WIP Class of 2012 intern Olwen Sheedy talks about politics, leadership and reform with former Minister for Education Mary Hanafin.
What were you doing when you were my age?
When I finished my BA and my H Dip I then did a stage in the European Parliament for six months and worked, as it happened on education policy. Then I did a years teaching and then I was Vice President of the European Youth Council for two years but I took the second year off on sabbatical so I was kind of combining international youth work and European work with finishing up studying in Ireland. And then I got a full time teaching job the following year and then I got elected to the council a few years later. Within five years of leaving college I spent six months in the European Parliament, a year as Vice President of the European Youth Council, full time sabbatical, and from then on combined teaching and politics.
Can I just ask what were you teaching?
I was teaching Irish and History and then in my later years of teaching, I was teaching up until 1997, I was also the transition year coordinator so I am a very very strong proponent of all the extra curricula activities for leadership!
How did you get to where you are today?
I suppose when you look at somebody like me, whose family has been involved in politics it is I suppose a natural progression but at the same time you have to have the interest yourself in public life and I think that’s the first thing. I’d always been involved in the kitchen literally, with people coming in with their issues and with their problems in the country. I recognised what was behind public life, that it wasn’t all about television and newspapers. On a practical level, I was first elected to Dublin City Council and then was heavily involved in the Fianna Fail party at national level and executive level for very many years and that kept me prominent in the party. Then being the local teacher in Blackrock, I was heavily involved in the community so I had those different levels of community involvement, political background and political involvement and then obviously had to make it up through the ranks so weather that was actually being elected by the public or being selected by the Taoiseach to be minister they are all steps to where I am today.
Who was the most influential person in your life and why?*
My father would be a very influential, as a person who was not only a politician but also somebody of very strong views and principles and stood by them when he was in politics and that was a very strong influence. Earlier, a teacher, a nun, sister Alice, she thought me both Irish and English but to the extent that when I was wondering when I was going to do in college, a degree in Irish and History or Irish and Celtic studies, even though Celtic studies was her own background, on the phone and I was nineteen years of age at the time, she told me “Mary Hanifan, you’re going into politics, you need to understand your Irish history”. So two different influential people on two different levels.
Ireland has made slow progress in reducing the large gender imbalance in women’s representation in parliament; have you any recommendations on how to improve this situation?
We’ve been around the houses now so much on this issue, it’s really very difficult. I’ve never favoured quotas at all but actually things are so bad I think it’s worth giving it a try for an election or two, but you can’t have quotas if you don’t have people who are actually willing to stand and that really has to start at a young age. I am not in favour of reducing the age to sixteen but I am very much in favour of getting young people involved in school councils, debating, public speaking, because I think they’re actually the skills that you need to encourage that sense of participation. Equally students in higher education, getting people involved in any of the political parties. But you have to keep them interested you know. They need real engagement. I’m not sure if senior politicians give enough time in this area.
Moving on from this, have you any recommendations on how to increase the number of young people in politics?
Well this kind of crosses over with my last answer, the interesting thing with public issues is with women their focus tends to be on the community. They are involved in parties at the organisational level, but they are also running every school board, every parish, and every church. So I think the best way to get women involved is through their communities and then through local elections. For young people I think it’s actually wider than that. Young people have bigger ideas about saving the world rather than saving their village! Involving them in the big economic questions is important, in the human rights issues, in the big questions about the environment.
What are three essential traits of a great leader in your opinion and can you give an example of someone who you yourself aspire to?
I think honesty no matter what you do, you know if you’re honest I think it shines through and given that you have to get public support they need to be able to see you as somebody who’s honest. I think being decisive as well. You get a lot of advice and a lot of opinions and ideas coming at you so you need to be decisive. But in order to do that I think you have to listen as well because you don’t have all the answers. So listening properly comes before being decisive. I think honesty, listening and decisiveness.
Can you give an example of somebody that you aspire to?
