SHE made history as Laois Offaly’s first female TD. Then last year Deputy Olwyn Enright made headlines again when she announced that her current term would be her last, marking the end of a 40 year family dynasty. She spoke to Grace O’Dea about the role of women in politics, life outside the Dail and life as the mother of two children under two.
ALTHOUGH politics was in her blood, her interest began at an early age. “I was always interested in politics there was no doubt about that. Out of all my family I would have been the most inclined to go to things with my dad. If he wanted somebody for company it would have been me who went. From a relatively young age I was always interested,” she said.
Although all the family were interested to some degree, and would have been at the counts, it was Olwyn who was the most involved.I would have went to branch meetings from a relatively young age. Once I came back to Birr to train as a solicitor I would have been going to things from then on. Even from college I’d have been involved as well.
Now I did study law and went on and qualified as a solicitor, but even then I knew I had an interest in politics, that I was far more interested in pursuing that as a career than being a solicitor.
Olwyn Enright’s life was always busy. “I only qualified as a solicitor a week before I was elected to the county council. I was solely a solicitor for a very short time, “she said. That was in June of 1999. It wasn’t long before she decided that she wanted more out of politics. “Once I knew I was interested in politics I was interested in being a TD. You are always ambitious when you go into politics, I didn’t know I was going to take the decision I have taken now. I was interested in being involved at all levels. Once you are a county councillor there is a degree of frustration as to what you can get done, what you can achieve. You do so much as a councillor. It’s very localised. I felt there was a lot more that needed to be done, needed to be said and the Dail was the place for that,” she said.
After making history as the first female deputy elected to the constituency she found herself in a male dominated world. “Olivia Mitchell and I were the only two female TD’s in Fine Gael at the time,” she said.
The party are once again the only one to run a female candidate in the constituency, with Marcella Corcoran Kennedy flying the flag for women in Laois Offaly. Olwyn said although she has walked away herself, she still feels strongly about the role of women in politics.” I think it’s really important that we have more women. It’s only 13% and you are often very conscious sitting in the Dail when all TD’s are present for different debates you could be the only female in the chamber. You need to have a more equal voice, there is no doubt about that. I’m confident that Marcella can get elected so it will be the same number of women representing Laois Offaly. It’s easy to select women candidates, it’s to select the best of the women candidates which is a real challenge. It’s a pity other political parties in the constituency haven’t tried to play a role in that regard themselves. It’s really just been us in the last ten years,” said Olwyn.
Although on opposite sides of the fence politically Olwyn spoke of her regard for former Taoiseach Brian Cowen and what she thought about his stepping down. “On a political level I felt it was necessary. On a personal level, I felt sympathy for him and for his family. It’s very difficult to live your life to the extent that they have in the public eye. It has an effect on your whole family. A politician makes a choice to be in politics, the family dont necessarily make that choice, their children certainly dont make that choice. So from that perspective it’s bound to have been difficult for them. But I’m sure that as a family unit they are very strong and that they’ll get through it.It was quite emotional. They were all present in the Dail on Tuesday when he gave his final speech. I was conscious it was my final day as well. There is no sitting TD now running in County Offaly,” she said.
In a twist of fate Olwyn and Brian shared their last day in Dail, when their father’s had shared their first day in the Dail. “My father and his father came into the Dail on the same day, so I suppose there always were historic connections there. I certainly believe Brian Cowen is a decent and honourable person,” she said.
While her last day in the Dail proved an emotional one for her, she said what she will miss most are the people of Laois Offaly. “Having wanted to be a politician, the honour and privilege of serving the people of your constituency and then to say I’m walking away now and then to go up to the Dail and go through that day, that was a day of mixed emotions. I think more so at our local meetings when you talk to local people, that’s when it hits you more, The Dail is a bit of a bubble really, you can be in there and people can forget what’s going on in the real world. It’s when I’m talking to people within Laois and Offaly who I worked for, people who helped me, that’s where I feel more emotion because those people gave a lot of their time for nothing for me and for Fine Gael. And it’s them I feel the greater debt to. The Dail was part of the job when you got there,” she said.
When Olwyn entered the Dail things couldn’t have been more different for Fine Gael. “I got elected at a time when Fine Gael completely crashed. I remember being at the count centre in Portlaoise and somebody saying “ah sure you dont even have a leader now.” Michael Noonan had resigned and Fine Gael had lost twenty something seats. There was no sense of personal jubilation because when you are in political party the party is important to you. So it was very upsetting and sad to see Fine Gael doing so badly at that stage,” she said.
Now, according to polls Fine Gael are set to form part of the next Government. “I think we have a huge role to play especially in the country. I just regret that I spent my time in opposition and now it looks like Fine Gael are going to go into Government. But at the same time I know even if I had the opportunity of being a minister the next time probably realistically I couldn’t do that,” she said.
With Darragh, 15 months and Aídin, eight weeks, her main focus at the moment is spending time with her children. “I have done a bit of canvassing at home. I’m doing as much as I can do but they are very small so it’s difficult because you cant leave them for long. I’m lucky in a sense that I made the decision I made. Having an eight week old baby and running for election myself wouldn’t have been very compatible. In the immediate term I want to spend as much time as I can with my children. I will work in some capacity, I haven’t made any decisions, there is nothing in the pipeline. But I eventually will get back into the workforce. I want to help Joe as much as I can for the next few weeks. I’m a very active person in general. Now that I have children I feel differently than I would have felt a few years ago and I really value I’ve been given the chance to have the time with them,” she said.
However, a return to politics may still feature in her future. “I’d never rule anything out. I’d always keep an open mind because I very much enjoyed it. I certainly think it needs more women. I think I have the capabilities that are needed for the job but at the same time you just dont know what will happen. Charlie Flanagan said at our launch recently that there would always be room on the ticket for an Enright in Laois Offaly and I’m welcome back. But I said the job of everybody here in Fine Gael is to make sure there is no room for me to ever come back, to make sure we elect a TD in my place and so I hope that will happen. I’m going to be based in Donegal from now on so I’m not going to be running up here. I’ll certainly keep a really active in Fine Gael and in politics regardless if Joe’s a TD or not. I’ll always be Fine Gael. It’s part of my heritage.”