Mary, the lovely girl from Donegal who got too big for her boots
Good old-fashioned sexism has a big part to play in the vilification of Mary Coughlan, writes Jody Corcoran
There is something a little troubling about the ongoing demonisation of Mary Coughlan, Minister for Enterprise Trade and Employment, latterly singled out by just about everybody as the worst thing ever, or at least since the unsliced pan.
For the purpose of this article I shall refer to her as "Mary", lovely girl from Donegal, mother-of-two, 44 this month, who has, apparently, lost a bit of weight, who dresses quite stylishly, of course; but, dear oh dear, the mouth on her; she could take paint off a gate.
Charles Haughey, in his day, could make a grown man blanch with his effing and blinding. Yet nobody held it against him. In fact, he was kind of admired for it, certainly by the sycophant types he liked to surround himself with.
Then there was Mo Mowlam, the former Northern Secretary, who could melt a cast iron gate with her carry on. Everyone loved Mo, of course, the old sweetheart, particularly the Shinners, babe. But us men, we couldn't sexualise her, in our innate way, when we came to know her on this island.
Mary is a different kettle of fish. She is our lovely girl. But her earthy manner, her -- dare I say it -- her "manly" way of self-expression is no longer as endearing, but has, all of a sudden, become "inappropriate", and "undignified", no less, for the office she holds.
I am wondering why. It was allowed when, as Agriculture Minister, she was mucking about, in fetching wellies, with rugged farmers at the ploughing championships in Carlow. But with a bunch of Arabs in Abu Dhabi, who like to objectify their women in burka and veil, well then, in those circumstances, it is just not right, is it? Or with George W-loving, neocon, Mike, sorry, Michael Dell, it is downright rude, right? Which must be why he decided to pull out of Limerick, spur of the moment, like.
The unedifying whispering campaign against Mary began shortly after Brian Cowen, in his enlightened way, had the temerity to appoint her Minister for Enterprise, unfortunately at a time when enterprise was about to become a rigor mortis-stiffened corpse, and as Tanaiste, his number two, a young woman now technically the second most important politician in the State.
I suspect, therefore, that deep in psyche of all of this, the demonisation of Mary, it is not that she has become a bad Minister overnight, which she hasn't, but that it is felt she may have gotten too big for her Wellington boots; that she may have moved on -- without permission -- from being the lovely girl from Donegal to somebody who is now telling them what to do in Fianna Fail.
There is more to it than that, of course. She is not be the best Enterprise Minister ever. Neither is she the worst. How does it come about that these things are decided? It must emanate from somewhere -- I may have had a hand in it myself -- is taken as read, and is then passed into fact by people like John McGuinness, the former junior minister who likes to think he knows everything about enterprise just because he ran a small business in Kilkenny for a while.
In the mix of it all is what I have crudely tried to suggest at the beginning of this article: that is, old fashioned sexism of the unreconstructed kind.
Mary Coughlan became a TD at 21, when her father and uncle died in quick succession. Before that she was briefly a social worker, a caring profession, a womanly profession. She might as well have been a nurse in the eyes of thick-necked TDs when first she landed in Leinster House. The year was 1987.
Imagine that. You go to the Ursuline Convent in Sligo, as a boarder, that is, away from home, your parents, siblings, and then onto UCD to take a degree in social science. Perhaps it would have been better had she studied the law, or even became a teacher, like a lot of them in the Dail. But Mary wanted to be a social worker. There is something good in that.
She was hardly out of college when her father Cathal, a TD of three years, died after a short illness, he having succeeded his brother Clem, who had been killed in a pretty horrific traffic accident in 1983. That, those deaths in such a short period of time, is a lot for any young person to deal with.
So Mary is landed in Dail Eireann aged 21 and nine months. I remember when I was 21 and nine months-- a boy in an adult world, pretending to be something I was not, all grown up and knowledgeable, but as wet behind the ears as you might expect, my palms sweating in the company of elders from the outside world, hoping they would not notice my gaucheness.
