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There's something about Clare: a conviction politician with a touch of restrained anger

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Senator Eoghan Harris and his wife Gwen.

Picture By David Conachy.   08/10/2009

Senator Eoghan Harris and his wife Gwen. Picture By David Conachy. 08/10/2009

18/04/2012 (L to R) Mick Wallace TD, Clare Daly TD...18/04/2012 (L to R) Mick Wallace TD, Clare Daly TD at Buswell's Hotel speaking to media before a private Members bill on the X Case Abortion Bill, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

18/04/2012 (L to R) Mick Wallace TD, Clare Daly TD...18/04/2012 (L to R) Mick Wallace TD, Clare Daly TD at Buswell's Hotel speaking to media before a private Members bill on the X Case Abortion Bill, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

kate shanahan

kate shanahan

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Clare Daly

SOME years ago, while interviewing a leading republican in a Dublin pub, he emitted a low growl as one of his former allies appeared on the television above our heads.

 "Look at him", he sniped, as the besuited Shinner did an interview outside Stormont, "totally corrupted by democratic politics".

No doubt when some of her former comrades view Clare Daly being interviewed by Prime Time or TV3's Vincent Browne, they might be forgiven for having a similar reaction. But among the public, Daly is having something of a renaissance. The poster online who described the Dublin TD as having transformed from 'grouchy goth,' to 'sleek and confident' TD was possibly expressing out loud what those who initially wrote off the former student union leader were thinking.

The 'holier than thou leftie' tag, as one online critic termed her, has been replaced by a smattering of begrudging admiration. Indeed the 'I'm not a fan of Clare Daly but...' brigade is gaining new members every day. The leaking of her drink-driving arrest, for example, was condemned even by her rivals. Her exoneration fuelled the belief that the United Left TD was being 'got at' for her trenchant views.

Some of the compliments now being thrown in her direction are peculiarly Irish though, as one new-found admirer posited that she has the 'political drive of a terrier', another admitted to fancying her in a 'head-girl sort of way'.

Like other high profile left-wing women – Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave spring to mind – Daly's appeal is her self-confidence in her beliefs.

 

WHIP

When Jackson said of Baroness Thatcher, "a woman, not on my terms", she not only faced down baying and jeering Tory hecklers but also showed the flint that made her loved and loathed in equal measure.

In a Dail gone soft through its own hubris, Daly is acknowledged as being good on her feet, her speeches on the proposed abortion legislation coming in for particular attention. "There are so few women in the Dail who can speak outside of a party whip," one activist explained, "so Daly is really standing out."

Another woman was surprised when the subject of Daly came up in her office and a number of post-Celtic Tiger cubs sheepishly admitted to finding her attractive. They liked her bolshieness, her ability to hold her own in debates, they explained.

So what has changed? When the controversy about her support for fellow TD Mick Wallace was at its height, one commentator noted that far from being crushed following her split from the Socialist Party, Clare Daly was "positively glowing", happy even. It may seem like an odd reaction, given that her resignation from the small left-wing party was widely interpreted as a blow to both camps.

Pundits predicted that Daly's working-class electorate would see her refusal to denounce Wallace as the ultimate betrayal. Daly herself was having none of it, however. Labelling Wallace's under-declaration of VAT a "very unfortunate" episode, she was adamant that her problems with the Socialist Party existed long before her friendship with the Wexford builder began.

Even as her former colleagues were demanding her attendance at multiple meetings to discuss her behaviour, Daly remained resolute. She ignored their pleas, and continued to sit beside the controversial pink-shirted one. Headlines like 'Clare's Wally' might have upset a less steely soul. But the colonel's daughter was not for turning.

The very characteristics that had made her a formidable campaigner, first as a Siptu representative in Aer Lingus and later on anti-bin and water charges, were now employed in sitting out more personal assaults.

In hindsight, the innuendo about her close ties with Wallace was unfair on Daly, she herself described it as being "disgusting". Lots of TDs have cross-party friendships. But it probably stemmed as much from a certain naivete on her part as much as ingrained sexism. Doctrinaire socialists are not expected to have anything in common with self-made builders, still less empathise with them.

As one fellow-builder wryly noted when asked about Wallace: "He's too red for the capitalists, and too capitalist for the pinkos." Daly, however, seems to have seen the human being behind the headlines, noting that Wallace had been a good employer.

