Interview with Liz McManus, TD
October 30, 1998


LM:  My name is Liz McManus.  I am a Member of Parliament.  I represent the Labour Party, and I also represent County Wicklow.

MT:  You’ve also published a novel and have worked as an architect.  Do you still do those things, in addition to working as a TD?

LM:  Well, I haven’t worked as an architect for years.  I wasn’t a very good architect so I gave it up.  I’d like to think of myself as a writer but I tend to fool myself, given the amount that I do. But yes, I’m back writing again.

MT:  Great.  So, first, I wanted to start off with finding out how you got into politics in the first place.  Did you see yourself when you were younger as a TD?

LM:  I was one of the 60s generation.  I went to University in 1963 and studied architecture, and during that time there began to be tremendous upheavals, particularly in the student community, across the world.  And we were infected along with everybody else.  In particular the school of architecture. There was a lot of unrest because the school was very badly managed at the time.  So we organized a lot of protests and sit-ins and sleep-ins and generally caused mayhem.  And the experience meant that there was a lot of opening up of ideas, a lot of discussion and debate.  Politics was a very chic thing to be involved in I suppose, unlike nowadays.  But I heard and contributed indeed to discussions that I think were extremely formative.  I got involved in politics, street politics at the time, and I suppose in a way I’m still crazy after all the years!

MT:  Good, I hope you stay that way.  What kind of role models were available to you when you were growing up, like were there other women politicians that you knew of, or strong women that you looked up to?

LM:   I came from a totally apolitical family.  My father was a public servant and had a healthy disrespect for all politicians.  So, we actually grew up in a very apolitical family.  Also my mother is a Protestant.  My father’s Catholic.  So it meant in a sense that to create a space for the family we had to respect difference and insure that we weren’t creating a lot of conflict in the house.  Mixed marriages in those days were quite... certainly one was outside the pale if one married outside one’s own caste.

So, it meant I grew up in an atmosphere of great tolerance but not of any great questioning.  And if there were role models they were ones that were presented to me through my convent education: saints, great nuns, people like that who were quite good role models.  I actually feel a debt of gratitude to the convent education I had because in the 50s, the late 50s, really the only area where women were certainly in the driving seat were in areas like education and health.  Where religious orders were actually running major institutions and running them without the assistance of men or without certainly the dominance of men.  So, in  a sense I believe that the seeds of the women’s liberation movement were actually sown, unlikely as it is, within the walls of the convents of Ireland.

MT:  Wow, that’s fascinating.  I think you’ve got a point though.  I mean they were very independent women.

What about, in addition to the nuns and the teachers that you had, were there any historical or mythological Irish women that really were impressed upon you as a child, or now, that you think of as being really strong?

LM:  Well,  I suppose I had a rather atypical education.  I was educated by nuns from a religious order based in Britain who came to Ireland essentially to educate the upper class girls who attended private school, and who would have had quite ambivalent views about Ireland.  Certainly one history teacher was a good strong Irish nationalist and tried to inculcate into us some appreciation of Irish history.  And certainly people like Queen Medbh would have been presented to us.  But really I had an education that was largely at  one remove from what was certainly a very strong nationalist ethos of the time.  I think most other girls and particularly boys had inbred into them a very strong sense that the rebellion of 1916 was the most significant historical event.  Now I believe we look back on it and realize there were a lot of other very significant events that probably were more definitive than that of 1916.

MT:  One more question just a general question before we get into some specific issues. You’re someone that has come forward as a new group of women that has come into the Irish government after a long absence.  Do you think that the options available to women politically and in terms of careers has changed during your lifetime for women here?

