Jobs Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor says she is not building a political career, but singularly focussed on job creation. Is she up to the task, asks Political Correspondent Juno McEnroe

HER appointment to Cabinet and as jobs minister was heralded as a victory for female politicians but also a surprise promotion from the Fine Gael backbenches.

Her strong support for Taoiseach Enda Kenny and electoral success in the general election was seen as support for the decision.

But Mary Mitchell O’Connor will have her work cut out for her in the months ahead.

Her own job will be and is one of the biggest in the Cabinet — namely to ensure Ireland continues to attract fresh employment and investment here, especially in the aftermath of Britain’s shock decision to leave the European Union.

Ms Mitchell O’Connor’s reelection — where two Fine Gael TDs were returned in three seats in Dun Laoghaire — silenced her critics, leading to much speculation that the Galway-native would be elevated by Mr Kenny, which she was.

In an interview with the Irish Examiner conducted last month, the new minister addressed questions about job creation, Brexit, being in Cabinet and her vision. She also insisted she would just rate herself and didn’t care what others thought of her.

She also claimed the Midlands was “flying” when it came to new jobs — despite the fact some towns there have shown little or no signs this year in increased levels of employment overall.

Central Statistics Office figures show there has been no indication of unemployment levels decreasing this year in Athlone or Mullingar, two major Midlands towns.

 Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Richard Bruton TD, with Kerry Ingalls, right, vice president of Amgen, and Mary Mitchell-O’Connor at the officially opening of biotech company Amgen’s new €300 million facility in Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin, on August 24. Picture: RollingNews.ie
Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Richard Bruton TD, with Kerry Ingalls, right, vice president of Amgen, and Mary Mitchell-O’Connor at the officially opening of biotech company Amgen’s new €300 million facility in Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin, on August 24. Picture: RollingNews.ie

The Live Register figures for Mullingar from January to July have risen slightly from 4,028 to 4,068. Similarly, figures for Athlone show the register rose from 3,405 to 3,418.

During a discussion about the low- wage commission and its remit, Ms Mitchell O’Connor could not recollect the name of her junior predecessor in the department, former minister Ged Nash, who set up the body.

While ambitious and eager to create jobs, it is clearly early days yet for the new minister as she struggles to get a handle on her new portfolio.

What follows are sections of the transcript of the interview.

ON GETTING THE JOB

Question:

“How did you feel about getting such a prestigious role?”

Answer:

“A fabulous role and for the economy and the future of Ireland and the future of, you know, the next generation.

“It was such an honour to be in the room, there were 17 [female] ministers appointed since the foundation of the State and there were 14 of us there that day. I looked around and I thought ‘my God, imagine I am here, in this really prestigious group of people but also that the job is so honorous [sic] and I feel such a responsibility’.”

Q:

Four ministers in pictures on the department wall went on to be taoiseach. It’s a strong department to build a political career. Talk to me about your vision?

A:

“To be honest, I’m not building a political career, I’m actually totally focused on the job at hand, that’s to make sure that there are sustainable jobs, especially around the country.”

Q:

Do you want to talk to me about your own ambitions, your own vision for the department, for jobs?

A:

“I will rate myself, I don’t care how anyone else rates me, but I will be rating myself on what I achieve for rural and regional Ireland, how many jobs we get out there.”

ON INCREASING EMPLOYMENT

Q:

Have you decided on a level of employment or a type of employment you want?

A:

“I didn’t decide at all. The Taoiseach instructed me on the day that he appointed me, that in the programme for government, there’s 200,000 jobs and he said ‘Mitchell O’Connor, I want you to deliver 135,000 of those in rural Ireland’ and I just take that responsibility very seriously.”

Q:

That’s a big number to deliver, how’s that going now?

 Mary Mitchell O’Connor, and student Claudia Aragoneses, 5th Year, St Andrews Booterstown, as she participated in the Amgen Biotech Experience, which enables students to experience a real working lab, using state of the art technology in their own classroom. Picture: Iain White/Fennell Photography
Mary Mitchell O’Connor, and student Claudia Aragoneses, 5th Year, St Andrews Booterstown, as she participated in the Amgen Biotech Experience, which enables students to experience a real working lab, using state of the art technology in their own classroom. Picture: Iain White/Fennell Photography

A:

“If you break it down, our figures are showing there will probably be approximately 50,000 jobs this year. Since I came into office...”

Q:

What in?

A

“May, June, July, I’ll answer that in a second. We’ve about 7,400 announcements and that’s of the ones we know about.

“What are they in? Some of them are very high paying, very sustainable jobs and they are all in hi-tech, biopharma, IT, all of that area. But I’m actually also very interested in small businesses, that’s what’s really sustainable in rural Ireland. And if every business took on one person, we’d wipe out the unemployment lists.”

Q:

British Prime Minister Theresa May met SMEs recently, will you?

