexing on her next visit home.

Irish Independent

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