Terry Prone: Talent, not gender is making women such as Minister Frances Fitzgerald and Chief Justice Susan Denham stand out
FRANCES Fitzgerald was a bit busy today, tying off her work at the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, briefing her successor and coming to grips with her different brief in Justice.
She will have no time to admire herself as a history-maker, although she did make history when she set up a brand new Government department from a standing start with no Cabinet experience.
She made history again yesterday. Not by being the first female Minister for Justice. Fianna Fail's Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, now the EU Commissioner, had that honour, and set the bar high for all successors irrespective of gender.
What's historic about Frances Fitzgerald's appointment is that it creates a new critical mass in the judicial system. A critical mass of women in an area dominated by men for decades. A critical mass of women who got to their positions of power and influence without the help of positive discrimination.
Everywhere in law and policing, right now, women are at the top. Some of them have been at the top for a while.
Chief Justice Susan Denham, for example, has been in that role for three years and many of her contemporaries would claim that her appointment was an inevitability, because she was so brilliant, so logical, so analytical and so clear in her understanding of the law as an essential pillar of civilised living. Her career was dotted with firsts, including being the first female Supreme Court judge.
Many of those firsts didn't attract much notice, because despite being a newspaper editor's daughter — or perhaps because she's a newspaper editor's daughter — Susan Denham sees personal publicity as irrelevant to her role.
She does what she does without seeking to “humanise” her role by sharing charming personal details with the public.
But that's a characteristic shared by most of the formidable women now at the top of the judicial and policing systems. None of them has ever sought to become a household name. Maire Whelan, the Attorney General, became more famous than she probably ever wanted when the first act of the Shatter tragedy happened.
Whelan, a Labour Party appointee, steered her way through the controversy, up to and including the departure of the Minister this week, without ever talking to journalists, on or off the record. She operates in a spin-free zone where you do the best job you can and don't seek public credit. Similarly, Eileen Creedon, the Chief State Solicitor, does her job but isn't a celeb because of it.
The line-up is completed by Noirin O'Sullivan, the Interim Garda Commissioner, who found herself at the top of An Garda Siochana, an organisation severely bruised by controversy. Instead of getting defensive, she talked publicly of learning from what she called “our critical friends”, meaning GSOC and whistle-blowers.
O'Sullivan's career sums up the massive changes in Ireland and in policing. When she joined the force, she was a ‘banner’ (ban garda) restricted to female-friendly tasks. But she fought her way onto the plainclothes frontline as an undercover drugs agent and worked her way up through the mostly male ranks to Assistant Commissioner level.
Individually, each of these women is a success. Collectively, they add up to a precedent: strong female professionals for the first time leading an area of Irish life affecting every citizen.
It's a massive breakthrough. If they perform in future as they have in the past, these women will ensure that, a few years down the road, we won't even remember what a massive breakthrough it was. Because being exceptional is just the first step. Making the exceptional normal is the more important second step.