LM:   I think the change has been enormous.  It’s actually hard to define the difference because it is so transforming.  I was born in 1947 and I grew up in a context where the expectation of women was that we would get married, that we would make a good marriage, that we would not work after marriage -- indeed in the public service you were barred from working once you got married, and many women lost their jobs.  It was government policy to bar women from public services, essentially because there weren’t enough jobs to go around, and the women were an easy target.  I can remember at school being told to consider very carefully the man that I married, that it was my role to marry a leader of society, and that because I was going to be rearing children that I had a very pivotal but in a sense powerless role to play.  And yet there was, there was this contradiction because while we were being taught this kind of expectation, we were also being educated to a very high level.  And it has been a  tremendous asset to women, the fact that education was seen as equally important for boys and girls.  And that despite the kind of reactionary nature of politics at the time we were being given the tools to go and to work as well as having a family life.  So, it meant that many of us went on to University education.  There was no bar on women reaching the highest echelon in terms of training and education.  It’s what happened afterwards that was highly discriminatory.

For example I went on and became trained as an architect.  There were very few women training in architecture then.  Now there will be a lot more.  But we were there.  I qualified in the early 60s, and it was a great time of things beginning to open up and crack open.  Economically it was time when we were doing very well, and that was of course a huge factor in the changes that were occurring.  I mean you can trace it back to the fact that the economy demanded that women go to the work force, that we had all these talents and skills and training and education, and that it was ludicrous to keep to the old norms when we were a resource.  So there were economic factors that were very powerful in changing Irish society, but it wouldn’t have happened as a result simply of economic factors.  What happened was that we were, for example, say when I was in University College Dublin, we were infected with this disease of student unrest.  But we were also seeing television for the first time, Irish television, opening up the world to us.

One of the very important influences in my life as a teenager was the Civil Rights movement in America, where, you know, Rosa Parks did the business in a way that I’ve never seen any woman do before.  And the Civil Rights movement was very influential obviously in Northern Ireland.  So, there were all these influences coming in from outside -- and there was Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, it was all subversive.  And subverting the very kind of sheltered isolationist Ireland of the 50s.  We took to it like ducks to water.

MT:  That explains a lot -- I think it ticked off about 5 of my questions!  To get into some more specific issues... I was really impressed with the presentation you gave at UCD, and although you didn’t really get into talking about the controversy around abortion and reproductive rights,  I was really struck by the way you talked about the tragedy of all the Irish women that go to England every year for abortions, and I was wondering if you could re-cap that.  Basically I’d love to hear your views on reproductive rights and how you’ve been involved in that.

LM:  Okay, when I was a young woman with a young family the very topical issue of the day for people like me was the whole battle over contraception.  The bishops in Ireland were very strongly opposed to the idea of legalization of contraception, and the women of Ireland were very definitely on the opposite camp.  And it was interesting that at the time, women went to mass, you know, and were good Catholics, but also were absolutely convinced that they wanted to have the freedom to choose whether or not they would have family planning.  And it was a very hard fought battle but it was one that inevitably was going to be won by the women.  And I was part of that because it had a relevance to my life.  I was a young mother.  I had four children, all whom I love very dearly, but I was very conscious that if we didn’t achieve our right to control our reproductive life that we were never going to be able to break out of the old mold and the whole idea of being kept barefoot and pregnant.  So, that informed me very greatly, because it was a very kind of immediate and personal issue -- as was for many people like me.

Now the issue has been resolved, but there is in a sense the follow-on from that battle, in that there is, in my view, a very high level of Irish women who are traveling to England for abortions who are doing so secretly, who are doing so very often without counseling, without making a very clear judgment about their lives, but who are doing it.  And it reminds me very clearly of the 60s when women who got pregnant were put away, were put into the Magdalen laundries, were sent away to England.  I mean members of my family, and we were a very loving family, had to go to England in order to have their babies.  And very often women had babies in England and left them there to be adopted or had them adopted here and never saw them again.  And we hid the problem, we hid away from the problem.

