A couple of years ago at a conference organised with the specific purpose of getting more women elected, the then junior minister Kathleen Lynch gave a rousing speech to conclude events.
“Before I die,” the former Cork Labour TD told the audience. “I want to be able to vote for a mediocre woman.”
On that same day in 2012, Nan Sloane, a wonderfully direct woman who was involved in training women in the UK for a political life, said it was well known in her professional circle that women needed to toughen up.
Women interested in politics had to be able to win or lose, to be able to take abuse and to take hard decisions that may haunt them for the rest of their lives. I agreed wholeheartedly at the time. Now I’m not so sure. There is toughening up and then there is needing to order a custom-made suit of armour complete with noise-cancelling headphones.
This column recently addressed the abuse and double standards faced by Hillary Clinton in the US election. But also in this frame of reference is British Labour MP Jo Cox, shot and stabbed to death this summer in her constituency.
The avalanche of criticism faced by our Minister for Jobs, Enterprise, and Innovation, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, is clearly far further down the scale, but I bet it still feels fairly piercing. The boys haven’t just had the knives out for the recently elevated deputy, but the forks also, as they attempted to carve up her ministerial career before it’s even started.
Mary has been thrown to the wolves with an indecent haste by many of her colleagues who spoke (anonymously, of course) to The Irish Times last Saturday. That newspaper published a large article under the headline ‘There really is something about Mary’. The piece was written by a male journalist, the paper’s deputy political editor Pat Leahy, and I bet if you were to trace back its commissioning, you’d find more male paw prints along the way.
The personalised criticisms of colleagues brought singling out to a whole new level. It is all the more remarkable when you consider Fine Gael recently published two reports into in the party’s disastrous general election performance without managing to single out any one individual for blame. To do so was clearly deemed to be bad form, poor gamesmanship, as it were. But this new, blonde, female minister was seen as easy prey to be picked off from the herd.
Politicians can often be a gossipy, bitchy bunch but this article read as though Mitchell O’Connor’s colleagues, and I use that term loosely, who were contacted, were primed for a smackdown, and needed absolutely no encouragement. It should also be pointed out that an interview the minister gave to this newspaper in September had the headline: ‘Is Mary Mitchell O’Connor up to the task of driving job growth?’
Has Mary Mitchell O’Connor’s ministerial career gotten off to a flying start? No. Is this normal? Yes. It was a surprise to see a new minister appointed to such a demanding brief and especially now Brexit is an issue. Taoiseach Enda Kenny was seen to have favourited her massively with the promotion and there was immediate jealousy.
Let’s remember back to when Arts Minister Heather Humphreys was appointed in 2014. She was immediately engulfed in a cronyism controversy concerning a board appointment to the Irish Museum of Modern Art. It was all the making of her boss, Kenny. But when she stumbled on her first few public outings with a frenzied media demanding “answers” her competency was immediately questioned. As it happens over time she settled in, and did an admirable job with our 1916 Centenary events. But that quietly steady stewardship has largely gone unheralded.
In the run-up to the budge,t a highly unusual thing happened, in that Kenny hung one of his own ministers utterly out to dry. Yes, that minister was Mary Mitchell O’Connor, the woman he had championed by appointing her to Cabinet.
Her proposal to give tax breaks to skilled emigrants, needed to fill particular posts, hit the headlines. In the Dáil, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin described the proposal as “unfair and discriminatory” and the Taoiseach wasted no time in agreeing with him.
In the world of party loyalty, this was a vicious put-down of a minister. The tax idea was portrayed as one where a minister got a rush of blood to the head and spouted something utterly daft. It is quite extraordinary to think that her experienced predecessor, Richard Bruton, put forward the exact same idea for last year’s budget.
One only need think of the loyalty the Taoiseach displayed to James Reilly when he was Minister for Health. There was a man who lurched from crisis to crisis — remember the promise to transform the health service and abolish the HSE? Then there were those primary care centres proposed for his constituency. I could go on.
Subsequent to her Dáil put-down, this newspaper had the details of how Ms Mitchell O’Connor was savaged at a parliamentary party meeting to discuss the budget.
Apparently at this meeting Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar had a detailed Powerpoint presentation and Housing Minister Simon Coveney a detailed handout — or was it the other way around? Hardly matters, except that both men apparently blew their female colleague out of the water when it came to wowing their colleagues. Good for them. If I was running for the party leadership, that’s exactly how I would be playing it as well. Truth be told, though, while Leo did a very good job at communicating as health minister he hardly left an enduring legacy there, and Simon is struggling to show actual results in the housing crisis.
But the lads at the meeting smelled blood from the way in which the Taoiseach had earlier thrown Ms Mitchell O’Connor to the wolves in the Dáil on her tax proposal, and the savaging began in earnest.
Without doubt, it was unwise to go into such a meeting on such an important week without being properly prepared. The minister is on a steep learning curve and could probably do with tightening up her language — and I don’t mean bad language, just her method of communicating. But this is not a hanging offence.
The Government chief whip, Regina Doherty, summed it up well on Morning Ireland: “I think I can say this as a woman, I don’t think there’s a single article that has ever been written about a male politician in the same vein, simple as that. She would not be getting half of the criticism she’s currently getting if she was a man.”
Only time will tell what sort of a minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor turns out to be. It is too soon yet to say. There may well have been a case for some wise words of quiet advice to her from an experienced political hand. But, as Kathleen Lynch outlined, women still have to reach impossibly high standards. But if they need to toughen up to such an extent, that being in politics means they have to endure this sort of public flogging, you’d have to wonder why they would bother opting for it as a career.