Victoria White: My column can't be allowed to get in the way of supporting my family

I don't like being a Minister's wife but I like the possibilities this Programme for Government brings, writes Victoria White
Victoria White: My column can't be allowed to get in the way of supporting my family

I don't like being a Minister's wife but I like the possibilities this Programme for Government brings, writes Victoria White

Minister Eamon Ryan with the new Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Ryan is the husband of Irish Examiner columnist Victoria White.	Picture: Julien Behal
Minister Eamon Ryan with the new Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Ryan is the husband of Irish Examiner columnist Victoria White. Picture: Julien Behal

This is my last column for this newspaper, at least for a time.

I am giving it up because my husband Eamon Ryan has become Minister of Climate Action, Communications Networks and Transport as part of the Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael-Green Party Coalition.

This means I don’t believe I can speak freely enough to write a wide-ranging column anymore. There would be times when my free speech might destabilise the Government while my silence on certain issues would harm this wonderful newspaper.

I am sad and almost disbelieving. Writing this column was my favourite job of all those I have held in my stop-start career. I am not a Green Party member, and have no reason to share my husband’s views on anything.

I do love him, however. I also want this Government to work.

That would not be helped if I led a rant on one of his cabinet colleagues; inevitably my column would be read as my husband’s secret thoughts. Isn’t that an absolute pain? It sure is.

I married a very handsome bike mechanic I met at a dancing class. I didn’t have any idea what I was letting myself in for.

This time I think it’s going to be easier on me than when Eamon was a Minister during the 2007-2011 Coalition, but it’s going to be lonelier too: the kids are nearly grown but they’ve also nearly flown, leaving me behind with my disabled son. I can’t ever leave him on his own, which means I rarely leave the house without him.

I bridled last Saturday when I heard Cormac Ó hEadhra expressing the hope that politicians would not be going off on long holidays this summer on RTÉ.

Everyone needs to take a break. These people are husbands, wives, fathers, mothers.

When did it become reasonable for a Minister to work a 16-hour day, six or seven days a week? Do you think that helps their decision-making? Does it help attract women to politics? Is it fair on their families?

I don’t like being a Minister’s wife, but I do like the possibilities this Programme for Government opens up.

I have spent a long time campaigning on environmental issues but it would take a lot of protests, a lot of letters to TDs and a lot of opinion columns to add up to the impact a Minister can have in a good morning’s work.

I back this Government, which seemed so unlikely to me, but now seems the right one to attempt to make “an unprecedented modal shift”.

We will hopefully celebrate 100 years since the foundation of the State with the Civil War parties united behind a Green agenda.

There is so much to love in the Programme:

  • €1 million a day for separated walking and cycling infrastructure, including a possible walking route from Malin to Kinsale and the Waterford Greenway extended into the city centre
  • comprehensive transport strategies for Cork, Galway, Waterford and Limerick as well as Dublin; town centres prioritised with incentives to live over shops and possibly a “National Town of Culture” designation
  • deposits on plastic bottles and aluminium cans as part of a circular economy action plan
  • an alternative to Direct Provision
  • serious action on a Living Wage and delivering Slaintecare
  • an unblinking focus on an emissions reduction amounting to 51 percent within a decade
  • measurement of our achievement under wellbeing as well as economic indicators.
  • What that adds up to for me, however, are a number of very lonely years. I am getting texts from well-wishers saying there are “exciting times in your house.” There is no excitement in my house.

    The teenagers are already starring in their own dramas - they don’t need more of it at home.

    The dishwasher is being emptied, the dinners are being cooked and the clothes hung out to dry while my husband is elsewhere.

    I am, of course, well-funded and living a dream not even dreamed by any but a fraction of one percent of the world’s population. That doesn’t mean I have to like all of it. Have gender issues impacted on how our lives have turned out? Undoubtedly, but they are not easy to isolate and discern.

    He wants to be a minister, and I don’t. I am a private person hiding behind words while my husband can drive by a poster bearing his image as if it has nothing to do with him.

    As the Irish Examiner columnist, Gerard Howlin, told Mary Wilson in RTÉ radio last Friday, leading politicians have a special quality: “indifference”. Successful politicians, be they good or bad, be they men or women, are less personally sensitive than the rest of us.

    I have spent afternoons under a duvet just to get away from public criticism of my husband.

    His ability to cope with it is part of what makes him able to do a job I would hate to do.

    I can’t blame him for the fact that my career has taken a back seat to his. When he suggested early on that he could step back from work to mind the kids, my exact words were, “I’m not sitting in the Irish Times office while you have picnics in Herbert Park.”

    The fact that I presumed to take precedence over him, when it came to staying home, was no doubt partly rooted in my ability to gender stereotype.

    The unspoken fact in our case, however, is that I am better in the home than my husband is.

    And then I am a writer who can work from home. I gave up editing as much to write as to care for my kids.

    Writing is what I love doing and I think that in life, be you man or woman, you’ve got to listen to what makes you happy.

    Even though I have given up this column, I intend to focus on some long writing projects which I’ve been putting off for ages. I can even still write for newspapers, doing interviews, features, reviews or occasional specific opinion pieces, if I am fortunate enough to get commissions.

    Despite the fact that I will be well-funded, I don’t fancy not having a penny to call my own.

    In my case, it’s not serious because my husband would happily hand me his entire pay packet.

    But for so many people in caring roles, mostly women, the lack of any financial independence is degrading and even dangerous.

    I’m convinced that it’s the allocation of money, more than the allocation of roles, which has to change for women to achieve equality.

    If caring work is there to be done, and people wish to do it that choice should not cause their economic collapse.

    The Programme for Government commits to piloting Universal Basic Income, which would largely replace welfare payments by giving everyone a wage from the State. It also commits to exploring pension options for people doing care work, the majority of whom are women whose work is of “enormous value”.

    I’ve been banging on about such measures in these columns for eight years.

    I hope they have had an impact.

    More in this section