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Published by Harmonia Norah, 2017-06-28 07:29:25

frances fitzgerald

frances fitzgerald

Navy dress (€250) by
Helen McAlinden,
earrings (€45) by
Christina Belle, shoes
(€150) by Paul Green all
available at Arnotts.

LA DY

irishtatlerinterview

Last year Frances Fitzgerald took on the contentious
role of Minister for Justice and it now tasked with

drafting badly-needed reform in Irish law. However,
Fitzgerald has been quietly blazing a trail for women

for over twenty years. by Jessica O’Sullivan

JUSTICE
Photography HAZEL COONAGH Styling CLARA HALPIN

F be de-mystifying it. It’s very often just people like
rom her public persona, one would be forgiven for us having more of an open door.” Indeed there has
thinking Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald a been seismic changes in recent years, just taking into
serious woman. By virtue of her position, she finds account the number of women who have reached
herself in the media spotlight on an almost daily top positions in Justice in Ireland; The DPP, the
basis as the big ticket domestic news items usually Attorney General, the Garda Commissioner and
fall within the remit of the Department of Justice now the ministerial position are all occupied by
and Equality. New anti-terrorism laws, reform of women. “A lot of younger women talk to me about
An Garda Síochána, the upcoming referendum on all the women in Justice – that’s had an impact.
same-sex marriage and more recently The Children But I always say, even though there are women in
and Family Relationships Bill – she brings to it all the those top positions there is still plenty to be done.
sense of gravitas and calm control this contentious It’s like thinking just because we’ve had two female
portfolio deserves. Just ten months ago Fitzgerald Presidents that we’ve dealt with the issue of women
was Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, but in politics. It’s very resistant actually, politics, to
took on her new ministerial role when her disgraced having the right number of women.” As the saying
predecessor Alan Shatter resigned following the goes, women hold up half the sky and to this end
events relating to Garda whistleblower Sergeant Fitzgerald is a firm supporter of gender quotas in
Maurice McCabe, circumstances she admits she politics – to her it’s about critical mass, as having
regrets. However, the startling contrast in their those numbers changes the nature of the discussion
leadership styles must have been what Taoiseach in the Dáil. “Women and men have different life
Enda Kenny intended when he put the brief into the experience and they bring that perspective. You are
“safe hands” of Fitzgerald. representing a different history in terms of gender.
Our shoot takes place in 51 St Stephen’s Green, a You bring all that – the history of your gender and
beautiful and imposing Georgian building inhabited the history of women’s experience in Ireland. It’s
by the Department of Justice which had the potential an unfinished democracy if you don’t have women
to set a sombre tone to the day. However, the involved. It’s critical and it’s too important to leave
atmosphere sooned turned to a buzzy energy as to men alone.”
the Minister arrived in a flurry of warm greetings
and compliments about the clothing. When I admit Fitzgerald herself was a relative latecomer to
sheepishly that I was expecting to meet a completely the political field joining the Dáil in 1992 at the
different person, she laughs knowingly. “I probably age of 42 with very little political experience
come across as very serious in my public life. You and three children under ten. She is not from a
don’t get to show your personality as much when political dynasty nor did she join a politcal party
you’re a politician. When you’re on television, people at college. Originally she trained as a social worker
think you’re so serious that you’re almost not real.” and family therapist and holds a Masters in Social
But, there’s no doubt that in person Fitzgerald is very Administration and Social Work from the London
real. She jokes with the stylist as they choose her School of Economics and cut her teeth working
looks together, she is co-operative and patient with in inner city communities in London and Dublin
our photographer’s requests and when something including the Mater Hospital, St James’ Hospital
strikes her as particularly funny, she tilts her head and Ballymun Child and Family Centre. But that
back and laughs heartily. Suddenly, it’s much easier Fitzgerald had a career before her political one, is
to see her as the wife, the mother and the friend she the very thing that makes her suitable to the job
most likely is when she’s off the departmental clock. at hand. “I think politics should be open to people
Though Fitzgerald has been in politics for twenty at all stages. It’s good to have had careers before
three years and has appeared in many newspaper and going into politics – women in business, the law,
Law Gazette articles, this is the first interview she community development, teachers – we need to
has done with a women’s magazine. I can’t help but open it up more.” But she admits that she didn’t
ask her the question that has been on my mind. Why start out with a burning desire to go into politics.
now? “Well, it’s part of my feeling about politics, that It was something she went into, primarily because
we need to be reaching out to women and we need to of her social work but more than that, her interest
in equality. And this is not merely lip service, her

