Saturday 25 January 2020

Comment: There is something about Mary - heavens above, she's a woman

The knives appear to be out for Jobs Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor. Photo: Tom Burke
The knives appear to be out for Jobs Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor. Photo: Tom Burke
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

The knives are out for Jobs Minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor for the crime of being a woman in politics.

"There really is something about Mary Mitchell O'Connor," was the headline of a long article in the 'Irish Times' at the weekend, in which the performance of the new Jobs Minister was monstered.

She's not up to the job and is seriously out of her depth, appeared to be the consensus of her colleagues. Why? Well, it was a little hard to tell.

Among her most grievous sins, since being appointed to the Cabinet, were mispronouncing the name of the chief executive of Enterprise Ireland, speaking in a Dublin accent in front of an audience of American businessmen and irritating civil servants in her department.

While lots of Mitchell O'Connor's colleagues were eager to put the boot in, none was brave enough to do so on the record, content to pan the minister anonymously.

One particularly vindictive colleague joined in the smackdown despite his or her biggest gripe apparently being that the minister works too hard.

"She works hard, extremely hard. Puts in long days, travels around the country," was the assessment, which is now a hanging offence because she should be spending all of her time in Dublin.

Of course, if she were to spend all of her time in Dublin, as that sage suggested, then her rural colleagues would be having a conniption fit about the fact that she never left the Pale.

As if all of that wasn't bad enough, Mitchell O'Connor had the temerity to make a quip about her nail polish when meeting a delegation of foreign executives, which caused complete consternation.

"She told another meeting of overseas executives that she had painted her nails in the country colours for the day. They had no idea what she was talking about," was the horrified appraisal of her efforts to make genial small talk.

Maybe I'm not cerebral enough to entertain a group of foreign executives either, but the comment seems perfectly straightforward to me - her nail colour matched their country colours.

Perhaps if Mitchell O'Connor had made the same joke but substituted the words "golf clubs" for "nails" then the geniuses in the room would have understood what she was talking about.

Jealous colleagues, who saw Mitchell O'Connor promoted straight to Cabinet while they had to content themselves with a junior ministry - or, heavens forefend, a mere committee chairmanship - have been grumbling about her since her appointment, but those mutterings have become a deafening roar since the Budget.

Back then, Mitchell O'Connor suggested a tax policy that was pretty divisive, not to mention contrary to EU law - a preferential 30pc tax rate for returning high-skilled emigrants.

Now, Mitchell O'Connor isn't the first minister to fly an ill-advised kite around budget time, and she won't be the last, but usually they flutter briefly in the air before dropping unnoticed from the sky.

However, on this occasion, Taoiseach Enda Kenny decided to take out a bazooka and shoot down Mitchell O'Connor's kite from the floor of the Dáil chamber, denouncing the idea as "unfair and discriminatory".

Why he opted to embarrass his minister in such a public way remains a mystery. Let's not forget Finance Minister Michael Noonan failed to calculate the 'fiscal space' correctly before the last election, just as Fine Gael was going to the polls claiming to be the only party that could be trusted with the national accounts, but I don't remember Kenny delivering a withering put down of his performance during leaders' questions.

No, he defended Noonan to the hilt whenever he faced an assault from the Opposition, despite his erroneous calculations arguably contributing to the party's appalling election results.

Meanwhile, Mitchell O'Connor delivers a second seat for Fine Gael in her constituency, yet becomes persona non grata because one of her budgetary ideas is deemed to be politically toxic.

Once her resentful colleagues saw her lose favour with Kenny, they went in for the kill, with the 'Irish Examiner' reporting that "outraged Fine Gael deputies tore strips out of her" during her post-Budget presentation.

According to that article, golden boy Leo Varadkar gave a "sophisticated" PowerPoint presentation to his colleagues, while saintly Simon Coveney impressed TDs with a "detailed handout" on his Help-To-Buy scheme.

The fact that Coveney's first-time buyers' scheme has been denounced by every economist in the country as a measure that will lead to house price inflation didn't matter a jot to Fine Gael TDs, who were won over by a handout.

Regrettably, because Mitchell O'Connor didn't have her minions stick a few PowerPoint slides together and instead tried to read information from a phone that kept crashing, her party colleagues saw red.

A number of rural TDs used the occasion to give her a pasting about job creation outside Dublin, despite the fact that job creation in the Border counties and the Midlands since 2012, at 14.1pc and 15.4pc respectively, has outstripped that in Dublin, at 13pc.

But, what do mere, trifling facts matter if you don't have a printout with pretty graphics to bedazzle your colleagues?

Defending Mitchell O'Connor against the snakes she's working with doesn't mean she hasn't made mistakes or that her performance has been perfect.

However, compared to the calamities that have befallen the departments of Transport, Education and Justice - where strikes have caused, or are threatening, chaos - her tenure in office has been remarkably auspicious. Given the trivial nature of many of the complaints about her, it's hard to escape the conclusion that her gender and her appearance are at the root of much of the vindictiveness about her.

Five years ago, Mitchell O'Connor drove her car down the plinth and that embarrassing error invariably finds its way into every single analysis piece about her. The caricature of ditzy woman has clung to her ever since, no matter what her professional accomplishments.

If Mitchell O'Connor makes a mess of her brief then this column will be the first one to condemn her, but is it too much to ask that we actually wait for a major gaffe or error before writing her off as incompetent?

Irish Independent

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