MGQ - many believed she would have been an ideal Taoiseach

Commissioner Máire Geoghegan Quinn: ‘The process of change is not easy.’

Commissioner Máire Geoghegan Quinn: ‘The process of change is not easy.’

I am probably the worst kind of voter that the enthusiastic canvassers could meet. I do not vote for a party, but for a personality, or for a candidate whom I feel will do a good job. I admire politicians. I know that ninety-nine per cent of them are motivated by public service, and genuinely believe that they can effect change. Some of them actually succeed in bringing about change; but it is a long, hard slog.

We need politicians to run the country. Winston Churchill said “ Democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

But it’s hard to know what really motivates them to go on and on. I respect those who keep offering themselves for re-election. Are all politicians solely driven by idealism? Is idealism enough? They often pay a heavy price. Their privacy goes out the window; family life suffers. Few of us would like our jobs to be up for grabs every four years or so. If a politician does a good job, people mutter ‘ Sure they are well paid for it’. If they are perceived to have done a bad job, they can be humiliated, and hounded out of office. They are rarely, if ever, thanked for their work. I think that being a politician is akin to having a disease of some sort.

I tend to vote for women candidates as I believe there are not enough women in politics. I am motivated by one outstanding Galway politician in my time, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn (a long name for any journalist to fit into a sentence, but whom the late John Cunningham mercifully shortened to MGQ ), now the European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science.

I often wondered if Galway ‘uses’ MGQ enough? By ‘use’ I mean is she at least made aware of plans for the city, our unique educational challenges, the pursuit of excellence in both our university and hospitals, the questionable standards of science in our schools? Because it is rare for a small community like us to have such an influential EU Commissioner who knows us intimately; and knows her way through the corridors of power in Brussels and Strasbourg.

Resigned from politics

From 1975 to 1997 MGQ had an outstanding political career both as a member of the Galway City Council, and as a Fianna Fáil Teachta Dála. She held a number of Government ministries under both Charles Haughey and Albert Reynolds. At 29 years of age she was appointed Minister for the Gaeltacht, the first woman to hold a Cabinet post since Countess Markievicz was the State’s first Minister for Labour in 1922.

People believed that she would have been an ideal Taoiseach. She stood against Bertie Ahern in a leadership challenge. But she didn’t have the numbers. Dublin wanted Bertie, and had all the support it needed. Many Fianna Fáilers later regretted that she was not successful.

But three years later, 1997, we were all surprised when she announced that she was resigning from politics altogether. This followed a row between St Mary’s College and her son. The row was highlighted in the press. Horrified, MGQ regretted her time spent away from home. ‘If his mother had been a homemaker, an architect, or a businesswomen this simply would not have happened,’ she bravely stated.

However, it could be argued that as minister for justice in 1993, she served the country best. She introduced substantial law reform legislation, including, against all the odds in those far-off days, the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

‘Change is not easy’

MGQ’s father, Johnny Geoghegan, was a very popular CIE bus conductor on the Galway-Gaeltacht run. The Geoghegans are from Carna. He would drop a parcel off anywhere along the route, or assist an elderly passenger off the bus into her kitchen. He was a TD for an impressive 21 years. MGQ was elected on his death in 1975.

As Minister for Justice she immediately began to refurbish Galway’s, and other, crumbling court houses (our handsome Courthouse Square is a result ). She insisted that the victims of crime be heard at trials, and against the tide of the day, she passionately spoke on her introduction of her Bill to decriminalise homosexuality in Ireland.*

MGQ, carefully and sensitively led a nervous Dáil, and the country, through “ dismantling a law which reflects the values of another time”.

“The process of change is not easy and, understandably, many people worry that the traditional values which they hold so dear, and many of which are fundamentally sound, are under siege from emerging modern realities. But, of course, it is not a matter of laying siege to all the old certainties, nor is it a matter of jettisoning sound values simply to run with the current tide of demand, which may or may not be a majority demand. It is, rather, a matter of closely looking at values, and asking ourselves whether it is necessary, or right, that they be propped up for the comfort of the majority by applying discriminatory and unnecessary laws to a minority, any minority...”

“I know too there are parents who will know what it means in practice to have a child whose very nature it is to be homosexual. Very few of them would I believe, be likely to regard it as helpful if in later life one of their own children was an active homosexual, liable to imprisonment - under the present law up to life imprisonment - for giving expression to his sexual orientation...”

There is a lot more which can be found on Google. Of course MGQ’s Bill was successful. It passed with relative ease, and without the fuss that erupted during the repeal of the constitutional prohibition of divorce in 1995, two years later.

There was no way such a talented politician could be left in early retirement. She accepted an appointment to the European Court of Auditors; and in 2009, became Ireland’s European Commissioner.

A year later, when we were all crying in our soup as the Celtic Tiger fell off the Richter Scale, there were calls that MGQ, now working for the EU, should surrender her pensions as a former Irish politician. These were worth over €104, 000, and MGQ had worked harder than most for that. Surely she wouldn’t! But yes, dear reader, she did.

NOTES: *As far as I remember this was the result of a successful campaign by Senator David Norris who had appealed to the European Court of Human Rights that Irish laws prohibiting homosexual activity were a contradiction to its Convention on Human Rights.

I wonder if it is de rigueur for a Minister of Justice to have written a novel? MGQ published The Green Diamond in 1996, about four women sharing a house in Dublin in the 1960s. I haven’t read it, so I am not sure if it is as racy as Alan Shatter’s Laura is reported to be. The Commissioner is married to John Quinn. They have two grown up children.

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