Interview with Mary Banotti, Irish representative to the European Parliament, April 9, 1999
MB: My name is Mary Banotti. I'm a member of the European Parliament for the Dublin constituency. I've represented Dublin in the European Parliament since 1984 and I'm approaching my 4th election for the European Parliament, my 7th election either for the Senate, the National Parliament, or for the Presidency of Ireland.
My mother was a niece of Michael Collins. And my sister was Minister for Justice. And I was involved in many campaigning issues before I went into politics -- like a lot of us from the first sort of wave of women politicians.
MT: As you said you're from a political family, but how did you get your start in formal politics?
MB: Well, I suspect I've been political with a small p all my life. I left Ireland at the end of the 1950s which was a deeply dreary time here for everybody but it was particularly dreary for women I think. So I set off on what I euphemistically described then as a "world tour." I trained as a nurse in London, then I went to Canada and America. In the 60s the burning political issue in the States was the Civil Rights Movement and I was immensely caught politically by that whole struggle.
So I joined a group called Crossroads Africa which had a largely black American administration. It was an organization which was seeking to establish connections between the Afro-American community and Africa, where many of them had come from. So, I went I was tagged on there as part of the medical team. Most of them were college students at the time. I was part of a medical team there. And we were going out to give anti-measles vaccination because measles then and indeed I suspect still was a killer disease for the children there. That was my first exposure to both active political life in the States but subsequently to the issues raised by development and in the developing world. And I have continually maintained an interest in that.
I believe that my political life has been -- because I've had such a rackety life before and since I went into it -- I believe that my political life has been heavily influenced by the experiences I had before I was a politician. I met my husband in Africa, he was an Italian doctor working in East Africa, where I was myself and we went to live in Rome in the late 60s. My daughter was born there and the marriage was not unfortunately a success and I returned to Ireland in 1970, which proved to be quite a transitional stage in Irish life. The sixties were just catching up with it. I arrived almost on time for the women's liberation movement which I found enormously exciting and became quickly involved in that and other issues which arose out of that. I helped to set up the first refuge for women experiencing domestic violence. I became involved in trying to provide better treatment for alcoholism, a serious public health problem here. I was involved in campaigns to change family law because I was experiencing myself some of the inequalities in family law that had existed, and I was also trying to rear a small child on my own. I had a very interesting job, a social work job within the Irish distilling industry.
I wasn't terribly impressed by the public representatives that we had at the time and in fact the reason I decided to go into politics was that I one day decided that with my hands tied behind my back I could do as well as any of the people who were in there. So thatís why I ran for election. But I quickly discovered that it wasnít going to be as easy as I thought. You know here I was, with a particular, shall we say background which I felt would be useful in politics, but nobody else did! It took me ten years, finally from the time I first tried for nomination, to run for election. It took me... that was about 1972, and I got my first nomination to run in '82 for the senate, which I didn't win. Then I ran in a bi-election following the death of a sitting T.D. in 1983, and once again was defeated. Very useful experience, very useful, because I feel that perhaps even still women find the whole massive exposure of elections and all that you are called upon to pull out of yourself for elections, they find it quite stressful. Because very often they are trying to juggle parts of their lives in a way that still remains a real issue for women politicians. You have to learn to cope with failure if you're in political life and it's tough. I don't pretend to be gallant, I am a bit gallant but not that gallant -- it's nasty not to win an election because you can't believe that you put so much effort into something and then there is nothing at the end of it. So, I had had my experience of two campaigns in which I had not succeeded in being elected before I ran in 1984 for the European election and I got a great vote then. Since then I have been re-elected, apart from the Presidency, in every election.
MT: And so what district do you represent?
MB: Well my constituency is Dublin but in fact, in the European Parliament you also represent Ireland.
MT: Right, and what were your experiences of going to the European Parliament as a woman? Did you find it was hard to be a woman in a in a male dominated field? Or maybe a more appropriate question is what was your experience as a woman here in Ireland trying to be a politician?
MB: Well, I think I was very lucky because when I first started actively seeking election it was a time when the political parties had woken up to the fact that people, women and men of course, would vote for women candidates. And they did, quite significantly. And I would have been part of a particular kind of women going into political life who would have had the kind of background, activist backgrounds. I was really lucky in that the leader of my political party [Fine Gael], Dr. Garrett Fitzgerald, was a very genuine feminist and very anxious to encourage more women into political life. And he did. There is no doubt about it, he threw his influence behind encouraging more women to seek election and giving them all the help that was needed to get them elected.
MT: I think the one thing that's hard for Americans to figure out is that there has been this dearth of women in politics in Ireland -- and everywhere -- for so long and then all of a sudden there are all these women running for election. So how would you explain the large number of women that have been running, especially for the presidential election the last time around?