I think different people have different traits. I always admired good speakers because I think good speakers inspire others. I always firmly believe that a leader no matter where you go and no matter what you’re doing if you’re speaking you should be well prepared, targeted and should bring people along with you. In that context, one of the most inspiring speakers in my opinion is Bill Clinton who just kind of draws in an audience. That’s just from a speaker point of view. Great leaders…you could take the big ones like Nelson Mandela. I mean of course they have truly admirable traits.
I was also up half the night to make sure I was logged in to get tickets for An San Suu Kyi! These are great international leaders. But at a national level, I genuinely think Bertie had the best interest of the public at heart in trying to better people’s lives and I think history will show that.
Is your behavior different as a team leader and a team member? If so, how does it differ?
It’s funny because as a cabinet minister you are actually both at the same time. You’re a team leader but you’re a team member of the cabinet. So it’s in a way, for example at budget time, when that real conflict comes in the play. As the Minister for Education let’s say, you’re going in and your fighting every battle for your department. You have worked out with your department, with your officials, what are the priorities, what is the money you need to get, what are the plans you need to put in place and you work all that out as the leader. You then go in and you are only one of fifteen and there is a bigger picture. You continue to fight for your own piece of the action, of course you realise then that the country is bigger, the budgetary matters are bigger than your individual issues and then you become very much the player and you have to just take a step back.
If there was one thing you could change about the Irish political system what would it be and why?
I know people talk about it being a male environment and I would have fought against this for years saying that you go in and make it your own but in hindsight looking back it is a very male environment. It’s not at all supportive of women. I just think it’s very demanding of people’s lives, publicly as well. What I would like to change is the relationship between the media and the politician which in recent years has become extremely intrusive, particularly the tabloids. They feel they own not only your public life but your private life as well and I think that’s crossing the boundary and I think it needs to be eliminated now or its going to go too far. I can give an example of when they followed me in New York and what really got me was that they actually wrote what I ate for my breakfast and photographed me along the streets. I said it to a new female political who came into the news recently. I met her and I said to her, they will follow you and they will try to scare you. They wouldn’t do it to a man but they will do it to a woman and they are going to watch who you are with and what you are doing and you have to be conscious of it at all times.
From your experience over the past number of years, can you provide some lessons that you have learned?
Well I suppose the first one is that you start off thinking you are going to be in politics all of your life but of course you’re not because it’s the most fragile and unstable career in the world, you know, you are in somebody’s hands so I think the real lesson is while you have the opportunities do it. Whatever it is you plan to do, do it. I often think if I was starting again in any department I wouldn’t wait to see what people wanted to do, or drag it out, I’d just go do it. I think that’s the first thing. Secondly, and it was something I knew but it was re-enforced and it’s something I tell people, enjoy it. I mean I loved it and I enjoyed every single bit of it but public life is something that you need to be able to enjoy. You need to love the public and public life and if you don’t get out of it. Another lesson is to keep your private friends because the public life will die and at the end of the day, who do you fall back on except your family and your friends and it can be very easy to get so engrossed in work all the time, particularly at the level I was at, it’s easy to lose sight of the people that are always there for you. And I was very lucky that they were always very good to me as opposed to the other way around and they are the ones that are there for you.
What advice would you give to a young university graduate from Northern Ireland/Ireland?*
Take every single opportunity you get. Travel far and wide. Try to get real experiences, placements, internships, not just bar work and restaurant work. That’s fun work but in order to genuinely learn from a work culture you should try and get real experience like you have been doing and will be doing this summer. If you have a dream for a long term vision, do something now that will help you along the way. I can’t say I ever saw myself as Minister for Education but it was really fun when I was Minister for Education that I was looking at exactly the same things that I had looked at twenty years ago when I was on a stage in the European Parliament. You know you realise how slowly the system moves! My advice to any young graduate is, don’t despair when looking for employment opportunities. You don’t need a full time permanent job right now, you just need to grab the opportunities that are there and go with them.