'In politics you have to compromise; that's how you make things happen'
Former tánaiste Mary Harney is a woman of firsts. Ahead of her appearance at the Imagine Festival in Belfast later this month, she tells Gail Bell how she has reimagined her career, and the importance of still being a voice for women and young people
SHE describes herself as a "recovering politician", and certainly Mary Harney, one of Ireland's most distinguished former public servants, suffered her share of controversial headlines during an enduring career in the glare of government.
As the first female tánaiste, first female leader of an Irish political party, longest-serving female member of the Oireachtas and youngest ever member of the Seanad, she smiled through the bad and the good – "you wouldn't want to be too sensitive about what's said about you" she asserts with good-humoured understatement.
Although officially retired from active politics since 2011, the Galway-born erstwhile leader of the Progressive Democrats remains a persistent, "enthusiastic" observer – despite the fact that "nothing" would make her want to "go back there again".
She is still proud, though, after encouraging many women into the political arena, to be an "empowering voice" for women in 2019, although these days she is mostly involved in the cut-and-thrust business world as an independent company director and advisor.
Later this month, however, the former Irish Woman of the Year and the first woman auditor of the Historical Society at Trinity College Dublin – she studied economics and originally set out to be an accountant – will be reliving her political highs and lows and giving her views on all the "the big issues" as a guest speaker at this year's Imagine Festival in Belfast.
With many friends in the north, the malleability of the border in relation to the north-south dimension of Brexit will, inevitably, be on the topic list, although, sensibly, the script won't be finalised until the very last moment.
"Things are changing all the time in relation to Brexit, so what I say will depend on where we are are the time," she says down the line from her home in Dublin. "Politicians love brinkmanship, of course, and they won't agree today on something they can delay for another few weeks – even if it's the same thing they're going to agree on eventually..."
She speaks softly but authoritatively and as someone who knows how the game goes, but Mary Harney, who first entered politics because she "wanted to change the world", believes that despite the politicking, the stunts and the storms, most politicians set out with similar intent.
"I think politicians are underestimated and the vast majority I worked with were there for the right reasons," she reflects with some nostalgia. "Sometimes, we don't explain our story very well, but your failings are always in the public eye, unlike other professions where you can make mistakes behind closed doors.
"I went into it all very young and it quickly becomes your whole life – your friends tend to be people who are involved in politics too. I have a sympathetic husband – I would say most people in politics need to have a very sympathetic and supportive husband or wife, considering the pressures and long hours you are away from home."
Today, she relaxes by cooking and life with Brian (Geoghegan) is good – she reportedly slotted in her 2001 marriage to the Dublin businessman following a day of intensive meetings as tánaiste – but she continues to work hard, particularly as a mentor of young women with the Vital Voices organisation, and in her role as chancellor of the University of Limerick.
"I like to keep busy, but now I can pick and choose," she says. "One of the things I enjoy most is my work as chancellor of the University of Limerick, a post I took up last year. It keeps me in touch with education and with young people – if you want to understand how the world is changing, you need to talk to the young people."
Now aged 66, Harney, whose previous ministerial portfolios include environment, enterprise and health, has always been driven by a philosophy that promotes equality – particularly in relation to gender.
"When I started in in the late 70s as a very young senator, the social issues were one of the big things that attracted me to politics to try to change them," she recalls. "It [the Republic] was a country at the time where we had no family planning provision and no divorce.
"We certainly had no abortion and we had no recognition of gay equality. In fact, it was unbelievable to think that when I first came into politics, you needed a prescription to get a condom. I wanted to change the social conservatism in Ireland when I entered politics; there was no recognition of women's rights at all, really.
"We had just joined the EU and that was the first time we got equal pay, but there was no family planning legislation and there was no recognition of marriage breakdown, so these were the kind of burning issues that affected me as a young woman."
Yet, in not a "huge" amount of time, "enormous progress" was made – "thanks, to a large extent, to civil society coming together, particularly in relation to the last two referenda here: the abortion referendum and marriage equality".
These recent high profile campaigns were highly significant, Harney stresses, and brought to wide attention "significant lessons", in terms of tolerance and "recognising other people's rights as equal citizens".
Widely regarded as a mould breaker, the former tánaiste – who was "thrown out" of Fianna Fail after voting for the Anglo-Irish Agreement – often suffered stinging criticism over the course of her 34-year political career, particularly when minister for health and children (2004 to 2011) and what was seen by some as her application of market forces to the health system.
Yet, she is also credited with vastly improving cancer care by streamlining it from more than 30 hospitals into eight specialist centres.
Abolishing smog in Dublin by banning smoky coal (as minister for environmental protection) reforming company law and introducing the Fair Deal – a support scheme for people in long-term care – she counts among her successes, but Harney is happy to leave a balanced critique of her legacy to the historians.
"I never set out to be a politician, but when I became auditor at the debating society at Trinity, it got a lot of attention, so I was nominated to the Senate by Jack Lynch, then taoiseach," she explains. "In those years, though, if you didn't come from a political family you had little chance of being a politician; it wasn't a very female-friendly environment, to say the least.
"But, yes, I did want to change the world and while, over the years, I realised you should never lose your idealism, changing the world is a very tall order and, unless you're a dictator, you can't do it on your own. You learn a lot about diplomacy, you learn about working with others – and, most of all, you learn to listen.
"Looking back, life wasn't at all dull; there was fun and cross-party friendships which have lasted. We might have been tearing each other apart in the [Dáil] chamber at times, but we could have a drink or cup of coffee afterwards. In politics you have to compromise; that's how you make things happen."
:: Mary Harney's Political Perspectives talk is at Queen's University Belfast on March 27 (tickets and full programme at imaginebelfast.com).