Not just a Mary

Mary Coughlan has 'charmed and swore and flirted and cursed her way through' her time as Minister for Agriculture. She has been popular among farmers – until the recent WTO talks in Hong Kong. Profile by John Byrne

The Minister for Agriculture alighted from the car into the farmyard of former Meath football captain Michael Dunican during this year's Meath by-election. He is a life-long supporter of Fianna Fáil, so it should have been a routine visit, unblemished by the row that followed.

"I asked if she knew the difference between liquid milk and creamery milk," said Michael Dunican. "She asked me if I thought she didn't know. I said back to her that if she knew it then she could explain it. Then she replied, 'Would you ever fuck off'."

Dunican was taken aback.

"Then she said it again and then again. She got into the car and another man, who I didn't know, got out. He said to me as well, 'Would you ever fuck off'."

"I apologise for any bad language that slipped out in this conversation," said Mary Coughlan subsequently, after the press had got plenty of mileage out of the incident. But anybody familiar with the 40-year-old Donegal woman's style will not have been surprised by the story.

"She's charmed and swore and flirted and cursed her way through her time as Minister for Agriculture," says one commentator. "She was exactly what was needed for the job – young, energetic, female, and extremely capable. It's an area that is dominated by conservative males, and she really surprised the boyos. Everybody who met her liked her, and she was doing very well – until this week, that is."

"This week" refers to the World Trade Organisation talks, which resulted in what many farmers view as the end-date for the Irish farming industry. In order to save the increasingly fraught talks, which were accompanied by violent demonstrations in Hong Kong, an interim agreement was reached to end farm export subsidies by 2013. The Irish Farmers' Association said it would cost up to 50,000 farming jobs, destroy a third of Irish farm output and result in the loss of €800 million to the rural economy.

"There wasn't that much she could do," says one agricultural source. "She would have been charming. But once Mandelson made his mind up that was it. Usually we tuck ourselves in behind the French but that was no use this time."

Mary Coughlan was born in County Donegal in May, 1965, daughter of Cathal Coughlan, TD for Donegal South-West between 1983 and 1986. Her mother was a social worker. She grew up with six siblings on the small family farm. "You'd be bone tired after a day making hay or in the bog and all you'd want to do would be to lie down and watch television. You would not have the energy for mischief," she said in an interview with the Irish Times in February this year.

School was the Ursuline Convent in Sligo and then it was on to UCD to study social science. Almost immediately after college, she was elected to Donegal County Council, in 1986, and then to the Dáil a year later, taking her late father's seat. Her early years in Leinster House saw her speak mostly on issues pertaining to Donegal, such as employment, education, and rural life. She was a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Body from 1991 to 1992; chairperson of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Irish Language from 1993 and 1995 and spokesperson on Educational Reform from 1995 to 1997.

Her big break came in June 2002 when she was made Minister for Social and Family Affairs. However, her most notable action during that time was the introduction of the "savage sixteen" welfare cuts. This was a political disaster. The cuts mostly hit those on low incomes, by reducing access to rent supplements, restricting welfare payments for lone parents, abolishing the crèche supplement (which assisted in covering the cost of emergency childcare) and other unpopular measures. The opposition used them to attack the Government repeatedly, and when Seamus Brennan succeeded Mary Coughlan in the role, he went about softening the impact of the cuts to undo the political damage.

She was given another ministerial role in 2004, in the Department of Agriculture. These days, this is neither a glamorous nor popular brief, but Mary Coughlan was delighted, as her reaction after the announcement was made showed. According to one commentator ,"the Agriculture job is a line-holding, defensive game; you can't get much out of it now," but she went about her new job with enthusiasm. She displayed excellent organisational skills, and was popular with the farmers on a personal level. Included among her achievements are the Single Farm Payment, which replaced the cumbersome multi-cheque system that had previously been in place.

The negotiations with the EU over the reform of the sugar industry were not so successful, however. That industry is worth €140 million to the economy, supports an estimated 5,000 jobs directly and indirectly and is worth about €80 million to the growers. The EU deal will see farmers paid one-third less for their produce – which means that it will no longer be a viable industry in Ireland – in exchange for a €44 million compensation package.

But despite this, she remains a much-liked politician. "She's been keeping a sinking ship going with some style," says one agricultural commentator.