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February 14th 2007

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It is hard to believe but one of the youngest 20 members of Dáil Éireann, and the youngest member of the Cabinet, celebrates 20 years as a T.D. for Donegal South-West this weekend. Mary Coughlan, now the Minister for Agriculture and Food, topped the poll in the February 1987 General Election at the age of just 21. She had just finished her time in UCD, where she studied social science, and embarked on a career in politics that has seen her rise to become the first Cabinet Minister from Donegal South West in over 30 years. The Donegal Times spoke with Mary ahead of what we are told is “just a small social gathering” to mark the occasion in the Blue Stack Centre on Saturday night.
“Little did I think as I was cramming for my final exams in UCD and talking with friends about a career in social work that less than a year later I would be sitting in the Dáil”, says Mary about what was turbulent year for the Coughlan family. Mary’s father, the late Cathal Coughlan T.D., died suddenly in June 1986 just three years after taking the seat of his late brother, Clement, in the 1983 by-election. “It was a tough time for the whole family. We had a big household and extended family for support and that saw us through, but as with any parent passing away suddenly, dad’s death came as big shock.” It wasn’t long however before talked turned to who would take Cathal Coughlan’s place both as a T.D. and on the County Council. “I remember there was big media and political interest surrounding his passing and the funeral, so I suppose it was inevitable that talk would turn to who would take his place.”
Mary found that before long eyes began to turn to her. “I suppose I was the one that had shown the most interest in politics. Having worked on the ’83 by-election campaign, I was also involved in the cumann and in helping out at home. I took an active interest in the work that dad was doing for Donegal and while in college I ended up as secretary of the Kevin Barry Cumann there. I really enjoyed the challenge that politics presented.”
“I was young, had plenty energy and had seen up close what a life in politics was like. I also really wanted the work that uncle Clement and my father had started to carry on for south Donegal. I spoke to a lot of people before making the decision to go for it, but in the end it was very much a family decision made around the kitchen table at home.”
Once that decision had been made Mary says that the more daunting bit for her was having to convince the Fianna Fáil organisation that a young one like her was up to the job. “Everyone turned out to be very supportive however and before long I found myself having been co-opted to the County Council. It was a very memorable day.” Asked whether she now misses the County Council, Mary says she does. “The Council is great as it gives you a wide scope for input to the nuts and bolts of what affects people in the county on a day to day basis. While I had to stand aside on becoming a Minister of State in 2001, the prohibition on a dual mandate for TDs has come into effect since and I suppose that is fair as it gives others a chance. Pat and I are also lucky here in South West as the Councillors keep us well informed about everything that is going on and the officials are also very accommodating for the local TDs.”
Following co-option to the Council in September 1986 and as there was no by-election held, Mary went on to join Pat “the Cope” Gallagher on the Fianna Fáil ticket for the 1987 General Election. “There was great excitement during that campaign, not just for me it being my first as a candidate, but also because Fianna Fáil had been in opposition and people wanted change from the policies that had left us stuck in the doldrums during the mid-1980s.” After topping the poll in that spring election, now 20 years ago, Mary entered the Dáil as Fianna Fáil retuned to power. “I remember being greeted by Charlie Haughey and welcomed to the Parliamentary Party – it was all very surreal. It was a tough first couple of years however as many hard decisions had to be taken, plenty of which hurt here in Donegal. The decisions were necessary at the time however, particularly when we see the turn around since then.”
Mary served on the backbenches for the first six years of her Dáil career, before being appointed Chairperson of the Oireachtas Irish Language Committee in 1993. When Fianna Fáil found itself in opposition between 1995 and 1997, Mary was appointed front bench spokesperson on educational reform by Fianna Fáil’s new leader, Bertie Ahern. After the 1997 General Election, many were disappointed not to see her appointed as a Minister of State. “You have to remember that we lost a seat here in Donegal South West during that election, so while we were all a little disappointed, that was the political reality at the time.” February 2001 saw fortunes change however and following the resignation of Deputy Ned O’Keeffe as a Minister of State, Mary was appointed Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage Gaeltacht and the Islands. Here she had responsibility for the Gaeltacht and Islands and worked with her senior Minister, Síle DeValera, as the first all-female team to head up a Government Department.
The 2002 General Election saw Donegal South-West return two Fianna Fáil seats to Dáil Éireann and the outcome resulted in Mary’s promotion, following a very short period as a junior Minister, to the senior ranks and the Cabinet where she was appointed Minister for Social & Family Affairs. “It was a nerve-wrecking experience. While I was told the night before that I was going to be in the Cabinet, I was simply not allowed to tell anyone and I wasn’t told which job I was to be given. It was only half an hour before going into the Dáil chamber that I knew which portfolio I was getting. Returning home to Donegal the following night however was something I will never forget. The bonfires were burning and I stepped out of the car to walk over the Bundrowes Bridge and into the county at Bundoran as the first Cabinet Minister in south west Donegal for over 30 years.”
On her two and a half years in Social Welfare, Mary says, “I enjoyed the Social & Family Affairs portfolio. It covered an area that I had studied and one that allowed me to mould social welfare policy to target money at those most in need. We did some very important work on supporting carers, on child benefit, on pensioners and on family supports.”
The 2004 re-shuffle saw Mary move to take over the reigns at Agriculture and Food from Joe Walsh. “Agriculture has been hectic since the very first day I entered the office. It is very different type of portfolio from Social & Family Affairs and is also extremely challenging with new issues developing every week. I was also the first woman in the role and that did cause an issue for some people initially. Policy wise, the farming lobby is a very strong one, but I have to balance what is best for the individual farmer with what is best for the industry as a whole, while at the same time ensuring we secure maximum supports from Europe.” Asked if her impression of farmers and farming has changed since taking on the job, she says, “while farmers can be a very tough audience to please, I really think they are some of the best people you can meet. There is no messing. They shoot from the hip and tell you what they think and I think they are appreciative when I am as straight forward with them.”
Asked if having a Cabinet Minister makes such a huge difference for a constituency, Mary highlights some of the money that has come down the road in recent years. “Over the past year alone here in Donegal Town we have seen substantial funding for the upgrading of facilities at the pier, funding for a new Enterprise Centre, for a new Gateway Tourism Centre, for the all-weather track for John Bosco AC, and this is to name just a few projects. While we had a massive blow with the closures of Hospira and Magee, we have been able to secure the Abbott Diabetes Care investment bringing new high quality jobs to the town. 250 jobs in the Department of Social and Family Affairs will have moved to the town by 2009. We can also see for ourselves the improvement in roads, water and services infrastructure throughout the constituency. Does having a seat at the big table make a difference here on the ground in Donegal? I believe that it really does.”
With a 24/7 schedule as a Government Minister, one of the questions Mary is often asked is how she manages to balance the role with having two young children and being the only mother around the Cabinet table? “It is certainly not easy at times, but that is very much the choice you make when you decide to embark on a career in politics. You can’t afford to dwell on it too much either as if you did, you wouldn’t be able to do the job as it would start to get to you. The solution is to make the very most of the time you do spend together and that is very much what I try to do. I am also very lucky to have such great support in David and, indeed the rest of my family, who understand what the job entails and are always on call for babysitting duty when the inevitable ‘phone call comes.”
Given that the Donegal Times spotted in last Saturday’s Irish Independent the following by Bruce Arnold: “There are very few ministers in power at present who enjoy a clear and well-defined political character and speak with authority in the realm for which they are responsible. Mary Coughlan is a possible exception”, where now for Minister Coughlan over the next 20 years? “My mind is now just focussed on this summer, never mind the next 20 years”, she says. “I would be honoured to be returned again to Dáil Éireann and to continue to work for Donegal South West. If I am and if we are back in Government, I would be hopeful that the work I have done and effort I have put in over the past five years would see me at the Cabinet table again. None of these things can be taken for granted however. It will take a strong Fianna Fáil vote from the constituency to secure that place for Donegal South West and we will need to return our two TDs.”
The Bruckless and Ballintra Fianna Fáil Comhairlí Ceantar are hosting a social event to mark the 20 years on Saturday night, the 17th February, in the Blue Stack Centre, Drimarone. All are welcome to attend from 10pm.


