Elaine Loughlin: How Helen McEntee became a serious contender to lead Fine Gael

She's started reclaiming FG’s progressive credentials, all the while embodying a refreshing modern outlook on family life
Elaine Loughlin: How Helen McEntee became a serious contender to lead Fine Gael

Helen McEntee is certainly going about her job in a way you would if you wanted to lead a political party or maybe even the country some day.

Her reframing of the Department of Justice and the work it does was summed up last week when a remarkable thing happened outside the gates of Government Buildings. As she stepped out onto the pavement, she was greeted by cheers and applause. 

People with placards are commonplace outside Leinster House, but this group had gathered in gratitude and not out of frustration or anger.

Ms McEntee had announced a “once-in-a-generation” scheme to allow thousands of undocumented migrants become Irish citizens. Describing it as an early Christmas present, Debra, who works as a carer in Galway, was emotional as she told the minister: 

God bless you, we will not forget you for the rest of our lives.

The Meath East TD has been ploughing through work since entering one of the most senior Cabinet positions in government. Insiders say the politician, who was first elected in 2013 following the death of her father Shane in the days before Christmas 2012, entered the department with a “firm idea” of what she wants to achieve in the role.

The reforming minister

Marites Alforde, Debra Sanipa, and Shieryl Onda expressed their joy outside Government Buildings following Helen McEntee's announcement of the scheme to regularise the status of long-term undocumented migrants in Ireland. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Marites Alforde, Debra Sanipa, and Shieryl Onda expressed their joy outside Government Buildings following Helen McEntee's announcement of the scheme to regularise the status of long-term undocumented migrants in Ireland. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Reforming family law, protecting victims of domestic violence, tackling online harassment — and of course the latest announcement to provide an amnesty to around 17,000 undocumented migrants living in the shadows — are among the key priorities she has set down.

While garda recruits, antisocial behaviour, and prisoner figures will always be the bread and butter of the department, regardless of who sits in the minister’s chair, she has shifted the focus to the social side of justice.

In doing so, she is positioning herself, and indeed her party, to take on Sinn Féin in an area in which Fine Gael has traditionally been seen as strong.

“She has a very definite view as to what she wants to do in the department. She is serious about reform and has an agenda that she wants to work though,” said one source.

McEntee follows a long line of Fine Gael justice ministers — from Alan Shatter to Frances Fitzgerald — who have got themselves in hot water.

Justice Minister Helen McEntee fields media questions after an event in Croke Park to mark National Missing Persons Day on December 1, shortly after she returned from maternity leave. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Justice Minister Helen McEntee fields media questions after an event in Croke Park to mark National Missing Persons Day on December 1, shortly after she returned from maternity leave. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

She came under criticism last year over her refusal to address the Dáil on the appointment of Judge Seamus Woulfe. Detractors claimed this only exacerbated an issue that could have been put to bed a lot sooner for a three-way Government that was still very much bedding in.

But she managed to settle herself after this initial wobble and got the landmark Coco’s Law, which criminalises the sharing of intimate images without consent, passed before the Dáil recess last December.

There was then a raft of announcements ahead of her maternity leave early this year — from the establishment of a taskforce to look at the mental health and addiction challenges of people in the criminal justice system, to the closing of a loophole which banned the naming of murdered children.

Since returning from six months of maternity leave in November — which in itself was groundbreaking — she has picked up at the same speed as she left off.

And her ability to quietly push through significant reforms, in what has traditionally been a difficult department, has not gone unnoticed in Fine Gael.

Those in the party still put the two Simons, Coveney and Harris, firmly in the race for the party leadership next time around, but McEntee has now been added to that shortlist.

“She just gets it,” said one backbencher. “She’s a part of that new generation, she’s among the younger string of Fine Gael ministers. She has a great knowledge of society and life and she has been through it, the ups and the downs, and we all know that.”

Meanwhile, a Fine Gael senator said: 

In many ways she is a symbol of the new generation, a working mam, doing it all. She has come back and is really making a difference.

McEntee, like Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris, deftly uses social media to get her political point across.

But she is just as likely to share snaps of herself — training alongside her young son at the gym, or out for a walk at the weekend — as a Government announcement.

McEntee is as personable as she is professional, posting videos and pictures online from her life, including this shot from last month of her and her baby in the gym. 
McEntee is as personable as she is professional, posting videos and pictures online from her life, including this shot from last month of her and her baby in the gym. 

She marked her first day back from maternity leave with an early-morning video clip, which saw her compete with the noise of a baby banging toys against a highchair. It’s a refreshing and honest view of life as a mother today, and indeed modern family.

While she made history as the first Cabinet minister to give birth in office, her husband Paul Hickey, who she met in Leinster House when he worked as a parliamentary assistant to Fine Gael TD Joe McHugh, is currently taking six months of paternity leave from his position in Novartis.

Of course, McEntee herself will say she has no intention of deposing Leo Varadkar — who, after all, gave her a significant political break when he elevated her to the challenging position of European Affairs at a time when Brexit talks were at a crucial phase.