MB: Well a number of things happened. In the 70s there were a number of "high profile" women - a large percentage of them were journalists with a ready made access to the media. But also a huge number of women were actively involved in community activities, and the political parties realized that these women were well known in their own communities and could themselves win votes. Now they didn't always get elected but they served a purpose, I suspect for political parties in bringing in a vote that they might not necessarily have thought they'd get. That's one thing, in the European Parliament, it was different. In 1984, particularly, because most of the women there -- I would say 95% of them would have been senior women in their own countries -- they wouldn't have just walked in there. Some of them would have got in on party lists because they'd served their political parties for many years, but most of them had a distinguished political background, women like Simone Veil particularly, she was a president of the European Parliament . So, most of us who were elected in '84 and indeed subsequently, would have had an established track record, and I donít think anybody was about to put us down. So it I havenít experienced any kind of active discrimination in the in the broad sense. I am aware of course that there are little secret clubs and all the rest of it, and most of the people in those I say still are the men.
MT: What were your experiences of running in the last Presidential election?
MB: Well, Mary Robinson had clearly been a spectacularly good president in all sorts of quite surprising ways. I mean she had a distinguished record herself, but as she freely said herself, when she ran for election she discovered a whole secret world in Ireland that was largely unsung -- the voluntary world and people working in their communities. And in the context of her presidency she certainly celebrated and acknowledged the work these people were doing here in Ireland. Obviously if she ran again she'd be elected straight away, but I felt that if she wasn't running I would be interested in running for election. So, I told my party leader this -- now he hadnít thought about it one way or another, I didn't hear anything for a few months and then he rang me and asked me if I was still interested. So, I said yes I was and we had to get a nomination from my political party, which proved in fact to be quite a problem, because at the last minute another candidate, another woman, a very good woman, came in as another candidate. So, it delayed the start of the campaign, but thatís democracy, you know, you've got to roll with those sort of things. I had hoped to do a somewhat similar thing as Mary Robinson had done, you know, which was get in my car and drive all over the country meeting people that way, because there is a limited amount of that you can do in the context of a 6 week campaign. I was aware before I started that the fact that my political party commanded probably only about 27% of the vote in the country meant that I would have to work twice as hard if I was going to get more than the party core vote.
And there were various other things, you can read them in the papers: the Labour Party decided to put another woman candidate up and regrettably as this continued it seemed in some way to diminish the role I felt. And then when Dana decided to run as well, we were into the scenario, as the press called it, "The Spice Girls." And then we had Derek Nally who announced that he was the "decency" candidate! Which in a sense meant that the rest of us weren't decent people. But anyway we laughed about it -- it wasn't something particularly worrying. But what did worry me once the campaign got started was that there seemed to be a trivialization of the campaign and of the role [of President]. There was so much twittering going on about people -- saying they [the candidates] weren't political or they weren't members of political parties, as if in some way being an active politician was a secret shame -- that I began to get thoroughly fed up with the whole thing.
So, I threw a spanner in the works by saying I was sick of all this candy floss sort of campaigning. But I am also shrewd enough to know that in terms of the way media -- and this was a media campaign, very much so -- that you couldn't appear to be being "mean" to one of the other candidates. Mrs. McAleese said that she wasn't a member of a political party. She was. She had run for them before in this very place because I remember her driving up and down my road, trying to get herself elected, and she didn't succeed. That, I have total sympathy with, but she was political, and she wouldn't have got that nomination if she wasn't. I was political, quite proudly political. I am proud of the fact that my political party had picked me, and I've served my country and my political party, I believe, with a certain amount of distinction in the past few years. So, I didn't want to see that frittered away.
There were other elements that arose within the campaign: the question of Northern Ireland, the deep longing people had here for peace in Northern Ireland, certain regrettable comments made by senior politicians about that. I see myself very much as somebody in deep sympathy with the issues in Northern Ireland, but I found myself being portrayed as a "partitionist," which was very upsetting because I'm not. I am very familiar with Northern Ireland, I regard it as part of my political responsibility to keep in touch up there and have been. I regularly visit it even before the peace process, before the peace process particularly.
So, in that sense I found it upsetting. I had some wonderful experiences throughout it and I got an absolutely wonderful vote in my own constituency where clearly I was the lead candidate, but my political party as Iíve said, did not have the huge core votes that Fianna Fáil did and therefore I lost. And I wouldn't have missed the experience for the world. And I have no doubt that Mrs. McAleese will be a splendid President, and I wish her well. I haven't a momentís regret or envy or anything else about not winning.
MT: Will you run again?
