It was her action, or inaction while in Justice that finally led to Frances Fitzgerald’s downfall, writes Elaine Loughlin
IN 1987 a fresh faced Frances Fitzgerald, then chair of the Dublin branch of the Women’s Political Association, was aiming to “sow the seeds of change”.
In an interview with the then Cork Examiner she called on more women to get involved in politics: “It’s up to women to be seen at all levels, to be vital, organised and vocal. But it is not easy.”
Certainly her own political career — which involved a lengthy stint in the wilderness, failing on numerous occasions to get the nomination of her party before she was brought back into the fold — could not be described as easy.
Now, 30 years after that interview and having reached the second highest office in Government, she has resigned as Tánaiste amid controversy, conspiracy and a series of emails which have brought Fine Gael and the Dáil to the brink of a general election.
But Ms Fitzgerald, who has fought for women, children and the vulnerable in society over the decades still has some fight left in her.
After the mother of three yesterday took the tough decision to step down, she sent out a tweet confirming she would still be standing for selection as a Fine Gael candidate in the next general election.
Born in Croom, Co Limerick in 1950, Ms Fitzgerald studied social science at UCD and attended the London School of Economics.
Attracted to Fine Gael by the late Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald’s adoption of a “just society”, she was first elected a TD in 1992.
Before her election, the former social worker had gained a public profile through her role as the chair of the National Women’s Council where she spoke out on behalf of rape victims.
This profile helped her secure the second of the four seats in Dublin South East with 4,332 first-preference votes.
But her career in Dáil Éireann was stifled after she backed the loser during two internal leadership challenges.
She first went against John Bruton in an unsuccessful heave in February 1994. However, when she switched allegiances and backed Mr Bruton in another heave in 2001, it backfired and Michael Noonan took over as party leader.
She failed to retain her seat in the 2002 election, when the party saw its Dáil representation plummet from 54 to 31 members. She then failed to get a nomination to the Seanad folllowing that general election.
But her time out in the cold didn’t end there. Her party overlooked her for the European Parliament and, in a final humiliation, she was not selected to run for in the Rathmines ward of Dublin City Council.
Given the long absence from Leinster House, the Castleknock-based politician certainly managed to make up for lost time when she made it back into the Seanad in 2007. She became Fine Gael group leader in the Upper House and one member last night noted how seriously she took the position.
It was while in the Seanad that she made a pivotal decision that would help propel her up the ranks when she returned to the Dáil.
Along with her colleagues in the Seanad, she supported Enda Kenny during Richard Bruton’s botched leadership heave in 2010.
While in the Seanad she began to build up a support base behind her in the Dublin Mid-West constituency and won the second seat in the 2011 general election.
Once elected to the Dáil she was quickly rewarded for her support and loyalty by Mr Kenny, becoming the first Minister for Children.
It was in this position that she excelled as a natural advocate for some of the most vulnerable in society, whether it be through the closure of St Patrick’s Institution, the establishment of Tusla, or the passing of the children’s first legislation.
One person who worked closely with Ms Fitzgerald yesterday noted that while the Children’s Right’s Referendum — which passed while she was still in the Department in 2012 — received widespread support from across the Dáil, this consensus had only come as a result of considerable time and graft put in by Ms Fitzgerald.
“The irony of this whole thing is there is nobody who was as picky about process and doing this properly,” the person said.
Her record as a reforming minister and a “safe pair of hands” in the Department of Children helped her earn the appointment to Justice in May 2014. It came after Alan Shatter was forced to resign over his handling of the Garda penalty points scandal.
“This is a new era and new culture so the Irish people and Irish citizens can have confidence in our policing system,” she declared after becoming justice minister.
But in taking on the role in justice she inherited many headaches with issues around garda malpractice, the treatment of whistleblowers, as well as falsified breath testing figures all surfacing during her tenure.
Despite this, she safely got across the line in the 2016 election, reclaiming her seat on the first count with 9,028 votes.
She was among those who lined out to support Leo Varadkar in the Fine Gael leadership contest in May of this year, and was rewarded with the role of Tánaiste and a new ministerial portfolio at the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation.
Her action, or inaction while in justice finally led to her downfall.
But in standing aside yesterday, she continued to battle claiming she “acted correctly in difficult circumstances and, in fact, did everything that I could to support the search for truth and protect whistleblowers”.
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