In mid-September, while on maternity leave, Helen McEntee attended Fine Gael's think-in at the Trim Castle Hotel in Co Meath. Picture: Niall Carson/PA
In mid-September, while on maternity leave, Helen McEntee attended Fine Gael's think-in at the Trim Castle Hotel in Co Meath. Picture: Niall Carson/PA

“The Tánaiste has my full support in his role as the leader of Fine Gael and I look forward to working with him and for him leading Fine Gael into the next general election,” she recently said when asked by Claire Byrne if she would like to lead Fine Gael.

“My focus at the moment is Minister for Justice. Anything beyond that is speculation.”

It may all just be speculation right now, but the work she is doing in the Department of Justice is certainly fuelling the chatter.


This week in years gone by...

1936

The Dáil removed the English monarch from the Irish Constitution, and abolished the position of governor general, as reported in 'The Cork Examiner', on December 12, 1936.
The Dáil removed the English monarch from the Irish Constitution, and abolished the position of governor general, as reported in 'The Cork Examiner', on December 12, 1936.

December 11: The Dáil passed legislation removing the king from the Irish Constitution and abolishing the position of governor general. The Cork Examiner reported that “remarkable interest was taken” in the proceedings and, in a time before social media updates, “the public galleries were crowded and there was a large queue in Kildare St, trying to gain admittance”.

1949

December 13: Under the headline ‘Cultural Conference Uproar Over Choice of Language,’ it was reported that a conference of 200 delegates from 22 countries was “in tumult for an hour” before a decision was made to urge the European Assembly at Strasbourg to give preference to English or French in choosing a common language for a united Europe. The decision did not go down well with the Italian or Swiss delegates.

1972

On December 9, 1972, The Cork Examiner' reported that the referendum to remove the special position of the Catholic Church from the Irish Constitution had been passed/
On December 9, 1972, The Cork Examiner' reported that the referendum to remove the special position of the Catholic Church from the Irish Constitution had been passed/

December 7: A referendum to remove the “special position” of the Catholic Church in the Irish Constitution passed. As the votes were being counted, Taoiseach Jack Lynch was taking part in fly-on-the-wall style Panorama programme.

The camera crew followed him around Cork as he was presented with a pipe from “a lady in Bandon District Hospital” who was due to celebrate her 100th birthday that week. Mr Lynch also received three hats from a local Fianna Fáil cumann that were made by Interhat, Dunmanway.

1999

Angry turkey breeders said their trade was being choked — reported in 'The Examiner' on December 9, 1999. 
Angry turkey breeders said their trade was being choked — reported in 'The Examiner' on December 9, 1999. 

December 8: The Government gave a poultry reprieve just in time for Christmas when it implemented a 32-year-old law banning the sale of turkeys and geese at livestock marts.

Angry turkey breeders said the department was choking their trade by implementing the almost forgotten act.

At the same time, then finance minister Charlie McCreevy was moving to reject a European Commission attempt to force a cut in excise duties on wines and Champagne.

It had been found that Ireland discriminated against wine in favour of stouts and beers.

What to look out for this week

Tuesday

  • As we edge nearer to Christmas, both Houses have a packed schedule and are due to sit later than usual to get through debates, motions, and legislation. As usual, the Dáil week begins with Leaders’ Questions at 2pm. The weekly Cabinet meeting will take place in the morning.
  • A Seanad debate calling for action in the area of maternity and paternity leave for county and city councillors will start at 8pm.
  • The Oireachtas health committee will meet to discuss the closure of the Owenacurra Centre in Midleton, Co Cork, and will hear from the HSE.
  • The children’s committee will hear the experiences of migrant communities engaging with State bodies, the healthcare system, and other social services.
  • Wednesday

  • With a focus now on the rising cost of energy, the regional group is bringing forward a motion on offshore renewable energy.
  • Stephen Donnelly, the health minister, will be at the health committee in the morning, where he will provide information on the scope and structure of the review of the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act.
  • The transport committee will hear from officials from the transport and foreign affairs departments on Covid testing for international travel into and out of Ireland.
  • Finally, the joint committee on enterprise, trade, and employment will discuss the skills needed to support the economic recovery plan.
  • Thursday

  • Charlie McConalogue, the agriculture minister, is due to take questions in the Dáil from 9am. This will be followed by questions to Tánaiste Leo Varadkar in his capacity as trade, enterprise, and employment minister.
  • It’s a heavy agenda for Public Accounts Committee members, who will meet from 9.30am to go through controls over the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment; the management of social welfare appeals; and the regularity of social welfare payments, with officials from the Department of Social Protection.
  • Did you know...

    Bunreacht na hÉireann was enacted on July 1, 1937, but has been amended more than 30 times since.

    The word ‘chairman’ currently appears 31 times in the Constitution, when the index is included. However, there are just two references to ‘women’.

    The term ‘human’ appears twice, while ‘children’ are referred to 11 times in Bunreacht na hÉireann. The word ‘State’ appears 153 times and ‘Ireland’ is referenced 29 times.

    • 'On The Plinth' appears each week in Tuesday's Irish Examiner (in print and online). Make sure you are up to speed on the major political stories by signing up to the On The Plinth politics newsletter HERE.

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