MB: No, I would not. For a start I'm going to be, at that stage, I hope to be doing something totally different. One of the sacrifices you make in political life is that it is awfully hard to maintain a network of friends and family, particularly in the European Parliament, when you are away so much so. And I have been invited by the United Nations to be a UN ambassador on population control so I will be increasingly focusing on that aspect of my life as well.
MT: Great. Any guesses why there are so many Marys involved in Irish politics?
MB: I think itís generational, because up to maybe the beginning of the 70s, every family had a Mary. When there were girls there was a Mary. And it is quite funny -- there was play called "Catholics" about a girls' school, and every girl in the class was called Mary. There were 11 girls in my class, I went to a boarding school, and 6 of them were called Mary. So consequently my name has become a kind of generic term: Mary Banotti. It sort of goes in as straight away the two names.
MT: And were you named for anyone in particular?
MB: No, no I was named for the Blessed virgin.
MT: How do you feel about that?
MB: No, I mean there was nothing unusual about it, it was, it is generational. We only went into kind of fancy names as there called now in the 70s. We all had good plain names with saints attached to them.
MT: Let me just wrap this up really quickly because weíre running out of time. One thing I'm asking everyone is if there are any women along the way that inspired you. I don't know if their in your family or historical figures... I guess especially because you were saying you think you were political before you came out as being political, I'm wondering what kind of heroines you had along the way. There's so few role models for women, I find.
MB: Yes, yes, well I always tended to admire some romantic heroines, you know, but I had a wonderful role model within my own family, my grandmother, who had been very active in the 1916 rebellion. She in fact was a second cousin to Michael Collins, and she was the second wife of Michael Collins' brother, who was my grandfather. Now she was a wonderful story teller. She was a beautiful woman. There was something really wonderful about her. And she had carried messages in her corsets and all sorts of things during the civil war. My heroines have always been active and slightly reckless and I suppose you can say that's been the story of my life, too.
MT: What was your grandmotherís name?
MB: My grandmothers name before she married was Nancy O'Brien, she is quoted very significantly in Tim Pat Coogan's book about Michael Collins. There is a photograph of her in it. And she then became Nancy Collins when she married my grandfather.
MT: And who are some of these romantic heroines?
MB: Of course there was Constance Markiewicz, Maud Gonne, they would have been out there. And I just loved the activist life, I loved the feeling that I was living in my country when I came back to Ireland in 1970. I had been out of it for about 14 years, and I loved the feeling that all the experience I had gained out of the country was now here, and I could use it in my own country. It was one of the most exciting times of my life, even though I was having a lot of... I had terrible financial problems because I had a small child and I had to find a job and all of that sort of thing. But to live in Ireland in the 70s was perfect bliss if you were my kind of person, I suppose, you know, actively changing things. We saw family law changed, we saw women begin to take their place in national life, we saw some of the corrosively conservative attitudes perpetrated by the church begin to slip away, or not to matter as much as they did. And all of that was wildly exciting.
MT: The last thing I wanted to ask you about is: what kind of changes do you still feel are important to come, especially in regards to women's issues here Ireland? Are there any particular issues that you feel very strongly need a lot of work?
MB: Well, practical issues like child care still remain a serious problem here. I am very anxious to make sure that the fact that a lot of things have improved in the last 20 years does not mean that the increasing materialist view, which is common in this country, as we become more and more prosperous means that women don't feel they still have to be involved. Itís interesting to see things like, older women becoming active, recognizing that they need to have a background and keep an eye on dull things like pensions and health care. These are going to be really serious issues as our population age ages -- as unfortunately many of the younger generation are reluctant to pay high social costs in terms of taxes and that, which would insure that we could offer adequate health care to retired and elderly people. I think these are serious issues that will concern not just women, but I think it's important that there are enough strong womenís voices feeding into it. Iím afraid they'll all think it's all been done.
MT: I think there is that fear as well about the impact of Ireland becoming closer with the EU. What are some of the impacts for legislation here?
MB: Oh the impacts have been significant. There's, for example, equal pay legislation, anti-discrimination, sexual harassment legislation, all of which originated in Brussels, not because someone was sitting around thinking, "Gosh we've got to think of something nice to do," but because they had a direct influence on work practices. There was no question that that is the focus. That's the focus because thatís what we can do under the treaty of Rome, the legislation which governs our legislation. But I think for example the country finally had to wake up to environmental issues in a way that was simply not the case until EU law started coming in and raising these issues.
I am a very enthusiastic European. I believe that the future of us all is inextricably linked with a relationship within Europe. It has taken us finally out of the shadow of our biggest neighbor. We walk tall in Brussels. Irish people are much more easy in terms of Europe than British people are, and we donít have to thank them or ask them for anything. We do have good trading relations; I hope our political relations will continue to improve. We're an independent. As Robert Emmett said, ìWhen my country takes its place amongst the nations of the world...î and happily, certainly within the last 20 years, that has happened.