And I refuse to allow us to continue in that mode now.  I think we have to face up to the fact that thousands of Irish women are making decisions to have abortions.  That they are Irish abortions.  Just because they are carried out in Britain makes them no less Irish.  And we can no longer pretend that we don’t have abortion in Ireland.  We have it, we have it on a daily basis, and we need to face up to it.  And yet it’s very hard for people to face up to it because I can understand that there is a genuine commitment in Ireland to the whole idea of being pro-life and a genuine commitment to children, and for us to be able to get our heads around the idea that in certain circumstances women are going to do the unnatural thing of choosing to have an abortion because of their circumstances.  It’s very hard to accept but we have to do it.

And I certainly feel, and my party believes, that our focus has to be on insuring that abortion is safe, that it’s legal, and that it is rare.  And that we do everything possible to offer other choices to women and also to insure that there is no such thing as a crisis or  unwanted pregnancy.  But we haven’t even begun to do that as a society.  It is an issue that I am very committed to resolving.  Unfortunately the very dynamic and pioneering women that came out in the 70s and 80s are pretty thin on the ground nowadays, and if you look at politics and political life, there are very few women who are raising this issue, apart from myself, in the sort of establishment politics that we have today.

MT:  Why do you think that is?

LM:  Well I suppose it’s partly because women’s rights, the women’s movement has become very respectful.  You will never get a male politician, consciously at least, making a sexist remark.  They’re always walking on eggshells when it comes to comments about women.  And that’s a good thing, it’s a good thing that it’s become respectful, that women, the idea of equality for women, is something that people can take as a given, even though we haven’t obviously achieved full equality.  But the fact that a radical pioneering feminist who fought very hard for example, fought the bishops very hard on the issue of contraception ended up being elected president of Ireland, when Mary Robinson was elected, it was a real indication of how much we have achieved.  But it does mean that women who are elected to Dáil Éireann are very often elected because they are members of Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, not because they have carved out a radical career for themselves.  And they are far more likely to take the party line, to see themselves less as feminists and more as just practical politicians.

And I just... maybe I’m going back to the good old days, but I refuse to accept that role.  I don’t really believe there’s much point in being involved in politics and being a politician unless it is to change things and to deal with the hard issues, whatever they are, that are really central to political life and yet are very often kept out of the frame and people are afraid to talk about -- whether it’s abortion, or whether it’s how we relate to Travelers, how we deal with asylum seekers and refugees, you know all these issues.  They’re the political, they actually create the political struggle of today, and in a way I do set different standards.  I do expect and hope that women are going to be more in tune with those challenges.

MT:  Perfect segue into my next question!  Ireland has been so homogenous for so long and recently there’s been quite of number refugees and immigrants coming into the country.  I’m wondering how you predict or how you see Ireland dealing with it and how you see Irish people relating to difference and mult-culturalism?

LM:  Well,  I think the first thing that has to be said is that the number of asylum seekers or refugees coming to Ireland relatively speaking is very low compared to other European countries.  What is startling though is the fact that they’re coming at all.  Ever since the foundation of the Independent Irish State, our experience has been of emigration, of people leaving, and it’s a relatively recent phenomenon where we have not only the Irish people staying but foreigners coming here.  Some are coming because they like the place --  I mean there are a lot of people who’ve settled here and have contributed to Irish life who are maybe living in rural areas and make cheese, paint, whatever, and they’re actually contributing enormously to the cultural diversity that we have.  But the phenomenon of  having people coming, particularly from developing countries, poor people, people who are very often isolated because of language difference, who are dependent on the state when they come here, that is a very recent phenomenon and one that we haven’t accommodated to with any great sensibility.

Irish people don’t cope with the difference terribly well and the pressures that are now in certain communities in Dublin have led to serious racism and evidence of racism that we have to face up to.  The fact that our tradition has been one of emigration, where other countries have continually taken us in, particularly the States and Canada and Australia, doesn’t seem to hold much water when it comes to our resistance and fear of people with different color skin coming to Ireland, particularly coming to Dublin.  I don’t think anyway frankly that the history that we have is of great relevance, because we can’t sort of have a soft centered approach that somehow because somebody took us in the past that we now are going to be nice to others.

