Life after politics — no regrets as former senator takes up the mantle for Irish retail

Lorraine Higgins - no regrets after her time in politics

Lorraine Higgins - no regrets after her time in politics

It was Arsene Wenger who is credited with saying that the life of a football manager is like living on a volcano, in that any day may be your last. The same can be said of political life, even if the volcanic eruption is slightly more regularised and comes at a time of expectation, not suddenly erupting, Pompeii-like.

This time last year, we were deep into the lava of a general election. It was one that threatened to erupt here and there, but in the end was just a rumble in the distance, with Micheal Martin’s falling sheet during the televised debate and the outing of the Mayo whingers, being the main highlights.

For one Galwaywoman though, it was the end of a political journey that had once promised to propel her to the front bench of the Labour Party.

At the time Senator Lorraine Higgins had been through several elections without success, and if there was ever to be a breakthrough, this was it.

For someone whose career was certainly more noticeable than the sum of its parts, Lorraine Higgins had a profile and a personality that brought her to the forefront of her party. Articulate and confident, she was often placed out front for Labour occasions, and she never shirked these, although her campaign to highlight and penalise cyberbullies brought her much abuse on the message boards and social media of the country.

And then after years of preparing for a prolonged career in politics, it all ended.

As the crowds departed the count centre in New Inn last February, her political career unceremoniously ended, she left the hall, wondering what was next.

A year on, much has changed for her. There is no regret, no disappointment. A year of having time to ponder the meaning of it all has brought her full circle. She certainly looks more relaxed than she did the last time we spoke a year ago. Losing a political race is so public, so deflating after months and possibly years of campaigning.

The build-up and then pooooff — nothing.

Presented me with choices

“The year since the election has been great which might sound odd given the adjustment I was forced to make. Obviously the start of 2016 wasn’t the most ideal but sometimes when adversity strikes, it presents other opportunities to you. So, I travelled a bit, got to enjoy my pastimes, and engage more with my family and friends who I saw very little of in the preceding five years.

“It also presented a few choices to me in terms of where I saw my future and what I wanted to work at, so there was a degree of trepidation and excitement making those decisions, but it has all worked out better than I could have expected,” she told me this week.

In November, Lorraine was appointed as Head of Public Affairs and Communications for Retail Excellence, which is the largest industry representative group in Ireland with a membership of almost 2,000 retailers operating 13,000 retail outlets throughout the country.

They provide market insights, a HR advisory service, eCommerce advice, learning and events and lobbying to their members.

And it is a role that ironically brings the former senator into contact with politicians, even though she is no longer a member of any party, having eschewed all allegiances so that she could concentrate impartially on this new role.

“Basically, my role is to work with Government to ensure their policies are shaped with retail interests in mind. I sit on a number of Government advisory committees, attend Government and general meetings as a stakeholder, and work with cross-party Oireachtas members on the issues affecting the industry. I am also the media spokesperson for Retail Excellence.

For that organisation, she seems a perfect choice. It is a busy time for the retail sector and there are many challenges ahead.

“Undoubtedly. December’s consumer sentiment figures showed that confidence has dipped, the increase in parcels coming from the UK and the uncertainty surrounding Trump are all cause for concern.

“However, the biggest challenge facing the industry is Brexit and the sterling devaluation. But Irish retailers are resilient and have proven this over the recession. However, we do need to protect them and Budget 2018 presents an opportunity to do so by reducing VAT, PRSI and keeping the general cost of running business down.”

Better work/life balance

But although, she is still moving in the same political circles, the different nature of the job means that she gets to work a regular day and is able to create a better work/life balance, something that was not possible when she was a senator and an aspiring candidate with one eye on her constituency.

“Overall, it’s not too dissimilar in terms of the work I do. I am still dealing with ministers, departments, government agencies and the media. I have less travel, out of office hours commitments and a better work/life balance now, so from that perspective, it’s very different.

“Adapting to working with the retail industry was a seamless transition, as I grew up working in my parents’ businesses and understand the nuances of the industry. But having been a former member of a government party during tough economic times, you were used to a degree of confrontation and always being on the defence, so from that perspective things are very different.”

The Athenry woman says that she initially missed the cut and thrust of politics, but what hit her straightaway was the sudden availability of spare time, a concept she had lost in the years when politics was her all-consuming passion.

“While I was a senator I was working 80/90 hours a week and when it was all over and I had loads of time on my hands, initially I didn’t know what to do with it.

“In my new role, I am still on the margins given much of my work involves government interaction and I’m always working on policy and campaigns, so there are many similarities with the work.”

Lorraine Higgins has no regrets about her time in politics, and puts last year’s defeat down to the Government’s inability to convey the correct message about the progress of the country.

“I do feel that the last Government didn’t communicate very well the remarkable journey made from 2011-2016 in bringing the country’s finances back on track, which cost a number of good people their seats.

“It was a huge privilege for me to have been given the opportunity to serve by Eamon Gilmore and I did as much as I could in that five years for Galway East, because you should never expect you are entitled to be returned as a senator or TD.

“I’m proud of my record and made some great friends over those years. It didn’t work out for me, but in the end you only regret the chances you didn’t take.”

The new role however, brings a freedom of thought which she relishes.

‘When you are a member of a party you might not necessarily agree with every decision that is made but sometimes you just have to suck it up in order to make a gain for your area elsewhere and you can feel stifled for that reason.

“But I’ve moved into another realm now and in the interests of pursuing my role in a politically impartial manner, I am no longer involved in party politics or a member of a party and that does give you a sense of total freedom.”

I felt responsible for abuse my family got

That freedom she is now enjoying includes the freedom to browse online without being abused by a stranger. An architect of the campaign to highlight cyberbullying, she had first hand experience of the trolling, which seemed orchestrated and targeted.

“That pretty much finished the day I left politics. But I feel vindicated for the stance I took after the Law Reform Commission report confirmed that there is a need for such legislation.

“It’s an issue many people north of 30 don’t understand but ask any teachers or parents their view and they will tell you.

“I’m glad the Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald TD has now committed to introducing it, so all those years I spent whistling in the wind on the issue turned out to be worth it.”

The events of recent weeks have reminded her of how the tolerable limits of political discourse have been stretched in the last few years.

“I think it’s an ugly feature of how politics has evolved in the past number of years. There’s definitely a race to the bottom. Some of the stuff my family and I were subjected to would never happen in any other job and I felt a huge personal responsibility for that.

“Unfortunately, that feature of modern day politics will deter really good and able people from becoming public representatives and we all lose out then.”

Lorraine does not regret having entered politics and having the political experience she had, but as she is still in her thirties, she is confident that her time will not define her.

“I suppose I’ll always be known as a former senator and it was a privilege many people don’t get, but I don’t want to be defined by it for the rest of my life. I’m 37 and it was a five-year chapter of what I hope will be a long and fruitful life.”

For now, there is a renewed vigour in the former senator. Energised by the new post, it brought a happy end to a 2016 that started out with such a draining campaign. She travels, walks, golfs, and enjoys meals with family and friends and moves on in life, armed with the experience that her time in politics gave her.

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