Straight-talking Kathleen Lynch may not yet have reached the senior ranks of cabinet, but believes she is juggling some of the most difficult areas that any Government has to handle.
As Minister of State in the Departments of Health and Justice she is responsible for older people, equality, disability and mental health.
And asked if she is hoping for a promotion in a cabinet reshuffle promised for later this year, the TD of almost 20 years said: “No. I must admit I have my hands full with what I am doing now. I have the four most sensitive areas in Government. All I need to do is drop one of the balls and we are all in trouble.”
She has promised to fight “tooth and nail” to deliver on promises to improve services for mental health, which have historically been inadequate in this country.
But this battle to protect services has proven difficult, leading to reports before Christmas that she had threatened to resign during a tense pre-budget meeting with the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, the Tánaiste and her party leader, Eamon Gilmore, and Health Minister, James Reilly.
In an interview with the Irish Examiner, the Cork North Central TD reveals the source of the argument, but said she never suggested she would quit.
“It was never about resigning. There is no such thing as threatening to resign. In my view, you either resign or you don’t, it’s one or the other,” she said.
Given that tensions with Minister Reilly resulted in her former Labour colleague, Roisín Shortall, resigning from a junior ministry in the department, there was always going to be attention on Ms Lynch’s relationship with him.
But she would prefer to focus on the work being done in the department, rather than personalities.
“I don’t call him minister, I call him James,” she joked.
“He has overall responsibility and I am always very conscious of that and that is why I would always discuss things with him,” she said.
“I have a very good relationship with him, I must admit. We won’t be going out drinking tonight or anything. But I have a genuine and very good relationship with him.
“He can tell me when he thinks I am doing something wrong, and I can most definitely tell him,” she said. “It’s a business relationship, it’s a work relationship, but it’s a good relationship.”
Budget discussions were always going to be difficult in a year where resources are tight, and when “the days of going back for supplementaries are gone,” she said.
“As I said earlier on, I juggle three of the most sensitive areas in this Government. And any one of those has the potential for crisis. I just made that point and I made it very strongly.”
During the budget discussions Brendan Howlin phoned her and said he would not be able to provide the €35m for mental health services which the Programme for Government promised would be ring-fenced each year during its time in office.
But he said he would give her €20m “with a promise to reinstate the additional money next year”.
This was not the source of the overall problem: “I actually agreed to that on the basis that we had at long last a director in relation to mental health,” she explained.
“I felt that in mental health we had achieved a considerable amount in the past two years. I am not unreasonable and have never been unreasonable.”
But there were “robust discussions around timing” adding: “I felt the cabinet would not live with what was being proposed and it was simply a matter then of going away and taking a serious look at the timing again.”
And what was on the table that she took issue with? “The proposal on the table was that what we would take a look at the new posts coming in, would it be possible to stagger those? I said no, that mental health was the cinderella service for years, and that was taken and people went away and reworked it and that was it.”
The Programme for Government promised between 250 and 280 mental health posts this year, and the HSE service plan that was finally delivered before Christmas said these would be delivered on.
Ms Lynch, who was hospitalised three times throughout the year for septicaemia, said her long-term antibiotic treatment is working. “I feel great,” she said.
But she said the job is a difficult one for anybody: “It’s a life of very long hours; of always having to be mentally sharp; being informed virtually about everything — and you can’t be an expert about everything and I’m the first to admit it.”
“I think you need to have virtually no other responsibilities other than when you are a minister in government. And that’s not the case, of course. No one in this position has only sole responsibility in terms of their work lives.
“They also have families, they also have community responsibilities and all of that. But if you were to sit back and decide how you would assign your time, and looking at the hours and volume of work, then in fact you should have no other responsibilities other than what you are doing. I don’t know anyone who can do that.”
The mother of three daughters and one son said she would not encourage any of her children to get into politics “because I am not sure it’s a nice life”.
She said: “I’m not sure, if people on the outside realised the volume of work, that they would necessarily want to get into it.”
Ms Lynch said more balance is needed in politics generally, but that women politicians themselves can be a barrier for others considering running for office.
“They look at us as some kind of superwoman, and we’re not,” she said.
“We have to stop doing that. we have to start saying to women: it is possible. And the more women we get elected then that is the only way we are ever going to change both the culture and the practice.”
But she said: “When I look at women, that you would say are obvious candidate material, and they say ‘no thank you’ having thought about it, I always believe that they are probably far more sensible than me.