Eileen Gleeson: Ice Maiden

Eileen Gleeson watched as PR types lounged the afternoon away in her father's pub. Now she holds the prime PR post as Mary McAleese's right-hand woman. How did this remarkable doubleact come about? By John Drennan

For a while, spin doctors were more famous than their nominal masters. Accused of breaking up governments and satirised in Scrap Saturday, opposition politicians painted lurid pictures of creatures of the night who made and broke governments at will.

It all looks a bit excessive now. These days, Bill O'Herlihy is better known as an avuncular chronicler of the disasters of our football team. Fergus Finlay is dabbling in late-night television. Eoghan Harris has never really recovered from his unlikely juxtaposition of Twink and Fine Gael, while Shane Kenny, who did for John Bruton what Twink did for Eoghan Harris, has now been safely caged up in RTÉ.

It's unlikely that the eclipse of the spin doctors is anything more than a temporary phenomenon. Already, a new breed of Maras are jostling in the succession stakes. Of these, one of the most likely successors is Eileen Gleeson, recently appointed advisor to the president. Gleeson is surprised by her new profile. Although she was “introduced” to Fianna Fáil in the early 1980s, hers was  very much a no-strings backroom relationship. Part of the Charlie wing in Fianna Fáil now back in favour under Bonnie Prince Bertie, her late nights in the press office during the soap-opera-like dramas of the Haughey era were a useful education for the most recent exploits.

Like most punters, Gleeson was in politics because she “wanted a voice” rather than out of any desire to be an “influencer.” Despite this, she moved in exalted circles. When Dermot Desmond first met her, she was known as having a stronger Charlie connection than Desmond. She was very impressed by Haughey—“with Charlie you needed to know what was the tenth question”—although P.J. Mara was the person she “had the greatest craic with.” Gleeson focused on her business career rather than politics, however. Initially, she had planned to be a lawyer, but during a summer working in her father's Booterstown pub, which was a haunt of PR types, she noticed those indulged in lunches that went on until four o'clock. Sometimes, a secretary arrived with a few letters to be signed, but their otherwise tranquil existence convinced Gleeson that this was the career for her.

After a spell with Bill O'Herlihy's PRI, Gleeson set up her own company, Financial and Corporate Communications (FCC), which got off to a good start when she landed the job of director of press and events centre for Charlie's Indian summer as the president of the EU.

Her relationship with politics remained a semi-detached one. Often, a year would go by with no involvement by her. For Gleeson, politics was a hobby rather than an obsession.

When P. J. Mara planned the 1997 general-election campaign with the sort of precision last seen in the Duke of Wellington's Spanish escapades, Gleeson was not a member of the inner circle. More of an organiser than an idealogue, her job was to co-ordinate relations between the leader and the media and generally ensure that the trains ran on time during Bertie's criss-crossing of the country. It was a low-key but important job. There is always the potential for frayed relations with the press as the tension starts to bite. Unlike others within the leader's entourage, even in the final days, Gleeson remained as cool as an English rose.

After Bertie's apotheosis, Gleeson remained separate from the long queue of party hacks looking for jobs monitoring the leader's profile on Midlands Radio 3 or whatever other useful tasks the lads do. Fianna Fáil, however, thought highly enough of her work to ask her to join the team that brought the presidency home.

Gleeson knew even as she went to meet Mary McAleese that she was being sucked in by her own devices. The relationship was very different to a Harris/Robinson scenario. McAleese needed someone to dress her up and organise relations with the media.
McAleese triumphed in the style wars. Though Gleeson feels that the make-over of McAleese was seriously overestimated—“When we met, it wasn't a case of ‘Oh my God, what will we do with this person'—anyone who knew the old McAleese could only gape at the transformation.

The second objective proved more difficult. If the start of her campaign resembled The Sound of Music, as the candidate warbled about offering “the tapestry of her life” to the country, by the end McAleese's attitude towards an increasingly rebellious press corps would have frozen a polar bear at 1,000 yards. The lowest point of a vicious campaign, which occasionally veered towards being squalid, was Galway. The furore about the leaks resulted in a cancelled press conference as McAleese refused to answer quesions from the media.

The decision was ill advised. In the heated mood of that time, it increased the possibility of confrontation between the journalists and the Fianna Fáil stormtroopers, while the refusal by any politician to answer questions is the equivalent of using nitroglycerine to douse a small chip-pan fire.

It is a measure of Gleeson's abilities that despite such setbacks she kept her cool. There were none of the self-pitying letters to the Irish Times that made Finlay an object of ridicule. Instead, she stuck to her brief and kept the lines of communication open with even the most critical journalists. She was helped by the fact that the day after Galway saw the routing of the hacks. At a press conference on the Aran Islands, a Fianna Fáil rent-a-mob roared triumphantly as McAleese put down her most persistent critics. The victory resulted in the media's campaign petering out. The battle of the Aran Islands wasn't deliberately organised by Gleeson, but she didn't object to a scenario designed to ensure that things went their way. It was a revenge based on the stiletto rather than the broadsword. The triumph of McAleese placed Gleeson at the front of the queue of Fianna Fáil handlers. The view at party HQ that Gleeson “is wonderful” meant that, when McAleese went looking for an advisor, the job was Gleeson's, if she wanted it.

Being advisor to the president isn't a bad little number. Brid Rosney's main tasks included setting up the odd speech to the Dáil to soothe that aching ego, deciding what women's group the president should wave at on a given week, and resolving serious issues of protocol, such as which clothes the president should wear on state occasions.

Gleeson's job description appears to conform to this. The part-time consultancy will co-ordinate the existing secretariat and assist the president in any new initiative, such as which community group the president will wave at this week.

It's difficult to know what Gleeson will do that any civil servant couldn't. Rosney was useful for the sort of wars that the aristocratic Robinson found to be beneath her. However, as Ireland on Sunday found out, the new incumbent isn't above sweeping down from the Aras, red in tooth and claw, to personally confront any bouts of lèse majesté.

Idealogically, Gleeson's brand of Fianna Fáil social democracy—a rising tide lifts all boats, and so on—doesn't suggest any role as an intellectual guru, while nothing in her CV suggests that she has the socio-cultural sophistication to spot the sort of esoteric controversies about communion and the likes that the presidency seems to attract.

Why a busy career woman took such a nondescript post is difficult to understand. On a practical level, politics and business may intersect to her advantage. There is no harm in prospective clients knowing that her other office is in the Aras. A fairer interpretation is that Eileen Gleeson has finally been seduced by politics. Some have suggested that the time when she used to be “unnerved by intellectuals” is over and that she now “has notions” of becoming a political strategist. The one cloud in an otherwise sunny sky lies in Gleeson's business connections. She has gone to some trouble to note that there are no conflicts between this and her work for the president.

It may not be as simple as that. The respectable blue-chip accounts that FCC represents include Dermot Desmond, the biggest musketeer of the plastic aristocracy that evolved in Ireland during the Haughey era. The company has also done work for another musketeer, J. P. McManus, although this connection is tenuous, consisting of nothing more than a couple of golf classics. Although Gleeson knows McManus, she is not a close friend. She “doesn't move in those circles—unfortunately.”

She is much more closely being dragged to the gates of the park on the back of her advisor.

If Gleeson manages to juggle the very different tasks of explaining “Building Bridges” and why Dermo had the £500,000 in the tennis holdall, then this quintissential feminist icon, wife, mother, business woman, and political advisor may yet be profiled in Cosmopolitan under the headline of “Yes, you can have it all.”