A woman of some importance

The Labour Party's deputy leader has travelled a bewildering trajectory from privilege to architecture, to Marxism/Stalinism, back to (very) moderate social democracy. By Emma BrowneShe says she has been a socialist since she was 22. Certainly she has travelled through much of Ireland's socialist terrain: the Labour Party; then Official Sinn Féin, which became Sinn Féin the Workers Party and then the Workers Party, later Agenda, which became Democratic Left and back to Labour. She is the foremost and most effective critic of Mary Harney's privatisation agenda in the Department of Health and Children. She is the most likely successor to Mary Harney should there be a change of government. In reality, it is her last chance of high office. She seemed destined to high office, given her background, her capacities and her towering (over 6 fit tall), formidable, even regal, demeanour (known by some in the Dáil as “Lady Wicklow”, an irritating label for someone who still proclaims herself to be a socialist).  

Her father, Tim O'Driscoll was a diplomat – one time ambassador to the Netherlands, later director general of Bord Fáilte. She was born in Montreal in 1947 and lived abroad until she was 11. Then the family came home and lived in Killiney, Co Dublin, where she attended the Holy Child convent. Then to UCD to do architecture and while there she engaged in her first radical action: participation in what was innocently known as a “sleep-in” in the architecture faculty (Ruairi Quinn was another participant), part of the student revolution of the late 1960s. On qualification she took up a job in an architectural firm in Derry, just as the Derry cauldron was boiling over: the battle of the Bogside in August 1969. She lived in the Bogside, the very centre of that cauldron.

“When you live in Dublin you become very provincial, very parochial and you don't see the bigger picture. I was reared a good, convent-educated girl and when I went out into the world and went to university and to the Bogside in Derry I feel my mind was opened up in a way that has stayed with me.”

She had come from an apolitical but liberal household. When she went to university, “there was an explosion of ideas, I mopped it up like a sponge ... then in Derry I saw two working class communities struggling ... I turned socialist.”

She had been a member of the Labour Party while at UCD, then she, along with her boyfriend and later husband, John McManus, joined the much more radical Official Sinn Féin (then very much aligned with the Official IRA). They remained in that party through its transmogrifications and throughout the period of “special activities” engaged in by the paramilitary wing of the movement – the Official IRA officially went out of business in 1972. As with Prionsias de Rossa, Pat Rabbitte and Eamon Gilmore, she knew nothing about the “special activities” – murders, beatings, armed robberies, counterfeiting and other criminality. Media reports of such happenings were “inventions”, they all claimed then.  

Neither is she now embarrassed by the politics espoused by Official Sinn Féin, alias the Workers Party, throughout the 1970s: not just Marxist, but Stalinist.

She was successful in the local elections of 1979 as a Workers Party candidate. In 1992 she was elected to the Dáil for the Wicklow constituency; by then she, along with de Rossa, Rabbitte and Gilmore, had abandoned the Workers Party and established Democratic Left. She made an impression in the Dáil early on and chaired a task force on Traveller needs. Then, when the government changed in late 1994 and Democratic Left became part of the Rainbow coalition, she became Minister of State for Housing and Urban Renewal.

Democratic Left was subsumed by Labour in 1997; in 2002, after the disappointing election outcome for the party, she was elected deputy leader, when Pat Rabbitte was elected leader. Interestingly, they were not on the same ticket and almost certainly they did not vote for each other.

She is not personally close to Pat Rabbitte. In the past she described him as “bright, experienced, witty and difficult at times”, but they have an OK working relationship and she  says she “admires” him. Almost certainly she is not too happy with the party's lurch to the right under Rabbitte, but in public she is dismissive of such suggestions.

She wouldn't be devastated by failing to gain high office or of leaving politics, although she says “My life has been so enmeshed with politics, I couldn't imagine any other life.”

She would not return to architecture: “I was a very bad architect, I did work on building a school in Derry, and I did worry about the buildings falling down.” But she would return to writing. During the 1980s she wrote short stories and a novel. Prizes included one at Listowel Writer's Week and a Hennessy Literature Award. She lives in Bray, Co Wicklow with her husband, John McManus, who is a GP, in a splendid listed Victorian terraced house on the seafront. Their four children are all grown up.

Oddly, given her socialist past, the perspective she brings to health hardly accommodates at all the reality of massive inequalities in health welfare, caused not just by inequalities in the health system (on which she is very good) but inequalities in education, in housing, in nutrition, in power and in wealth and income. But she would make a difference in the Department of Health and Children, if she ever gets the chance.