The right woman for the big job

Maire Geoghegan-Quinn to be appointed Ireland’s EU Commissioner

Maire Geoghegan-Quinn.

Maire Geoghegan-Quinn.

Maire Geoghegan-Quinn has become the first Irish woman and the first Galwegian to be appointed as an EU Commissioner for Ireland, although her elevation to the job is already shrouded in controversy.

On Tuesday An Taoiseach Brain Cowen appointed the former Galway West TD and minister for justice to the post, because of the need for gender balance and because he expects her to “make a major contribution to the work of the new Commission”.

It has yet to be decided which portfolio she will receive but the post of Budgets Commissioner is being mentioned. The appointment of a new Commission is a rigorous process and subject to the approval of the MEPs before formal appointment by Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. Ms Geoghegan-Quinn will be paid an annual salary of €238,918 in her new post.

The appointment of Ms Geoghegan-Quinn was widely expected but before the appointment was made official it was already mired in controversy over her past business relationship with anti-Lisbon Treaty campaigner Declan Ganley.

Ms Geoghegan-Quinn has said she worked as a consultant for Mr Ganley for a few months in the late 1990s after The Ganley group of companies approached her to do part-time consultancy work.

Although Mr Ganley’s efforts to defeat the second Lisbon referendum and win an EU Parliament seat came to nothing his name still has the power to strike fear into pro-EU politicians and the political establishment.

As a result, opposition TDs have questioned the idea of the Government, which led the campaign to ratify the Lisbon Treaty, appointing a person who worked for the leading opponent of Lisbon, to a leading EU post.

Fine Gael European Affairs spokeswoman Lucinda Creighton said she had “serious reservations” about the appointment as the “link with Ganley could become a major issue when she appears before the European Parliament hearing”.

Other TDs have called on her to clarify the work she did for Mr Ganley. However talk of Ms Geoghegan-Quinn becoming an EU Commissioner goes back to 1992 when her constituency colleagues Éamon Ó Cuív and Frank Fahey made positive noises about her being appointed to such a role.

The appointment to the EU commission is the latest step in a long and sometimes controversial career for the Connemara woman.

Ms Geoghegan-Quinn was first elected to Dáil Éireann in 1975 and was re-elected in every election up to and including 1992 before retiring from politics in 1997. In 1979 she became only the second woman to hold a cabinet post in the history of the State when Charles J Haughey made her Minister for the Gaeltacht.

Among the most iconic images of Ms Geoghegan-Quinn is one from the 1985 FF Ard-Fheis where at the end of the leader’s speech she is seen on stage holding Charles Haughey’s hand as they all join up on stage for a rendition of ‘Arise & Follow Charlie’.

This clip is constantly played on TV even up to this day and appears in all the books from that era. Although seen as close to Haughey initially, their relationship eventually soured. She supported the final heave against him in 1991 and told him that “the people of Galway never want to see your face on a poster again”. In return he told her “You’re fired!”

In 1987 she was made junior minister for European affairs and in February 1992 Albert Reynolds brought her back into the Cabinet as Minister for Transport, Tourism & Communications.

In January 1993 after the formation of the FF/Lab coalition she became Minister for Justice. Her most notable contribution in this role was the decriminalisation of homosexuality in June 1993. She was also part of the Irish negotiating team alongside Mr Reynolds and Dick Spring in the talks that led to the signing of the Downing Street Declaration in December 1993.

Following the fall of the Reynolds/Spring government in 1994 and Mr Reynolds’ retirement as Taoiseach, she entered the race for leadership of Fianna Fáil but withdrew on the day of election. Bertie Ahern became the new leader. In 1997 she retired from politics but in 2000 she was appointed to the EU Court of Auditors in Luxembourg. The court checks how the EU spends taxpayers’ money and it is where she has worked since.

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