Sunday 20 October 2019

Maeve Sheehan: 'Just push back the elbows and make your voice heard'

After a rocky time in government, Mary Mitchell O'Connor has rediscovered her mojo, writes Maeve Sheehan

Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Minister for State for Higher Education, in Dun Laoghaire. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Minister for State for Higher Education, in Dun Laoghaire. Photo: Tony Gavin

'I've got my mojo back," declared Mary Mitchell O'Connor on the phone, soon after shaking up academia by launching gender wars on third-level institutions.

It was an unguarded remark that hinted at her tough times in government. But she's slow to elaborate when we later meet in the Merrion Hotel in Dublin. Ministers don't like to admit to misplacing mojos, but she could be forgiven for losing hers.

The Minister of State for Higher Education has had a rocky ride in government. She was the only casualty of Leo Varadkar's Cabinet reshuffle when he became Taoiseach last year. She was demoted from her role as Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation after much sniping about her suitability. To make up for it, the Taoiseach gave her a "super junior" role in higher education, retaining a seat at the cabinet table.

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"Just so everyone knows," the former school principal says tartly, "I asked the Taoiseach for that job… I asked him to create it."

We have cappuccinos and she is first to delve into the miniature mince pies. She is warm and friendly but also cautious.

She was the target a lot of sniping. "Yeah and it was mostly about my appearance," she says.

She refuses to name names or cry sexism.

But she does bring up that time in 2016, when she reported back to a Cabinet sub-committee that the attitude of her UK counterpart, Liam Fox, towards Brexit was akin to a husband trying to get a divorce with all the assets. She says her description was later leaked to the media, in a "ha ha ha" sort of way. But her analogy has proved spot on.

"You know what," she says, sitting forward, "Having gone through what I've gone through, my father died in that year, in 2017, and he was dying during all that criticism of me, reading the newspapers, and in fact I had to tell him to stop reading newspapers at one stage."

The one "plus" was welcoming her first grandchild in the middle of the turmoil.

"We are human, and we have families close to us. Now I am very lucky I have two sons and they stand by me," she says. "I'm getting more fun out of family now than I ever have. So, let's put it in perspective. I have a really good job, a lovely job that I'm really enthused about."

It turns out though that she might be willing to swap that lovely job for Europe, if a nomination were to come her way. Following media speculation, she confirms that she is indeed thinking about running in the European elections in May, targeting the Dublin seat being vacated by her party colleague, Brian Hayes. "It's an intriguing prospect that deserves due time, thought and attention," she says, but she's talking to her family, and of course, the Taoiseach, first.

There's nothing like an election to get the mojo going, although in fairness, Mitchell O'Connor seems to have been on a bit of a roll.

Last month she launched a controversial initiative in higher education to tackle the lack of women in top posts in universities and colleges. It was a talking point - some critics claim it promoted more sexism - but in her view it is a necessary measure to kick-start change. Women account for half of university lecturers but account for just under a quarter of professors and have never made college president.

Next month, she hopes to launch another radical development in the sexual politics space - this one relating to sexual consent and sexually inappropriate behaviour in Ireland's third-level campuses.

She expects a report in early January from an expert group which she appointed in October. But she says it's looking like all third level institutions will be asked to run workshops on consent for first year students as part of their orientation packages. But based on feedback from students and lecturers, she is likely to row back from making them compulsory.

"I think we are coming up with something very innovative," she says.

She appointed an expert group largely on foot of research by the Galway academic, Dr Padraig McNeela, which was "a total eye opener". One of its findings was that 70pc of female students experienced sexual harassment over the course of their college careers.

Various government departments will play a role. But she says the people who "really have to step up" are parents. "They have got to sit down and have serious conversations with their children, with their sons and their daughters, first of all on the safety issues, and second of all, their responsibilities," she says.

"I would have taken for granted that my sons would have learned those values in my home. If I was a young mother now, I would be sitting down with my two sons, I would be having a serious conversation, I would have that law on consent that [former Minister for Justice] Frances Fitzgerald put through, and I would be reading it down through the various facets of it, explaining it to them, and ensuring that they know. I wouldn't be taking it for granted that they got those values from my home."

Some critics say that she is focusing on the wrong priorities. Funding - the biggest issue in third-level education - has yet to be sorted out.

The Minister comes to the interview with a checklist of priorities on her phone, however. These include opening up access to third-level; the future of jobs - which she says keeps her awake at night, ensuring that Irish educational institutions are producing graduates that are ahead of the curve on radically advancing technologies, such as robotics and artificial intelligence.

She says she has been "very successful" in getting funding into third-level (€57m this year) and another €300m contributed in a levy paid by employers as part of the Human Capital Initiative, which requires businesses to invest in higher education courses.

She is passionate about getting due recognition for apprenticeships. "I've spoken in the Dail about it but it's never picked up," she complains.

She wants to "rattle a few cages" on this one. And although she says her press adviser, Lynda McQuaid, will want to stick "my cup in my mouth" because it's "controversial", she wants to see apprenticeships on the CAO form.

Rattling cages means bending ears. Her modus operandi, she says, is to get out, meet people and build relationships. She has "the full numbers of all the [college] presidents" and likes to "know the personalities". "They can also have a relationship with me, they can tell me what's good, what's not so good."

She grew up on a farm in the small village of Milltown, Galway, one of four girls and one boy, where she says her father was the feminist. Her mother was a school principal, but he was the one who "wholeheartedly wanted all of his children to have a good education".

"As it turned out, I needed it," she says. She separated from her husband and later divorced. She made her own way, moving to Dublin and becoming principal of the Harold School in Glasthule.

"When I separated, only for I had a good job, for my children, we didn't have to rely on others. I could rely on my own strengths," she says.

Parents often came to her for advice, many women in difficulty who knew she'd been through the mill herself.

Having taught girls, she says she knows that girls are "quiet, timid, unconfident, don't show how great they are in class". "I think that we are confident up to the age of 11 or 12. I think women lose that confidence then. I think they have to go out and build resilience and confidence."

She credits her own to her strong friendships, and her two boys. "They back me completely." Confidence isn't the be-all: "I have this saying for my boys, 'work works'," she says. "There are people over in Dail Eireann who are so confident and I could not tell you what they do."

When she was a young school principal in the GAA stronghold of Meath, she says, "people were worried that I wouldn't be promoting the GAA... We went on to win county championships." So criticism is "par for the course" to her, she says.

"So I'm tough," she says.

"I often tell people, you just need the elbows to push back and make sure your voice is heard."

Prepare to be elbowed.

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