I think it’s far more sensible for us to take the approach that the world has become a smaller place.  That the markets are now global.  That if you have a small country and you’re going to survive that you do need to be multi-cultural or at least have the capacity to be multi-cultural.  And that it is a challenge but it is one that it is actually of benefit to us.  I suppose as a practicing politician I have a certain approach, that I do like to think that people are very often driven by self-interest, and in this instance there is a self interest for Ireland.  It is good for us to have that kind of multi-culturalism.  It means that there’s diversity within our own culture.  Even at the most basic level it expands the genetic pool.  So, I think we  have to stop being afraid and start seeing the positives.  But that is a major leap, and we’re going to have to engage children in the whole project in terms of opening their minds to the possibilities of what multi-culturalism provides for us.  We’re going to have to do it in terms of political leadership, and sadly at the moment there isn’t a huge amount of political leadership in terms of presenting the argument for multi-culturalism.  It is still seen as a problem rather than as an opportunity.

MT:  You always end on such great sound bites.  Following up on the issue of racism, could you talk about your experience working for Travelers' rights?  Were you involved in working for Travelers' rights before you were a minister of housing, or vice-versa?

LM:  When I was first elected in ‘92 I was in opposition, and the government at the time set up a new department, the Department of Equality and Law Reform.  And one of the areas that they were dealing with was the area of Travelers and Travelers’ needs.  Unusually, they appointed a member of the opposition, myself, to chair the task force on the needs of Travelers.  I like to think it’s because of my great ability, but actually I think it was more to do with the fact that it was such a hot potato that a lot of people on the government side probably didn’t want to take on the job.  But it was actually fascinating experience, very worthwhile.  We produced a major report.  And also it meant that when I did become the Minister for Housing I was very informed in the whole area of housing for Travelers and accommodation needs. So I immediately instituted a strategy for the accommodation of Travelers which thankfully this current government is continuing with.  So, there is a bit of serendipity in the whole process.  It also gave me an insight into how government works, even though I was in opposition.  But that helped when I became minister myself.

MT:  And for the basic ignorant audience, what are some of the major problems that Travelers face.  I mean obviously housing is a big one.  Maybe you could briefly describe the situation of Travelers in this country.

LM:  Well, the Irish Traveler community is a unique community in that they are not Gypsies but they are nomadic, and nobody is too clear as what their origins are.  It is thought that they grew out of the famine when people were dispossessed and were having to travel the roads of Ireland, but they actually go back much further before the famine to Elizabethan times.  They’re a very small community in terms of our overall population, but they are generally speaking very poor.  Most of them are nomadic.  Some of them are settled and living in houses but very often carry on the same culture that they had when they were nomadic.  Selling horses, dealing in scrap, things that can be very difficult for the settled community to accept if they are living next door to them.  So, the culture of Travelers is one that is very often at odds with the culture of the dominant population.  One of the central issues that we dealt with in the task force was how to ensure that the two cultures could live together and also how both cultures had to change to reach that accommodation.

It’s interesting to see that within the Traveler community there are various castes.  There are very wealthy Travelers who are located around Rathkeel in Limerick, who live very nomadic lives but live at a very different level in terms of economic advantage.  Some Travelers have emigrated.  It is very interesting, there are about 10,000 Travelers living in one of the southern states in America, who again have done well  for themselves and live very comfortably but still have a nomadic base to their culture.

Very often Irish people are very antagonistic to Travelers.  As far as I’m concerned we have to adjust, to accept that like all other European countries, we have a nomadic population.  In our case it’s a very small nomadic population.  Their needs are considerable, their health status is very poor, their infant mortality is high.  They live short lives.  Their education needs are complex because of their moving around the country.  They have a very patriarchal society and women, even though women are going to be the hope for the future of the Traveler community, women are very often treated very badly and are treated as inferiors.  So, they have a complexity of needs there that need to be addressed.  And in some cases we are doing okay.  Certainly in the area of education, I think we have made great progress, and Travelers have made great progress.  But we have a long way to go yet.