“You don’t get to show
your personality as
much when you’re a

politician. On television
people think you’re
so serious, that you’re
almost not real”

Jacket (€215) by “It’s an unfinished
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(€295) by Caroline have women involved.
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men alone”

years at the coalface as a social worker and
as Chair for the National Women’s Council,
working with the people she now hopes to
effect change for has given her an education
you cannot learn at university.

Despite her credentials her political career
path has not been a smooth one, something
the Minister is very philosophical about,
sharing that she accepts her wins and losses
with equal grace. And there have been losses.
After losing her seat at the 2002 general
election, though she still held positions in
the Seanad, she would have to wait until the
general election in 2011 before again being
elected and appointed Minister for Children
and Youth Affairs. Though her three boys are
now grown up – one an actor, one a trainee
accountat, and another a student – she
confesses that like any working mother she
was feeling her way through the dark when
it came to juggling motherhood and a career
in social work and later politics. “Would you
believe I was the first woman to get part time
work in job sharing in the Mater. I just asked
for it and I got it and that was back in 1984.”

Trailblazer might not be a word that
immediately comes to mind when you say
the name Frances Fitzgerald – perhaps the
reserved, ladylike demeanor the public are
more familiar with doesn’t align her with her
more outspoken and bold contemporaries,
but when you put tidbits like this into context
of the era, you see just how ahead of the curve
Fitzgerald really was. Indeed her lifelong
views on equality seem to suddenly chime
in with what, for the most, part qualifies as
mainstream in Ireland today. Even her party,
Fine Gael, traditionally one of the more
conservative parties in the Irish political
landscape has rowed in with her more liberal
views – even if in the past, these beliefs may
have worked to Fitzgerald’s detriment with
voters who hold more traditional opinions.
It might have been a long time coming, but
Ireland is about to be the first country to hold
a referendum on same-sex marriage in May,
and the ink has barely dried on the Children
and Family Relations Bill which provides
for same-sex couples to adopt. When asked
what she believes a change in the law in
relation to same-sex marriage will mean for
our country, Fitzgerald’s broader beliefs in

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Dress, shoes (€150) by Paul both

available @ Arnotts

Photograhy by Hazel Coonagh
Styling by Clara Halpin for
Arnotts
Hair by Dylan Bradshaw

Makeup by Caoimhe Bannerman
using Giorgio Armani

“I think there’s a great quality of self-assurance
to many of our young women, but in some
ways it’s more challenging for them now
because the stakes are very high”

