Growing up in Thurles in Co Tipperary where her family ran the then well-known Anner Hotel, her father Des Hanafin was a senator for over 30 years and a staunch pro-life campaigner. Understandably, given her family background, politics was her passion from a young age.
She trained as a teacher and worked for several years at Sion Hill College in Blackrock, Dublin. Her first run for the Dáil took place in 1989 when she failed to win a seat in Dublin South-East.
Hanafin finally made the breakthrough in 1997 in Dun Laoghaire, winning the seat back for Fianna Fáil from the PDs. In a rapid ascent, she was promoted to a junior ministry in 2000 by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who appointed her Minister of State with special responsibility for children.
After topping the poll at the 2002 election Hanafin was appointed government chief whip, in another clear sign that she was regarded as a rising star.
The following year, her life was hit by personal tragedy when her husband of 18 years, Éamon Leahy, senior counsel with the Morris Tribunal, died suddenly. In 2004, Bertie Ahern promoted her to her first full ministry as Minister of Education following a cabinet reshuffle.
During her stint at Education from 2004 to 2008, she was perceived as a personable but tough operator. Given her professional background as a teacher, it was probably unsurprising that many who dealt with her on education issues likened her to a schoolmistress because of her often-haughty style.
However, her strong command of the brief also earned her respect.
Despite policy shortcomings that included failure to deliver on election promises to reduce class sizes, she oversaw huge increases in resources for pupils with special needs and early structural reforms within higher education.
She tried but failed to resist Brian Cowen’s efforts to move her to the Social Welfare portfolio in the reshuffle that followed his election as Taoiseach in May 2008. In March 2010, she was moved again, this time from Social Affairs to the Tourism, Culture and Sport portfolio.
Although an outsider in the race for the leadership, Hanafin is a key player within the party and was on the Fianna Fáil team that negotiated the renewed Programme for Government with the Greens in 2009. She will remain a key player in the party no matter who wins the leadership — provided, of course, she retains her seat.