What the spin doctor ordered
Mairéad McGuinness has been proclaimed a future Taoiseach by fans, the ‘yummy mummy' of Irish politics by spin doctors. She speaks to Village about the media, family and Fine Gael. By Justine McCarthy
Her fans claim that Mairéad McGuinness is poised to crash through the ultimate glass ceiling and become the first woman Taoiseach. It will happen like this, they predict: Fine Gael will not form a government after the general election, the party will abandon Enda Kenny and McGuinness, being feisty, 40-ish and female, will lead the Blueshirts back to the cabinet table in 2012. The only obstacle on the horizon is that Mary Hanafin could beat her to the finishing line by succeeding Bertie Ahern while he is Taoiseach-in-situ.
McGuinness laughs. And then she delivers the sort of disarmingly diplomatic response that keeps her admirers swooning in the aisles. “The fact that you're asking me is kinda nice, to be honest. On the other hand, being Taoiseach is a huge responsibility.
There's a line in a poem by Milton that ‘they also serve who only stand and wait'. My holy grail may be delivering two seats for Fine Gael and getting into the Dáil. Who wouldn't want to be Taoiseach if you're involved in politics? But I'm certainly not targeting that. What I would much prefer would be that Enda Kenny become Taoiseach, and that's very attainable.”
Best known as an articulate and attractive media personality rather than for any forays into radical feminism, she issued a prescient clarion call to the sisterhood last October. “One wonders would our world be a more peaceful place today if even half of the national political leaders were female rather than the 85 per cent currently who are male,” she pondered in a speech to mark World Rural Women's Day. “A greater participation of women in leadership positions could strengthen economies, accelerate development and improve social policy, resulting in increased benefits for all.” (By the time she made that speech, the MEP for Leinster was already toying with the idea of returning from Europe to contest the general election.)
As a mother-of-four (twins aged 13 and the youngest child aged 5), an Ardee farm wife, the first female to qualify in agricultural economics at UCD, and with a media career that took her from editing the Farmers Journal to presenting Celebrity Farm, she has the credentials to be a role model for the sisterhood. That, however, is certainly not what the spin doctor ordered. Something frothy and suited to the celebrity age is what appears to be required. Ergo, she has been ordained the first “yummy mummy” of Irish politics; a stereotype summoning visions of model maternal blonde-ness.
“We're in a media age. Anything that has a sexy tone, two words that rhyme and fit in a headline works. Yummy mummy is such a lovely thing to be called,” she confesses. “If people think I'm yummy, that's great. Tom (Duff, her husband) thinks I'm yummy. As I'm in my 40s, I only just come under the bar for the mummy bit. In our house, I'm ‘ma' or ‘mam'. I don't worry about stereotyping. I am a mother and I have always made a point of making sure that people knew my situation. As a journalist, interviewing the minister on the phone, I would say: ‘You might hear a scream. It's one of the children.' I've never broken the link between having a job and having a family.
“My first job is my home. We're lucky that Tom is a farmer and he's at home most of the time,” she adds, chewing a sweet to soothe a throat irritated by a chest infection. “In a household where both parents are under pressure, something gives and I think that what's going out of life is the choice. Whether you go out to work, or work part-time or choose to be at home, it's what works for you. I've never done guilt, to be honest. I've done my best in terms of my own family.”
Even at Christmas, when she finally made the decision to dive into national politics on the invitation of Enda Kenny at a meeting before the holidays, her career advancement did not dominate the household. “We're not obsessed with politics,” she says. “We had to make up a boxing and fitness kit for a little child, we were looking for batteries for computers and I was trying to stuff a turkey.”
This tableau of bucolic wholesomeness belies McGuinness's steely determination. She recalls joining RTé in 1980, where she initially worked as a researcher on the Late Late Show and “clinging on by my nails to contracts because having a job was a rare thing at the time”. In 1993, when the independent TV production company, Agtel, submitted a proposal to RTé for a weekly farming programme called Ear to the Ground, McGuinness, it's chosen presenter, never revealed that she was pregnant with twins. The programme started in September. The babies were born in November.
“I never had a career plan. I got on by sheer dint of effort. I didn't have any great ambition to present the Late Late Show or be the director general of RTé and I probably could have presented the Late Late, whatever about the DG.”
