Mary Harney has had a long and distinguished career in Irish politics beginning as the youngest ever Senator appointed to the Seanad and then as a TD, Minister and Tanáiste. Ms Harney was one of the founders and subsequent leaders of the Progressive Democrats(PDs). She is an Economics and Social Studies graduate of Trinity College, Dublin.
How did you get to where you are today?
I was always interested in current affairs and in politics and social issues. In school and college I became active in debate an public speaking competitions. When I started in Trinity I joined the Hist (the college debating society), The Society for St. Vincent de Paul and Fianna Fail. I also spent some time teaching traveller children.
When I was 23 I was teaching maths and economics in Castleknock College as part of the Higher Diploma in Education (HDip) having completed my undergraduate studies in Economics. I never finished the HDip as I was nominated to contest the General Election at that time.
I didn’t succeed in that election so I began a summer-time job as a researcher in a merchant bank. My main task was to categorise the repayment experience of the short-term loan customer base. It was my intention to study Accounting in that Autumn but, much to my surprise, I was nominated by the Taoiseach to be a member of the Seanad. That was a life-changing experience as I decided to pursue a career in politics totally. This was certainly not what I had planned and so Accounting was “put on hold”.
It is difficult to be a part-timer in politics, particularly nowadays. More and more politicians are full-time and this maybe explains why few enough people from business are politicians – they can rarely put their business on hold. Likewise for professional people who are very successful or who aspire to be. There are notable exceptions of course, for example Michael McDowell or Alan Shatter both of whom doing very well in their professions but went into politics.
If there was one thing you could change about the Irish Political System what would it be?
One thing would be single-seat constituencies. I would have PR, which I think is a fairer system. But I think the multiplicity of TDs means everyone is doing the same things and people are going to the same people. When you’re a Minister and you’re receiving letters from TDs you realise that if there’s three or four TDs in an area then constituents are going to all of them and then there’s huge duplication of what they’re at. The competition between then becomes around the local constituency issues, which I think is less important than the national agenda of legislation and policy. That would be one thing I would change.
The other thing I would change is that I would devolve far more stuff to local government but I would have much bigger local government as Ireland is so small. For example, the whole of Cork would be one authority.
Now it’s improving, some things have been devolved and there’s no dual mandate between local and national. So at a national level you’d hopefully have bigger constituencies, more policy focused individuals and fewer TDs.
Do you think Ireland needs a new political party?
Well, I’d love to see Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael merge. Everyone wouldn’t merge, some would go off to Labour or some other party. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are very broad based parties in the sense that they stand for nearly anything.
But do you think Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would be too big as a single party?
Well, I’d would like to see them being narrowed. I would love to see a centre-right, centre-left and a liberal party, a bit like they have in Britain and other European countries. Here, I think the divide is so unnatural.
I’d love to see a shake-up and put everyone into the mix see what comes out in terms of what people actually stand for. Now, so many people in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael stand for the same thing. History has decided where they are. The first step would be Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to be in government together. But I can’t see it happening soon.
What would be your advice to a young Irish graduate today ?
Take a year out before you move onto the next stage. Do what you enjoy, not what people want you to do. You spend so much time working that you need to do what you love. Do what you enjoy and get stuck into it. I always loved what I did, so I never saw it as work as such. Some people are pressured by parents or peers to pursue a particular career but follow your hunch and be open. I had so many friends who just lived for Friday and the weekends.
I also think a very good things in life is to have a mentor, someone who you respect, who’s maybe 10 years ahead of you and whose gone through a career path. Have somebody who throughout your life you can bounce stuff off; someone that’s your mentor as life can be frustrating and your friends might not be the ones to talk to and your parents usually aren’t.
When you first went into politics what did you think you could bring to it?
I suppose my big issues then were the liberal agenda. I had worked in America during the summers when I was in Trinity and when I came back I thought, “this country is so backward”. When you’re very young you want to change the world and I’d also been in the Vincent de Paul so I was big into poverty stuff as well. I was probably very naive and very simplistic in my approach. I think I sort of felt you could instantly change stuff by just a flip of the coin. When I went into Leinster House in 1977 I felt everyone was so ancient. They were all in their 40s and 50s. I really felt very out of it and people really made me feel like child. I felt very conscious of my age.