Sunday 8 December 2019

It was a rocky start, but softly spoken Frances displays her steely side too


Interim Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan meets Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald on the steps of the Department of Justice yesterday. Picture: Steve Humphreys
Interim Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan meets Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald on the steps of the Department of Justice yesterday. Picture: Steve Humphreys

Lise Hand

THE first day in a new job is always a bit fraught. And thus in an ideal world, Cabinet reshuffles take place before a parliamentary recess in order to give the newbie ministers a chance to read into their briefs.

But most reshuffles are creatures of events, and such was the case this week when Frances Fitzgerald was catapulted overnight from the calm waters of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs into the roiling, shark-infested seas of the Justice Department.

It wasn't so much a case of the Dublin Mid-West TD and former social worker hitting the ground running on her first day, as hitting the ground and zigzagging through a field of unstable landmines, any one of which was liable to detonate if she put a foot wrong.

Her first task after completing the round robin of media interviews on Wednesday was to sit at her new desk overlooking Stephen's Green and read the grim findings contained in the Guerin Report into the treatment of garda whistleblowers.

And the 365-page damning litany of failings in both the gardai and her new department must have left her with no illusions of the enormity of the task ahead of her.

The day got off to a rocky start for Frances Fitzgerald. A gaggle of photographers had assembled at the entrance to the Justice Department for a scheduled photo-call with the new minister and the interim Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan.

However, there was a disorganised feel to the set-piece; the two women paused briefly at the top of the steps, shook hands awkwardly and immediately disappeared inside, leaving a pack of disgruntled photographers behind them.

But this is a department that has been under siege for months on end now, punch-drunk from a flurry of blows, and the smooth running of a photo-op wasn't high on its list of priorities.

The Guerin Report went up online just before 1pm, and a press conference was hastily organised at 1.30pm, with journalists scrambling to make it into Government Buildings, only to be told that it was delayed by half an hour.

In the end, it was almost 2.30pm when the minister emerged. In contrast to her predecessor, Alan Shatter, who rarely stinted from applying the verbal boot to those who had displeased him, Frances took a more piano approach, doling out her criticisms in a measured manner.

She viewed with the "utmost gravity" how complaints are dealt with by the Justice Department. She spoke about "root-and-branch reform" of the police force.

As the press conference progressed, she did her utmost to dodge one great big landmine plonked in front of her. Three times, Frances was asked if she had faith in the secretary-general of her department, Brian Purcell, and she strove mightily to deliver neither a nay nor yea.

The minister was taking the emollient approach, but it would be an unwise person who failed to spot the flash of steel behind the power suits.

Frances Fitzgerald is a political scrapper, albeit a softly-spoken one. Her mettle was tested in 2002, after she lost her seat to the PD's Michael McDowell in the leafy milieu of Dublin South-East.

She was elected to the Seanad in 2007 and was made leader of the opposition, and it was during this time that she made a brace of decisions which was to prove fateful and propel her on the comeback trail.

In 2010, her party leader Enda Kenny announced out of the blue that he would hold a referendum on abolishing the Upper House. His bombshell caught his party on the hop, but Frances backed his decision without any equivocation while some of her fellow Fine Gael senators were less supportive.

She also – with more prescience than some of her more apparently astute colleagues – stood firmly on the side of the embattled leader during the heave in the summer of 2010.

With Lucinda Creighton now firmly defending her turf in Dublin South East, Frances threw her hat instead into the ring of the grittier, newly expanded four-seater of Dublin Mid-West, and surfed into the Dail on the anti-Fianna Fail wave of 2011.

Her reward was immediate, Enda Kenny being a leader with a long memory who puts loyalty high on his list of priorities when it comes to picking his team. She was appointed Minister for Children, a portfolio which suited her background as a zealous campaigner on social and family issues.

Frances Fitzgerald has risen through the ranks with dizzying speed. But there's little doubt she'll have to channel her inner scrapper to remain at this lofty height.

Irish Independent

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