equality are expressed most succinctly. to many young Irish women, but equally description of women in all walks of life.
“It’s about what kind of society we want. life is more challenging now because the “Our society isn’t without sexism in any
It’s about having faith and hope and trust career stakes are higher and family life area. We saw that in the Michael Lowry
in the future. It is about treating everyone is more demanding. “Sometimes you’re case. That’s casual sexism. On the one
equally. We shouldn’t discriminate, we not allowed take the time you want with hand, people can dismiss it and say that’s
shouldn’t exclude people from marriage.” your children. I think that’s oppressive. irrelevant. But I don’t want any women
And while it’s a noble sentiment, she I think that’s sexism at large in our being held back by casual sexism.”
cannot deny that there are still many society,” she says matter of factly. “I think
who believe in the absolute sanctity we should have a society where there is a Despite her long career standing toe-
of heterosexual marriage. Indeed, she choice for men and women to share the to-toe with the boys in the Dáil, it’s
ackowledges that the country could parenting leave, that time out isn’t seen refreshing to see that cyniscim carries no
face what could potentially be a hurtful as completely detrimental to your career, weight with Fitzgerald. She is still hopeful
campaign. So how will she attempt to flexible working hours are an option.” about the future of Ireland and in turn
pursuade those considering a no vote? its politics. “The things people say about
With a show-don’t-tell approach. “We Unfortunately though, there’s no politics – that all politicians are bad and
have to help people to be comfortable denying that Irish women in the all Gardaí are bad – it’s such nonsense
with it. Some people have had more workplace are still viewed through a because the vast majority aren’t. So many
opportunity to think about this issue. different lens to men, and none more people are in politics because they are
They may have a friend who is part of so than women in politics, who are interested in their society, they want to
the LGBT community, a family member often judged on what they are wearing make a difference.” Indeed her ability to
a cousin, a niece, a sister – people who rather than what they’re saying. Mary take the heat out of some prickly issues
are in that situation begin to get an Mitchell O’Connor’s pink dresses – if has placed Fitzgerald’s name in the hat as
understanding that perhaps people who that phrase means something to you, the next potential successor as Taoiseach
aren’t in that situation don’t. We have then you know what I mean. But does and Fine Gael party leader, bypassing
to paint a picture for those with very this type of discrimination ever inform younger party members nipping at his
traditional views about marriage, that how Fitzgerald dresses or carries herself? heels, Leo Varadker and Simon Coveney.
their heterosexual marriage is not going “I feel that’s another sort of restriction. However, when pressed on whether she
to be affected. I think we have to give It’s in own way, that is another form of would be interested in the position the
examples. You have to remember that trying to limit women. We should be able woman described as Taoiseach Enda
you’re talking about individual people to express ourselves, whether that’s in Kenny’s “right-hand woman” displays
who happen to have a certain sexual what we wear or what we say.” her usual tact. “You know in order to be
orientation.” Taoiseach you have to be in Government,
It’s not just by their dress that women and it’s quite hard to continue to be
When talking about headline-making are judged by different standards – elected as I’ve learned,” she says with a
topics, Fitzgerald chooses her words political commentators tend to also view smile. For the first time in the interview
carefully. Most politicians do when female politicians through a different I feel that she might be attempting to
quizzed on potentially incendiary issues. lens. Fitzgerald’s refusal to rush through dodge a question. “But really, I don’t
One wrong word could cause a media policy or make snap judgements on spend my time sitting around thinking
feeding frenzy or alienate a group of appointments to positions like Secretary how am I going to be Taoiseach – there
voters. However, I get the impression this General have been described in the media isn’t a vacancy and I’m very honoured
has nothing to do with towing the party as ‘cautious’, in tones suggesting this as to be doing what I’m doing and I’m
line or giving good soundbites. It’s more negative quality in someone in such a quite focused on that. But...” (There’s
because Fitzgerald isn’t a woman given position. “I’m always surprised about always a but.) “Generally speaking when
over to verbosity. She is articulate and that because I do believe in preparation. If opportunities come up you want to see
means every word precisely as she says that’s what they mean by caution, I make women availing of them.” Well played
it. Is she a feminist I ask wondering how no apology for it – men get characterised Minister Fitzgerald. However, we can’t
the mention of the F word will make her as big beasts and women get characterised help but feel that this lady might yet be
react. But she doesn’t flinch. “I certainly as cautious or careful.” But, she concedes, for turning.
am a feminist.” In her view, quality is this air of sexism gets caught up in the
something women are still striving for
today in Ireland, especially when it comes “It’s about what kind of society we want.
to combining family and career – women It’s about having faith and hope and
still have many areas working against trust in the future. It is about treating
them. “Ireland still has a long way to go everyone equally”
to keep up with the Nordic countries who
are leading the way for mothers in the
workplace.” She is quick to point out that
there is a great quality of self-assurance


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