Since taking her seat in the EU Parliament, having won 25 per cent of all votes cast in the Leinster constituency, the former editor of the Irish Independent's farm supplement has made several mostly non-contentious, consumer-friendly speeches on agriculture. She is a member of the parliament's agriculture and rural development committee as well as the budgets and petitions committee and is currently chairing an inquiry into the collapse of Equitable Life, a British company that sold cross-frontier insurance policies. All the while, her star has been rising back home.
In what might come to be retrospectively seen as a cruel twist, she was the guest speaker to launch constituency colleague Jim D'Arcy's general election campaign in Dundalk on 24 October last when she claimed that the resurgence of Fine Gael was critical for Irish democracy. “We have a duty to ourselves and to future generations to maintain and grow our strength as a party,” she said.
Asked how D'Arcy and the party's other Louth candidate, Fergus O'Dowd, one of the best Opposition performers in the Dáil, feel about her decision to run in the general election, she answers: “I talked to Fergus O'Dowd and Jim D'Arcy. Both of them are of the view that the electorate will decide. Obviously people might have liked me to say a year ago that I was running but it didn't arise. It would have been wrong for me to push my way into the constituency a year ago.
“South Kildare was also talked about as a suitable constituency for me but, with the M50 between me and South Kildare, it was never a realistic option, even though a lot of commentators said I would be a shoo-in. Maybe it says something about my character that security is not so important to me. It probably would have been when I was younger but, in my 40s, I'm prepared to put the neck out a bit and take a risk.”
One risk McGuinness is not prepared to take is answering questions about her chances of becoming the next leader of Fine Gael. “In truth,” she says, “I haven't given that a moment's thought. I'm nearly disgusted that people ask me because I have huge respect for Enda Kenny and I credit him for getting me into politics. I'm always saying to him, ‘how do you keep going because you work so hard?' The other thing I really like about him is that he's very honourable. I'm not going to answer that question because, in my view, it's a disservice to the party leader, a man I have a lot of respect for.”
In that case, does she condemn John Deasy's incendiary remarks about Kenny's leadership? “On the John Deasy story,” she slips into journalists' parlance, “the issue was that it was a slow news week and I think people who know how the media works understood that. I'd certainly have preferred if it hadn't happened at the start of the year but I'll be damned if I'm going to say to anyone in Fine Gael that they can't express an opinion.”
Does she hope to get a ministerial portfolio if Fine Gael makes it into government?
“I'd love to be in the cabinet but I've been given no commitments whatsoever. No, I didn't seek any commitments either.”
McGuinness's acquiescence to Enda Kenny's proposition that she run for a Fine Gael seat in Europe in 2004 surprised many who thought they knew her and had supposed that, were she not apolitical, her party of preference might be Fianna Fáil. Afterall, it was a Fianna Fáil agriculture minister, Joe Walshe, who appointed her to chair his department's consumer liaison panel. In another show of political ecumenism, her adviser, Mairéad Foley, was previously an unsuccessful election candidate for the PDs.
“As a child, I remember my father (John McGuinness) being the Fine Gael treasurer locally. He died in 2003, which is the greatest sadness because he never saw any of this. I'm sure he would have been very proud. He had great guts and he would never let anyone put you down. He never wanted wealth for wealth's sake.
“I always voted Fine Gael. I like the sort of values they stand for. I think their ethics are good. I suppose I have a very strong view that I'm terrified of a single-party State which is what we have in this country with people saying it'll be Fianna Fáil forever with a-another.”
On the day of this interview, Mairéad McGuinness was taking antibiotics for her infection and, by midday, still did not know where she was going to sleep that night. An appearance on RTé's Questions & Answers would keep her busy until nearly midnight and she had to catch the 6.50am “red-eye” to Brussels the next morning. Her gruelling schedule gives the lie to the impression she propagates of a woman without great ambition and whose idea of relaxing is a spot of weeding in her garden.
“I imagine this campaign will be fairly cut-throat,” she allows. “I have a motto that I will rise above whatever is thrown at me. For example, when my campaign team for Europe suggested we should retaliate over something that was said about me, I said no. I had a view that, if you lie in the gutter, you get damp and miserable. I don't like the whole notion of negativity. I don't like bad-mouthing for the sake of it. On the other hand, I won't be walked upon. I won't be pushed around.”
It's the sort of fighting talk that speaks more than a hundred guarded, political statements.