While not the best move politically on her part, it hints at a more complex personality than she has hitherto been given credit for. Her Dail speeches on abortion equally show a nuanced and passionate understanding, a stark contrast to the parade of men past child-rearing years who have pronounced on the issue.

But it can't have been easy for Daly to leave the SP. Anyone who's been involved in left-wing campaigns knows that close friendships rarely survive ideological or policy rifts.

One friend gave up her leafleting and pamphleteering days, she explained later, when the men in her left-wing cadre refused to condemn violence against women. Not because they agreed that women deserved battering, but because working-class men might be stereotyped by middle-class feminists. The class struggle always had to come first.

Interestingly, in Daly's case her rupture with the Socialist Party was being blamed on Wallace, and even on her own middle-class antecedents. That she might suddenly have turned champagne socialist after decades of frontline activism is a convenient if highly unlikely explanation.

It's more likely that for Daly, the Wallace story was merely an over-hyped media distraction. She has made no secret of the fact that her family were not working class, and that her army officer father might have expected her to follow a different path.

In their statement on Daly's resignation, the Socialist Party were adamant that the main issue between them and their former colleague was her continuing political support for Wallace. Daly herself says that at no stage did she ever condone Wallace's underpayment of VAT and that an arrangement has been put in place to pay it back.

 

RIFT

Her supporters say her loyalty is a measure of the woman's innate decency, but her detractors believe that, in not throwing Wallace to the political wolves, she has, according to the Socialist Party, been guilty of "reckless misjudgment".

One clue as to Daly's character and motivation might be seen in the fact that she chose to work in Aer Lingus's catering department after graduating from DCU.

It was because she saw work as something one did to put food on the table, not an end in itself. Being at one with the workers and living on an industrial wage has long been a tenet of socialist activism.

Not many, however, follow it through as Daly did. It is that determination and single-mindedness that may have made her rift with the Socialist Party inevitable.

Like the Church, the left can be unforgiving of those who do not leave themselves open to periodic self-flagellation. Of Daly, her former party said: "Clare has also not worked in a genuinely collective way with her colleagues in the Socialist Party. Instead, she has avoided democratic discussion as well as the democratic check and accountability of the party's elected structures and members."

It's all a bit reminiscent of the 'sin of pride' which questioning priests were once accused of. Which is all the more ironic given that Daly's brother and uncle are both priests. Daly herself was said to be shocked at the tone and tenor of the party's press statement and its constant references to Wallace.

 

WAVES

Refusing to indulge in what she termed 'tit-for-tat' stuff, instead she pointed to her own record of 25 years of activism. She had great friends within the party, friends that she hoped she could work with again. But she wanted to build a broad-left alliance, "a real movement of people power needs to be built to stop the wave of attacks on ordinary people," she countered.

She had also seen, she later said, how fellow parliamentarian Joan Collins was flourishing as an Independent left-wing TD. Perhaps the real truth lies in the fact that having come in from the margins, Daly senses that a mass protest movement is now a possibility in Ireland. Whether that can ever include her working with her former comrades remains to be seen.

Michael D Higgins touched a chord with a lot of left-wing activists when he referred some years ago in a speech to the "joylessness" of the left. Free to follow her own instincts, Daly seems less of a cipher and more of a human being. It is a theme that a friend of Daly's, Kevin Higgins returned to when he blogged about her resignation.

Higgins wrote of how he had often stayed with Daly when up in Dublin for meetings back in the 1980s. "She is 100pc principled and 100pc human," he declared, "a million miles from the caricatures of socialists which are all too often close to the mark.

"There are two types of people in organisations like the Socialist Party. There are those who would stand in front of an oncoming tank in defence of someone smaller than themselves. And then there are those dull little people for whom Trotskyite politics is less about changing anything than it is about finding a place to hide. They are the type who love committee meetings held on a Sunday and whose feeling of political purity tends to be dependent on their ability to find some ex-comrade to denounce."

Launching Higgins's collection of essays last year, Daly took issue with some of his critiques of the far left. But she did make an interesting statement of intent: "Anybody who thinks that they are perfect, or that the groups they are involved with are perfect, and that they have nothing to learn, well those people are never going forward." Daly as her friend Higgins points out, "was never a party hack in that way. She's the sort of person who'd speak up for you when there was no one else left to speak up, which of course is precisely why she is such a brilliant public representative".


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