Daniel McConnell: From PayPal to Leinster House, Fine Gael's Emer Higgins could be one to watch

Political Editor Daniel McConnell spoke to Fine Gael's Emer Higgins about her transition from being Chief of Staff of Global Operations at PayPal to entering national politics.
Daniel McConnell: From PayPal to Leinster House, Fine Gael's Emer Higgins could be one to watch

Political Editor Daniel McConnell spoke to Fine Gael's Emer Higgins about her transition from being Chief of Staff of Global Operations at PayPal to entering national politics.

Emer Higgins, Fine Gael TD for Dublin Mid West. She was elected to the Dáil in the February general election. Photos: Moya Nolan
Emer Higgins, Fine Gael TD for Dublin Mid West. She was elected to the Dáil in the February general election. Photos: Moya Nolan

It is not usual for the leader of a party to warn a potential candidate about entering national politics.

But that is what happened with Emer Higgins (34), the new Fine Gael TD for Dublin Mid-West when Leo Varadkar asked her was she sure she wanted to stand.

Higgins, who replaced her “role model” Frances Fitzgerald who previously held the seat, had a big job with the US multinational firm PayPal, as Chief of Staff of Global Operations.

“I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but the Taoiseach did ask me was I sure about giving up the big job to get into politics,” she says.

Despite her leader’s warning, Higgins stood and won the seat.

A polished speaker and confident personality, Higgins is no novice to the political scene.

She previously worked as an assistant to Fitzgerald when she was a Senator, a job shared with the now health minister Simon Harris, meaning she is no stranger to the Leinster House environs.

She first got involved in politics in University College Dublin.

She also spent nine years on South Dublin County Council having been co-opted in 2011. She retained her seat at the 2014 and 2019 elections.

During her time on the council, she courted considerable controversy, In 2014, she was forced to apologise after she posted out a letter to her constituents expressing "delight" over cancelled plans for accommodation for Irish Travellers in Newcastle, South Dublin.

The matter resurfaced in late 2019 amid considerable mud-slinging between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil during the ‘Vote-Gate’ saga.

In a statement released at the time, she said: “My language was insensitive and did upset people and I apologised for that.” Speaking of the incident, the regret in her voice is clear. She said it is an episode from which she learned a lot about the good and bad of Irish politics.

She became, as she puts it, “headline news” in the papers and on radio shows.

“I was young, I was just a girl essentially,” she says.

“You had the Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams calling for me to be kicked out of my party. The irony given his track record about inclusiveness in his own party,” she adds.

Higgins also became the target of considerable online abuse which she said was “very difficult”.

“It was very tough. To be honest, I came off Twitter as a result,” she says, adding she only returned online within the past 18 months. “I am still a novice at it,” she says.

She stood unsuccessfully in last November’s by-elections to fill the seat vacated by Fitzgerald who had been elected to the European Parliament. And while she missed out, it was clear she was on course to take a General Election seat.

While she tasted personal success in February, her party nationally suffered badly.

Asked why Fine Gael shipped so many seats, Higgins immediately sought to relate it to the experience of her constituency.

She says frankly that there was a palpable swing against the party between the byelection in November and February.

I can’t explain what caused it but there was definitely a swing against us.

But she also is equally frank about her own party’s failures which contributed to the shift in support to Sinn Féin, which won two seats in Dublin Mid-West.

“The main issue here was the provision of housing. I am disappointed we still don’t have an affordable housing policy,” she says in an inherent attack on her own party’s failure after nine years in office.

Having won her seat, Higgins fondly remembers her maiden speech, which she delivered on her first day in the chamber.

Chosen to second Varadkar’s nomination for Taoiseach, Higgins recalls the excitement and the energy in the building that day.

“It was so alive. A full chamber with my campaign manager and my parents looking on. It was very special,” she says.

But since then, like all others, Higgins has been catapulted into a most unusual situation whereby a government is not yet formed more than 115 days after the election and there is also the small matter of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has greatly restricted Dáil sittings.

“It is utterly bizarre. Getting up to speak in a near-deserted Dáil chamber. It is so strange,” she explains.

Higgins says she is a supporter of the party seeking to return to power despite it only having 35 seats and the divisions in the party over the matter.

She too is not fazed about being “cannon fodder” as a backbench government TD who is likely to have to defend unpopular decisions in the years ahead.

One suspects she will not be content to remain on the backbenches for too long and certainly Higgins is one to watch.

More in this section

Lunchtime News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up
Revoiced
Newsletter

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up