That is how one see oneself, and how she probably saw herself as a young TD in Haughey's parliamentary party. So she developed, by necessity, social skills in match her circumstance, to get by in the world into which she was thrown.
She did it by becoming one of the lads, drinking and laughing and cursing with the best, or worst, of them, to the point, almost unnoticed, that it actually became a way of life for her.
She was accepted as such by middle-aged male TDs, uncomfortable with an attractive young woman in their midst. If Mary made a mistake, and who could blame her if she did, it was that in her callowness, she allowed herself be pigeon-holed like this, the lovely girl from Donegal who, at just 26, married a garda.
She developed other armoury too, of course, among which is a peerless ability to charm. The first time I met her, in Leinster House, she re-arranged the lapel of my jacket. She does that kind of thing with everybody, or most people. She charms. And there she stands, a lethal combination of masculinity, feminity, and intellectual smarts; social skills honed to get by, more than that, to succeed in the bullshit macho world of politics.
Mary went that route, because that was the only route she saw open to her. Now take Lucinda Creighton, for example. I like Lucinda too. She is young, attractive, from Mayo. She also has the smarts. Lucinda was that little bit older than Mary when she was first elected, more worldly wise. So she didn't didn't feel the need to go the Mary route.
As a result, Lucinda is somehow deemed to be an ambitious bitch, who would walk all over everybody to get to wherever it is she is going. The truth is, she is anything but those things. When Enda Kenny upset her recently she had to leave the room lest somebody saw her cry. But she has been pigeon-holed as ruthless, mostly by men, but also by women, because she will not play the game by their rules.
In Leinster House, when they can't be ignored any longer, taoisigh tend to appoint such women to the "caring" ministries, eduction, social welfare, health. There is Mary O'Rourke, who has perhaps best negotiated the shark-infested waters of sexist politics, but who is often, frequently disparagingly, referred to as "Mammy"; there is Gemma Hussey, whose upset was a source of great amusement when she was "tongued" by some drunken yob male teacher a decade or two ago; there is Mary Harney, lampooned as a chocaholic, patronisingly congratulated when "at last" she wed; there is Liz O'Donnell, the sex kitten who looked out for the black babies, bless her; there is Mary Hanafin, styled a school marm because of the way she looks and talks.
Mary Coughlan started out in social welfare too. Then Bertie put her into Agriculture, the first female Minister for Agriculture in the history of the State. And she was a good Minister for Agriculture, as she was a good Minister for Social Welfare. And she hasn't become a bad minister overnight. She is, however, presented as somebody out of her depth, which she may be. She is presented that way by journalists, most of whom would have a panic attack if asked to sit behind a minister's desk for a day; and by the Opposition, quite waspishly by Joan Burton of Labour, the slightly irritating, monotone accountant who -- shock, horror -- accused Mary of being unable to read exchequer figures, something which, in my book, is actually to Mary's credit; and also by Leo Varadkar, her opposite number in Fine Gael, who was quite pleased with himself when he dubbed her "Sarah Palin", the Alaskan Governor who is said to be "gaffe prone", whom the media love to hate, but who could very well end up the next President of the United States when Obama finishes up.
Truth is, Sarah Palin is one of the most interesting phenomenon around. In Irish politics, so too is Mary Coughlan. Or she is becoming so. I think John McGuinness's criticism of her was unfair, if not entirely groundless. She may well not be equipped to deal with what he called the "complex" issues of business and enterprise. If she is not, then neither is anybody in the Cabinet, which has collective responsibility to help business survive and thrive in this new dispensation. I think, perhaps, McGuinness's target was more accurately the Civil Service, they not being equipped either, he said.
But Mary Coughlan, no longer the lovely girl, now more her own woman, certainly still has a role to play in Government, as both a minister and Tanaiste.
It may not be as Minister for Enterprise, it will certainly never be as Minister for Foreign Affairs, but it will be important and high-powered and we will all come to love her again, probably in a few years time, by which time we will have monitored closely just how well the likes of Joan Burton and Leo Varadkar are up to the job.