Waving the White flag

From Oireachtas committee meetings to Colombia, there's no gagging Mary White. John Byrne meets the Senator who denies she has her eyes on a Dáil seat in the Dublin South East constituency at the next election. Photograph by Tom Galvin

'I am not eccentric", says Mary White, the Fianna Fáil senator and chocolate entrepreneur. "I'm just being myself, and it would be no fun if you couldn't be. I don't go out of my way to attract attention, and I don't do stupid things, or at least I try not to."

Eccentric or not, White is a woman who often finds herself in unlikely and sometimes controversial situations. She is probably best-known for her relentless cheerleading of the Colombia Three, the Irish men currently on the run from the Colombian authorities, having been convicted of training FARC guerrillas last year. Why did she get involved with the "Bring Them Home" campaign?

"Human rights", she says. "I was on a human rights mission. I went over to ensure their safety in prison, and to ensure that they got a fair trial. I'd try and help anybody – loyalist or republican – that's my nature. And also, I've been involved in helping former republican prisoners for years."

What were the three men – two of them former members of the IRA – doing in Colombia on bogus passports?

"They were talking about the peace process in the North to the Colombians, to FARC", she says.

"Jim Monaghan (one of the three) was shown on video on RTÉ talking about the peace process in Colombia... Lots of international people had gone out to the FARC-controlled area of the country to monitor the situation, including Mo Mowlam. They were out there to help with the peace process – that's what they say themselves, and I believe them."

So she's not at all suspicious of their motives for being in Colombia?

"All I know is what they said in court."

And she accepts that at face value?

"Well, they were acquitted the first time around. There was no evidence produced to find them guilty."

But Mary White herself has gone to great lengths to point out the failures of the Colombian justice system, particularly after it convicted the Colombia Three the second time around.

"Listen – you're not going roast me on this. You're going down in my estimation. I've put too much time and effort into the peace process to be getting tripped up over issues like this. They were naïve to have been out there on the false passports. I went out there purely concerned with human rights – that was my mission."

So their motives weren't important at all?

"I've answered this question already. I've had enough of this. Go away and write the article."

If the Colombia Three were to be discovered in Ireland, should the Government then hand them over to the Colombians?

"They should not – no, no, no. They would get shot", she says. "There are paramilitaries in (the prison) who are on the side of the Colombian government. Also, their appeal trial was heard in private, and was done to keep the Americans happy. There is no way they should be handed over to them."

White similarly dismisses other controversies from her three-year Senate career. During a debate on the Freedom of Information Act in 2003, she appeared to insult Senator Shane Ross (she said he made her feel like she'd been listening to an Oxbridge debate, but she later said she was paying him a compliment), and claimed that freedom of information is a bad thing in general ("Those in the public service bureaucracy who make wrong decisions will suffer if they are exposed", she said.)

"I was nervous, and I wasn't explaining myself succinctly enough", she says. "I was conscious that what I was trying to say wasn't getting out properly. I was new in there. I was only in the place about six months. I don't think that everything should be made available under the Freedom of Information Act. (But) I think it is generally a good thing."

In May of that year, her husband, Padraic White, who is chairman of the Railway Procurement Agency, addressed the Oireachtas transport committee.

Mary White was seen whispering and speaking privately with committee members during his speech, and allegedly said at one point that her husband's appearance at the committee was like "mother's milk" for him. Was she using her Oireachtas privileges to make representations on behalf of her spouse? And what did she make of the criticisms she received afterwards?

"That was pathetic", she says. "They weren't used to my husband coming in, and the wife being there... I think a lot of them didn't realise that, as an elected representative, I had a right to be there."

But why was she there if she wasn't a member of the committee?

"To listen to my husband. It's been totally exaggerated... they're talking rubbish, it's..."

She becomes speechless with indignation.

"I was just saying that this is very easy for him," she says.

"Just because he's my husband, I can't say anything? The people who spoke to the papers weren't used to the idea of a husband and wife both being at a committee meeting at the same time. Honest to God. I went to the chairman and said that I was going to be there. I declared my interest. And I wasn't impressed with the carry-on of some of my party colleagues. Imagine!"

White has been a life-long supporter of Fianna Fáil. "The reason I joined was that I really felt (that) during the 1980s, Fianna Fáil people were more pragmatic and business-like about running the country, in relation to the economy.

"At that time, Ireland was trying to encourage multi-nationals into the country. And I would have felt that the Fianna Fáil people were more passionate about getting international investment. They genuinely believed in it. That was why I joined, to be honest...

"And the thing about Fianna Fáil is that every social class is involved in it. When you come to Fianna Fáil meetings, people's personal wealth and status is left outside the door. That's my experience. It's..." There's a long pause.

"They don't bring their social status or their private wealth into the meeting."

What about all the corruption? What about Ray Burke?

"It's very sad about Ray Burke", she says. "Tragic for the man's family. But things did go wrong, there is no doubt about that. But he was a very able person, a very able man. He is also very charming. And so is Liam Lawlor".

Her greatest praise is reserved for Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. "He is the toughest, smartest man I have ever met, with a mega brain", she says.

She was delighted when he expressed admiration for her commitment to the Colombia Three.

"'You're a great woman for going,' he said to me. And did I give a damn what anybody else thought about it after that? Not a hoot!"

But does she agree with Ahern's statement that Gerry Adams had prior knowledge of the Northern Bank Robbery?

"I'll be bloody well in trouble, I'll be shot now for this, but I believe the man (Adams)", she says. "I don't have the information that Bertie has. But I've been involved a lot in the North, and all I've seen of Gerry Adams is someone who is trying to bring people away from violence into constitutional politics. I believe the man until proven otherwise."

There has been speculation in the press that White might be interested in running for the Dáil in Dublin South East at the next election, after Eoin Ryan left for Europe last year.

"Don't mind that – it's only an auld piece of gossip", she tuts. "I wouldn't pay it any attention at all."

But lying in front of her on the table, where she had placed it only three minutes earlier, is a manifesto outlining her ideas on how Irish childcare should be reformed (she continuously raises the subject during the interview). So, she definitely doesn't intend standing in Dublin South East at the next election, then?

"No, no, no – don't mind that now, at all", she says.

Finally, given all the confrontational situations she's found herself in, can she recall for Village her most embarrassing moment?

"Let me see."

A long pause.

Any embarrassing moment will do, not just the worst one.

Another long pause.

"That's a difficult one now. Eh... I can't think"

Would it be fair to say that she isn't easily embarrassed?

"Absolutely correct! You're dead on!"

She finds this absolutely hilarious, for some reason.

"At this stage in my life, you wouldn't want to be getting embarrassed. That's one of the positive things about getting older – you're not concerned about what people think. People accept you as you are."