MT: Do you think some of those changes would not have been brought about if Ireland wasn't part of Europe? I'm thinking of all the stuff in the papers recently about abortion and how it might be that Ireland needs to bring in some legislation on abortion because of the pressure from Europe.
MB: No, legislatively speaking Europe cannot impose abortion here. Clearly there is abortion legislation in most of the European countries. We have an extremely ambiguous situation here where we have an unacceptable high level of quantifiable abortion. I am sure there's more because not everybody wants to give their name and why are over 5000 women from this country annually going to the UK for abortion? That's a very high proportion out of a small population. So, we have 2 things we have to recognize, first of all even though legislatively all parliaments have dodged the issue because itís an extremely controversial one here, we have it whether we like it or not. I deeply regret the fact that we have such a high amount of abortion here, and that's why I think we need considerably better educational facilities. We need to look at the unacceptably high level of heavy drinking that goes in our society. But equally we need to recognize and be adult enough to recognize that we have the problem and we should deal with it.
MT: There has been a lot of talk about Ireland giving up its neutrality -- which will certainly be a really big change -- and I was wondering how you felt about it -- whether or not you think that's really going to happen and how you feel about that.
MB: Well, my political party believes that we're now out of the cold war and that we should take our place in providing joint security for Europe. I'm not as enthusiastic about it for a number of reasons, and Iím even considerably less enthusiastic given the situation in Kosovo and given what I believe is the outrageous decision on the part of NATO to continue this bombing without reference to the UN. And all I see every day on my television sets are politicians doing damage limitation. Your president who has been very good to my country, and whom I greatly admire for that, I find the justification that himself and Mr. Blair are doing in terms of the bombing of Kosovo and Yugoslavia is nothing short of outrageous. So, I would be even less enthusiastic about us joining NATO under these circumstances, because I believe we need to take care of our own destiny. And I have serious problems with the fact that invariably weíre dancing to the American foreign policy tune.
MT: I'm really happy you got that in there.
MB: YOU couldn't give me a copy of that tape could you?
MT: Oh absolutely, I would like to actually. I would like for participants, if they have the time, to have a look at their interview before it ever gets broadcast or anything. Because that way I feel like people have a choice a chance to voice anything they would like to change. I really want people to feel like they can feedback into it and that I'm not just taking this away and going to edit it into something totally different ... and you know as an experienced media person what it's like in the editing room.
MT: You said you had a television show at one point. How did you get involved in that and what was the focus of it?
MB: Social issues. It was just pure luck. They asked me to come in and do a short program, a filler for 7 minutes for 3 weeks. And 4 years later, I just kept coming in and nobody stopped me so... I spoke about social welfare, rights and issues like that. I didn't think anybody was watching it but when I ran for election they were, you know.
MT: What were some of the issues that you highlighted in your candidacy in your campaign for the president?
MB: I emphasized a confident Ireland in a confident Europe. We never got into terribly hard issues, we were into fluffy sound bites most of the time. I certainly used the platform. I got to talk about many of the groups I would have had a particular affinity with, the nurses, the people Iíd worked with on the social issues, alcoholism treatment, family breakdown, that sort of thing. The other thing I do in the European Parliament is I have a special job appointed by the president as mediator for abducted children, and that's taken me taking up a huge amount of my time because increasingly children are the victims in family breakdown and many of them are abducted by one or other of their parents. So I deal with all those cases that are referred to the European Parliament.
MT: You were talking about a confident Ireland a confident Europe -- that makes me think about the recent amount of refugees and asylum seekers that have come to Ireland. Do you feel like it's important for Ireland in order to be part of the European community to be increasingly multi-cultural?
MB: I am appalled by the racism that I am hearing and seeing in Ireland. A lot of it is pure ignorance but it is a deeply distressing thing to see. For an immigrant country that to me is outrageous. What we need -- I mean there is no question about it that the refugee and illegal immigration into the European Union is a major political issue in every country, I am not unrealistic about that. But the underlying nasty racism that is -- you can hear it in the streets you can see it, you can see young children parroting what they're hearing their parents or other adults saying. We have a serious social education program problem here and we need to address it very quickly.
MT: One last thing: do you think the next time around there will be another woman president? Do you think this is a custom which is just going to keep going?
MB: No, no, I don't. I would be very surprised.
MT: Why not?
MB: I think the men will want to reclaim it, you know. I would say a suitable male candidate probably will get it the next time -- but that's not to say that the women haven't changed it forever.