A:

“I have had them in, I’ve had the LEOs in, I’ve had the SFA in, I’ve had Isme, Ibec, they came in very early to me.

“The first phone call I made the morning that we got the results of the Brexit referendum. First to IDA, second to Enterprise Ireland and the next was to Ibec.”

Q:

Was that to set the ball rolling? We are talking biotech, pharma, is that going to hit the rural areas, are they going to get into the small towns in the country?

A:

“Interestingly, the midlands is doing really well. Midlands is flying, as in Athlone. Tullamore is doing well, Athlone is doing really well. I think I have been there three or four times announcing really hi-tech jobs there.

“There’s a cluster there, it’s also being supported by the institute of college there in Athlone.”

HER VISION FOR THE DEPARTMENT OF JOBS

Q:

Is there anything else you’d like as part of your roadmap or vision for jobs?

A:

“Obviously small business is really important to me. That will permeate all around rural Ireland.

“Women’s entrepreneurship and women going back to work, that’s hugely important to me as well because I do understand that it is difficult and there are roadblocks for women. Be it childcare, confidence, cash, all of those things.”

Q:

What would you do to help women get back to work?

A:

“Again we have put together, I’ve met different groups of people. I would very much, as chair of the education committee, have put together that whole thing of, you know, that policy where we open up our schools after school hours.”

Q:

Homework?

A:

“Not homework clubs. More childcare, recreational; not homework, it’s bigger than that.”

Q:

So that’s when you were at committee, what about [being a] minister?

A:

“I’ll be pushing that with our minister for education because I think that is one way that you can enable women to come back into the workplace.”

Q:

But in your own brief?

A:

“So, here, what we are doing here is obviously I mentioned about confidence and all of that. So every group I go to I would seek out the women. Say for example I was at the Bloom festival, there was loads of young women, of women entrepreneurs there all involved in home cottage industries, that’s not the name for it, but you know what I mean, and again, just to make sure that they know what’s going on, so we will have a whole kind of thing around, we will have a whole women’s forum putting that together.”

Q:

What’s that going to do?

A:

“It’s bringing together and giving confidence to women, because I’m telling you it’s very difficult for women to get out there, create.”

MORE ON HER VISION FOR THE DEPARTMENT

Q:

Is there anything else in terms of your vision of what you want to do?

A:

“Again, coming from the background of education, I would feel very strongly, that now because there are so many opportunities available in the whole tech industry, pharma industry, that we will be encouraging young women, again, to take up STEM [science, technology engineering and mathematics] subjects because that is not happening.”

Q:

How are you going to do that?

A

“Well, you know, I’m talking to the universities, we’re talking to the institutes of education.”

Q:

What would they be asked to do?

A:

“I have given, just give me a chance now please, I have at every public announcement that I make in public, every speech I give, I talk about, I’m talking to the mothers of Ireland and parents and to encourage their children into those areas because there are huge opportunities.”

Q:

What will the universities do to help young women get into those STEM subjects?

A:

“Well first of all they are going to have to make sure that young women know that they are welcome into the industries because that’s not what’s happening.”

Q:

So what are they going to do?

A:

“What they are going to do and what they are doing? If you take UCD, which I would have been doing anyway before I was a minister, I would have attended the engineering department, we’ve been out with NIBERTA [NIBRT] there, that’s the training group there.”

THE LOW WAGE COMMISSION

Q:

One of the things that has come across your desk is the minimum wage. The commission report recommended recently a 10c increase. There is some criticism and concern about that. How are you going to get the Government commitment to get €10.50 an hour across the line if it is only 10c now?

A:

“I have received the report and am examining the findings of the report, in the context of the budget, the decision will be made.”

Q:

The commitment was €10.50 by 2020, that’s the commitment. How do you see that proceeding?

A:

“First of all, I have to say to you that the low-paid commission was an independent commission, they gave me a recommendation and I’m looking at that.”

Q:

There are rules and terms coming from the last government. Have you updated them and given them permission to go ahead with the roadmap?

A:

“Those rules were devised by the last minister, the lad from Drogheda.”

Q:

Ged Nash?

A:

“Ged. I mean, that was in 2014? The commission were doing their work when I came into office, and they gave me, they were asked to give a report in July every year, which they did, and I’m working with the findings.”

ON WOMEN IN POWER AND BEING A WOMAN IN CABINET

Q:

Can I ask you about gender issues, you were quite strong about them when you were a TD. And you still are, you are seen as a strong figure when it comes to women. There was talk before of 50/50 in [makeup of] the Cabinet. There was a necessity for a minority government. How did you feel maybe that there wasn’t half men and half women in the Cabinet. You were very strong supporter of that policy.

A:

“Yes, and I am still a strong supporter and I believe that boards and boardrooms should have 50/50.”


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