The Gambia School Project

Ciara O’Sullivan, Nicola Stewart, Alex Reid and Robert Dunlevy at the street market in The Gambia

On the 2nd of January 2007 Alec Reid, Robert Dunlevy, Ciara O Sullivan and myself, Nicola Stewart, visited The Gambia in West Africa, as part of the Gambia School Project.
This project developed from charity work that was carried out by Robert Dunlevy and then later Alec Reid, who got the local schools involved. I myself began working with this project as part of my bronze Gaisce Award and stayed involved with it after I received my award.
The country itself is desert-like in most parts, with a very hot climate and a rainy season from June to October. There are few tarred roads, mainly dirt tracks, covered in rubbish and waste. The smaller streets are lined with little houses, some built of stone, but others built of wood, tin, straw and other various materials.
One of the first things I noticed was the number of local people sitting and walking along the roadside, many of them selling fruit, vegetables, fish, furniture, and wooden crafts. Some people were lucky enough to have their own little shop, which were generally very small, and made from the same materials as the houses. The average wage in The Gambia is €1 per day ...... very different from Ireland.
During our trip to The Gambia, we visited a children’s hospital run by the Sisters of Mother Teresa and also four schools that we partly funded. We spent two days building a pump for the well at one of these schools. Various work was done at the schools using the money from the project. Repair work was carried out, an outer wall for one of the schools was built, schools were furnished and the funds also went towards the equipping of some of the schools.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time spent in The Gambia, I had no idea what to expect going out there, and I don’t think any expectations could have prepared me for the way of life of the people out there. Although they are poor, these people remain positive about life and are truly admirable for that. We hope to continue with the work on this project and I would like to thank everyone who has supported us in the past, especially everyone from the Abbey Vocational School and community - I hope for your continued support in the future.
Nicola Stewart.

The Donegal Times, The Diamond, Donegal Town, Ireland

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