Thursday 20 June 2019

The deal maker: An insight into the woman behind Fianna Fáil's negotiations

Deirdre Gillane, Advisor to Micheal Martin TD. Photo: Tom Burke
Deirdre Gillane, Advisor to Micheal Martin TD. Photo: Tom Burke
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

Deirdre Gillane doesn't pull any punches and is well-accustomed to weathering squalls and storms ... all of which has come in useful at talks that have been so focused on water.

'That kind of thing is not acceptable when the country is awash with money," Deirdre Gillane railed in frustration as the hospital bed shortage spiralled out of control in July 1999.

Speaking back then about the overcrowded wards at a district hospital, she dismissed talk of a project team put in place there as "just another way of stalling."

As a trade union official with the Irish Nurses Organisation, Gillane was straight-talking, blunt and filled with the sort of sense that is dismissed as 'common' - but often sadly far from common-place, in the strange realm of the political landscape.

Fast forward 17 years and that stubborn personality and ability to recognise 'stalling' when she sees it, is doubtlessly invaluable in the 'down-to- the-wire' tense negotiations between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

This plain-speaking, low-key Cork woman is currently playing a key role at the talks as Fianna Fáil's Chef de Cabinet.

She is seen as the 'hard liner' on the water issue.

From Glasheen on the outskirts of the Rebel city, Deirdre Gillane, hails from a staunch GAA family.

Her father was from the hurling stronghold of Patrickswell, Co Limerick - but at least they could find themselves in amicable agreement about Munster rugby.

She trained as a general nurse and worked for seven years at Cork University Hospital - but even in her student days, was heavily involved with the INO as a student rep on the Executive Council in the late 1980s.

With Gillane on this journey was her close friend, Gobnait O'Connell.

The two women trained, nursed and then worked at the INO side by side for four years.

"She's a straight talker. Very friendly but not in a girly, pally-wally kind of way," said an associate of Gillane, from those early INO days.

"She's very pleasant but doesn't pull any punches."

In 2000, Gobnait left the trade union to become Michéal Martin's personal adviser when he became Minister for Health in 2000.

But tragedy struck just nine months later, when Gobnait - who had been tipped as a future FF General Secretary - died at the age of just 35 in a crash on the main Galway Dublin road on the way home from an address by Martin to unions in Tullamore.

Following Gobnait's death, Gillane was drafted in to become Martin's policy adviser at the Department of Health.

On her first day in the Department of Health and Children, she was given copies of the Official Secrets Act, the Public Service Management Act and the Ethics in Public Office Act and rapidly made the transition to the political sphere.

She spent four years at Hawkins House but made a name for herself as a shrewd political strategist, even taking her annual leave to campaign for Martin in the 2002 election. She became his right-hand woman, referring easily to him as "Mickey Joe," and was very involved in the second Lisbon Treaty campaign. Gillane stayed by his side through his Ministry in the Department of Enterprise and then Foreign Affairs until 2010.

"She's very thorough. A total details person," recalled one former associate.

But then came the alarming crisis that began to spiral around Taoiseach Brian Cowen - including his infamously under-the-weather radio appearance dubbed 'Gargle gate'. It saw Fianna Fáil make a frantic decision to 'poach' Gillane from Martin and position her in an attempt to steer Cowen firmly back on to the straight and narrow.

"There was a recognition that the party's back was to the wall and that the leader needed a bit more support," said a former colleague of Gillane's.

"Out of all the advisers out there, she was seen as the person who was most streetwise and had the most common sense.

"They stole her but it wasn't acrimonious. And she did a good job over there in different circumstances," he said. He, too, described Gillane as "straight" and quipped: "She would call a spade a spade, or a damn shovel if she was annoyed."

With Cowen's demise in January 2011, Gillane found herself brought gratefully back into the fold and has remained by Micheál Martin's side ever since.

Her calm political savvy is widely recognised as being a key reason why Martin's skin was saved in the fallout of the brutal 2012 General Election, helping to steer the party remarkably through the squalls into calm waters - and to far more fruitful seas.

So hands on is she that in 2012, when the party advertised three key advisory positions, the job notice gave Gillane's contact details rather than the General Secretary.

Disquiet amongst the party about Martin's leadership abilities and the future of the party in 2013 saw criticism raised about the small inner circle advising him.

Sean Fleming, the party's public spending spokesman, told the Irish Independent then: "You can't win a championship with five or six people. The party can't win an election relying on a small number of people."

But Gillane escaped criticism even then, and was described as "the most popular of the group."

"She stayed there - even though a lot of people didn't think Fianna Fáil could ever make it back," said a former colleague of her doggedness.

Sitting around the table at the talks, through pitfalls, lengthy negotiations, calamity, comebacks and - yes, stalling - Gillane's stubborn streak and calm common sense appears to have served Fianna Fáil in good stead yet again.

Irish Independent

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