MARY COUGHLAND TD
Profession/ Current priorities
Political Aims/ Priorities/ Assessments
© Jan 2001
Mary Coughland TD
She was active in the youth arena of the Fianna Fail party and joined Oigre Fianna Fail local when she was 16 years of age (2 years before the legal limit of 18yrs). When she went onto 3rd level University she was very active in the Kevin Barry Cumann group in UCD (University College Dublin) - a training ground for many current politicians. She was also a member of Comhairle while in Dublin.
This gave her exposure to canvassing and to Head Quarters where they used 3rd level to top issues off them as a sounding board. Oigre and Cumann had an influence on the party manifesto and offered an opportunity for more militant politics and a far wider range of issues to be debated such as student union politics, debates with Sinn Fein etc,. At this level there was more latitude in debating and challenging issues and was very much the arena where you could cut your political teeth - the make or break. They had access to Ministers and opposition and Deputy Coughlan says that she felt part of " a very political group of people". Added to this they held an annual conference and had a very good social gathering while very much running their own show.
She became involved in National and local politics through the death of father. At 21years she was asked to run for his seat at a point where she had finished university and was going to work in Scotland. She was advised that this was her one shot. She took the opportunity when it arose. "Seize the day". Deputy Coughlan says that "all our lives we were a political family and it was just like any family business" so she didn't find this move too daunting.
Her family has been immersed in politics over the generations with her paternal grandmother personally knowing De Valera and Lamass. These would be obvious role models for Deputy Coughlan. She would also have identified with Maire Geoghan Quinn who had a similar background to her own and of course, Mary O'Rourke whose son was in her class in University. Fine Gael politics also feature in the family's political history however Fianna Fail was her logical choice.
Deputy Coughlan has had no disruptions with a fairly secure seat. She has had personal struggles and problems but has not taken time out despite her husband being involved in a serious accident or having had two children since the last election. Time out was not an option aside from holidays and a few exceptions.
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She believes in the need for EO strategies however the party does not support a quota approach. They have had a number of positive action strategies over the years with the FF Women's Council organisation initiated 10 years ago with the aim of attracting women into political life. They host an annual Women's Conference the policy recommendation from which are assimilated into National Executive and main party activities. It is planned to mainstream EO however with the women specific focus maintained. In the past two years the Women's Co-ordinator is automatically elected on as an officer at National Executive level and Members of the FF Women's Council form part of National org.
Deputy Coughlan is Secretary of the FF party at the invitation by the Party leader and throughout the party she has seen initiative of positive action persuading women into politics, headhunting, add on to list for convention .There has been a very conscious decision as we see more women in the higher echelons of the party. Activism at local community and voluntary level is also a crucial route into politics with key women earmarked as potential candidates. Party membership with a reduction in intake is obviously an influence here alongside the need to have a more balanced representation. Targeted initiatives for those leaving University may catch the cohort that doesn't reappear until marriage. Geographic mobility hinders these young people from becoming politically active in the local organisation.
Deputy Coughlan has held offices as the 3rd level representative in UCD, she has held the office of Honorary Secretary at National Executive level and was elected to the County Council (local) in 1986 followed in hot pursuit in 1987 into National Politics. She is also Director of Elections in her own constituency.
The Deputy sees mentoring as central to her own personal support system. These are her personal mentors who have been involved in getting her elected. They are not party selected but are obviously influenced and supported by the local organisation. "You are very much on your own - no two ways about it". Her experience of the motivation for mentoring is that it is established not always to the positive benefit for women.
There are opportunities for development within the party system. The party has a centralised training policy where you can receive training and development in for example radio and media training, Public Relations, the role of Chairman or Secretary, etc. These are organised at regional and national party level and are paid by party. The party also has committees that mirror Government committees, with the Deputy Secretary to the Agriculture Committee, alongside which there is also a central policy committee determining policy for next election.
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Over time her differentiation skills have developed and her focus is now which issues will she progress to take her from the back bench. She feels it is essential that deputies rejuvenate themselves after they are established - this should be an on-going process. Deputy Coughlan's listening skills have been sharply honed through her constituency work and her particular competencies are determined by local needs such as agriculture, fisheries tourism and border/Northern Ireland. Her other national objectives include women's issues, health, justice and the work being done in the government's Strategic Management Initiative. Her priority focus while in opposition was education and she enjoyed that very much. As a backbencher you must tow party and government line. There is a constant expectation to debate on issues as they arise and she uses lobbying groups to inform debate. The Party Whip will focus or choose you according to your specialism, such as on agriculture and justice, but the debate requirement fairly keeps Deputies on their toes.
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Cherry picking for Donegal where she can learn from past mistakes and influence getting it right on issues such as unemployment, roads issues, new schools and housing. Donegal TD's are well known for being very powerful collective County voice in national politics. Their strong collective lobbying has given them the name of Donegal Mafia! Other concerns she has would be on the marginal constituency where apathy towards politics is slipping in.
Deputy Coughlan fully agrees in EO strategies and feels that they are very important. She believes it needs leadership at party leader level and will not happen from the bottom up. She definitely feels that she has benefited and truly feels that she is treated as an equal now. She would add that the changing age profile is shifting attitudes which is mirroring societal changes.
Of their 12 candidates Fianna Fail could not put forward one female candidate to the EU elections in 1999. Asked why Deputy Coughlan feels that the EU political life is another arena. She feels that the Dail is bad enough but EU has other issues - popularity, safe seats, constituency size, travelling - how can you reconcile work and family life with all that travelling!
Yes there remains discrimination, and women are not coming up through the ranks. But Deputy Coughlan believes it is the system that needs radical change. Competition of multi-seat constituency is an issue here. Also it is her experience that it is very difficult with small children - especially the unsociable hours at local level. She has had to make specific changes that may have a negative impact where she has stopped working on Sundays. You also need the right supports at home. Single women or those without children experience a different political life. In addition you need to be able to afford to pay the childcare and flexibility is essential. The system is changing especially the ethos of multi-seat constituencies and the dual local and national mandate. Research and lobbying need to focus on the hours and on the expectation of the people you represent. This is currently a 24hr 7 day a week job or vocation almost the same as a rural GP. It's full-time business.
Obstacles would be family life juggling. There is no doubt that this curtails women. Access to money is another crucial issue. Other factors are safe bets; how well you're known; what are you known for; confidence to take the step is also a big issue particularly for women where "either lacking in or being over confident means trouble". Training initiatives have been a huge boost to women's confidence. First hurdle.
Women are also perfectionists - no one can do it like them. Until a political career offers young people career opportunities, promotions, and finance it will not be a first choice. Political corruption and recent sleaze elements are harming the profession. In addition competition with labour market is having it's affect. It used to be you could aspire towards a TD's salary now they are left behind by other careers.
Deputy Coughlan's hopes for the future of politics in Ireland would be integrity, partnership, and transparency.
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