MT:  Great.  When you were talking a minute ago about people walking on eggshells around feminist issues, I was reminded an incident on the Gay Byrne show when a lot of women who were just came on and--

LM:  When I was elected, in 1992, there was an unprecedented number of women elected.  It was still very small but it was much larger than ever before: 21 or 22 women were elected. And Gay Byrne, who’s a very well known television presenter, put us all on the panel of the “Late, Late Show” and fired questions at us.  And most of them were pretty innocuous sort of political questions.  But the one that I felt was really out of line was, he started to go to each woman Member of Parliament and asked each one after the other who was minding their children.  And unfortunately, I suppose because it was thrown at them, most of the women began to rather meekly say, “Well so and so is,” or, “I have an au pair,” very apologetically in some cases.  So, I had time to think about it, and by the time it got me, essentially what I told him was to mind his business.  And it did create a kind of response in both the audience and the public which was a very good one because it recognized that no male politician or indeed Gay Byrne himself would ever be asked that question.  And that it was nobody’s business what one does in private or how one comes to ones own arrangements, and that that was a principle that applied to men and women.

There was another incident involving Padraig Flynn, during the Mary Robinson campaign.  Fianna Fail, the biggest party in Ireland, were having a lot of difficulties, but had always expected and understood that the presidency belonged to them because it had always been a Fianna Fail president.  And of course the figures all showed that they had a right to have that expectation.  But there were difficulties, and very close towards the end, one of their very senior politicians, Padraig Flynn, was interviewed on radio, on a panel discussion, and made the most extraordinary attack on Mary Robinson, saying that she had suddenly discovered her role as a good mother of her children.  And it lost Fianna Fail the election.  It was a wonderful thing that happened.  And it showed how men weren’t taking seriously enough the reality that women were claiming part of the territory, their share of the territory, and that if men didn’t face up to that fact they could end up in serious trouble.  So, there was a lot of very happy people, particularly women, when the result was that Mary Robinson had won the election and had done down, forever in my view, the kind of crude sexism of Padraig Flynn.

And interesting enough, to be fair to Padraig Flynn, he subsequently went on to become an EU commissioner on social affairs and has proved himself a great champion of women’s rights.  So, it does prove that one can learn from experience.

MT:  A couple of last general questions... I’m curious about the effect of having two women presidents and so many women elected to the government a few years ago.  Certainly it’s brought change in attitudes, but has it brought about any real changes for women on a daily basis, like in terms of legislation in support of child care or things that really affect the average woman?

LM:   Well, there’s been some change, but there are still a lot of unresolved issues, basic issues.  The change I think has been largely cultural.  Particularly because Mary Robinson did such a magnificent job it meant that forever after nobody could really turn around and say that women aren’t able to do this job or that job.  There was a cultural under-pinning of the women’s movement that can never be undone now.  That doesn’t mean that for women in their daily lives there aren’t extremely difficult obstacles put in their way, maybe not deliberately, but they are still there and still as major as if they were deliberately put there.  And one issue obviously is the whole issue of child care.

March for Childcare, Nov. 1999

We do not have child care provision in this country that would be worthy of the name.  Compared to other European countries we are way behind on the league.  And the reality is that women are choosing now to go out to work.  The price of houses is such that most young mothers have to go out to work.

I think that young educated women nowadays do not expect to be full-time mothers and housewives the way that I was, but the provision is not there to support, the supports are not there, the family supports.  We’ve only just brought in an act to provide for parental leave, but it’s unpaid parental leave, which in itself creates a whole new inequity, that those who can afford to take it up are going to take it up and those who can’t will be unable to do so.  And that’s one thing that does disturb me greatly, that while we got rid of the old inequities, we are now in a situation where we are creating new inequities between women who are middle class and educated and women who are working class, who are very often living on their own, rearing children, who haven’t been able to access a certain level of education, and who are losing out.  And that that division among women is a very real one and a growing one.

MT:  There’s sort of conflicting stereotypes about Irish women, at least in the US media.  One idea is that they’re all at home and raising 11 children and very much under the influence of the church.  Then you have, you know, all these women elected to government and all this change happening.  Compared to other countries, do you feel like Irish women have a lot of freedom?  Rights? Opportunities?  Or do you think there’s still a long way to go?

LM:  I’m not sure if I’m really informed enough to compare with other countries, but certainly knowing this country well, I would say it’s a little bit like our economy.  Because we never had an industrial revolution, like in Britain, we made the leap into this sort of technological revolution relatively easily.  We didn’t have all the structural difficulties that other countries had.  In the same way, I think in Ireland we didn’t have the kind of transition periods maybe that the war produced, in places like France and Germany,  for women.  We kind of leaped into the new millennium or are leaping into the new millennium.  And a lot of it I would put down to the fact that we have a very good education system that is very much based on the idea of equality between girls and boys.  And that the times that are in it are facilitating women as well.  It is the time in history where to be adaptable, to be flexible, to be able to move from one thing to another relatively easily, that’s something that women I think do naturally, and I think it’s a requirement now, certainly in the work place, that you have that kind of flexibility.

The whole idea of consensus is building up and growing up.  Even in politics which is so traditionally confrontational.  And again women are good at consensus.  So, I think in a sense we are in tune with the times and that -- I don’t want to generalize too much but -- I think that is a factor.  The fact that we have a young population, I mean demographically we have an extraordinary young population, means that we have many young people, male and female, who are coming now to the point of entering the work force.  We are getting the vast majority of electronic companies from America coming into Ireland compared to the other European countries, and that’s because we have all these young bright people who are willing to go out and do whatever needs to be done.  And women are playing their part in that.

MT: When I was in your office last time I was talking about my experience of interviewing women on the street.  I kept asking them, “But what about women in Irish history?” and they were like, “Well, there weren’t any.”  You said something really interesting about how quickly people forget.

LM:  Well,  I think part of the reason why we forget our history so easily is because of the troubles in Northern Ireland.  Because for so long there was terrible things done in the name of Ireland and Irish nationalism. There was a very strong negativity which emerged as a result of the Provisional IRA campaign in Northern Ireland.  And that in a sense we wanted to blot out any part of that and to reject it in a very unequivocal way.  And it’s interesting, the first time certainly in recent years that the Irish flag could be flown with pride by people was when our Irish football team was playing in the world cup.  And it was an Englishman, Jackie Charleton, who actually gave us the pride back in the Irish flag.

Because of the peace process... We’re now in the year where we’re commemorating 1798 where there was a very bloody rebellion but one based on the principles of the Republic, of equality and fraternity.  But it was very bloody indeed on both sides.  But we’re able to now, particularly in my own county here, county Wicklow, where a lot of the fighting took place, to have commemorations and to tie it in with the idea of reconciliation. So people are re-discovering their history which is a very positive thing.  We also have the famine commemoration.

So there’s beginning to emerge again an understanding and an interest and a confidence about learning our history, and hopefully that will extend to the role of women.

HannaSheehy-Skeffington, Constance Markievicz, Maud Gonne

There has been some good work done by women historians in particular on the role of women and that has been very informative.  When you look at the turn of the century, women were extremely important. Constance Markievicz, Maud Gonne, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, these were really strong important women central in the struggle for liberation, and also in terms of the struggle that the suffragettes initiated in Britain.  And we have forgotten them to an extent.  Certainly we haven’t given them the debt of gratitude or we haven’t paid the debt of gratitude that we should.  And in the same way I suspect the current crop of young Irish women coming up today aren’t very aware of the struggle of the feminists of the 60s and 70s.

I suppose there isn’t any gratitude in politics, and that’s a good thing that we do move on.  But the young women of today would not have the opportunities were it not for the women’s liberation struggle of the 70s.  And they in turn wouldn’t have had any framework to come out of were it not for the women of the turn of the century and those who went before, who very often led very isolated hard lives, and for whom we should express our gratitude.

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