“My time in UCD was hugely beneficial to everything that came after and really impacted on my career since, both in social work and politics.”
Frances Fitzgerald is first ever senior cabinet minister of Children and Youth Affairs in this country and the only senior cabinet minister in Europe with this portfolio. She is Fine Gael’s most senior female politician and one of two female ministers at cabinet level. She is also a proud graduate of UCD and credits her college years with informing much of what was to follow. She credits the breadth of her undergraduate degree in social studies, which also included economics, history and French, as conferring particular advantage on her subsequent involvements, from her years as a social worker in London and Dublin to her current position at the cabinet table.
Early research and advocacy
Minister Fitzgerald’s area of research while in UCD stands to her to this day, she says. “I looked at the issue of school attendance and the factors leading to student absenteeism. Now, in this ministry, I have responsibility for education welfare. I visit areas of disadvantage now as Minister and what I learned from UCD on the issues involved is invaluable and gives me real insights.”
Frances was not involved in politics at college, and didn’t consider going before the electorate until much later. By her own admission, she had “no political ambition” until she was in her forties and had three children. She was driven, she says, by an interest in equality born during her years as a social worker and an advocate for human rights, and particularly women’s rights.
“I remember coming into the DÃ¡il years ago in my role as chair of the National Women’s Council. I looked down from the gallery and I couldn’t believe how few women were in the chamber. Unfortunately that hasn’t changed much in the meantime, which is why I make no apology for my support for quotas. I’m proud of the fact that this government has introduced a 30 per cent quota in favour of women candidates for the upcoming local elections.”
Through feminism and social action to politics
Frances’ long road to politics started with the National Childbirth Trust in London. She became involved while studying at the London School of Economics and her work there took her on a journey through social work in disadvantaged communities in London and Dublin, through advocacy groups and a serious engagement with feminist literature, to a role in the second Commission on Women, where she chaired the sub-committee on Women and Work. Her growing media presence drew the attention of former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, who invited her to run in his constituency on his retirement. After a short campaign, Frances was elected in 1992.
Frances is one of only two women in a senior cabinet position and her ministry is the first of its kind in Europe. Ireland was overdue this focus on children and young people, she says.
“We have been shamed on aspects of our handling of child welfare and protection. The motivation behind the establishment of the ministry was to bring the issues to cabinet level: there’s no substitute for that if you want something prioritised. Fortunately we are now working in a very data rich environment. Thanks to the ongoing “Growing Up In Ireland” research we know much more about children in Ireland than we used to, when we were reliant on statistics from Europe or the US.”
Still, she admits it’s not easy to get the budgets required to meet need. “As a society we still need to grasp the importance of early intervention. Fifteen to 20 per cent of our children and young people are still classed as vulnerable. For the remainder of my time in office I really want to focus on that group. Non-completion of education, unemployment, alcohol, smoking, obesity – we have to interrupt these patterns. I have to have a very strong public health voice for young people.”
The Children’s Minister
It’s been a very active ministry so far, culminating last month in the launch of the new Child and Family Agency. This is one of the most significant reforms of this government, that brings together 4,000 staff previously scattered across disparate HSE services under one organisation with a streamlined management structure. Minister Fitzgerald has also steered the Children’s Referendum, the relocation of 16-year-olds from Saint Patrick’s adult prison to Oberstown Youth detention centre and the commencement of new building programme at Oberstown to accommodate 17 year olds in Wheatfield adult facilities.
She is leading a major programme to upskill pre-school carers and has secured additional funding to recruit new inspectors and establish a national mentoring service.
Her office has secured â‚¬30 million in funding for the most deprived communities through the ABC programme focusing on early intervention to support children and families in disadvantaged areas. She has big plans for 2014 with more major announcements in the area of child and youth welfare on the way.
Frances still has fond memories of her early lectures in Earlsfort Terrace before moving to Belfield (“it was bare and in the early days of development then – I can’t get over the campus now,” she says). She played tennis at Leinster level and went to the L&H debates and marvelled at the contributions. Some of her lecturers still stand out as formative influences in her life, such as Helen Burke and Des McCloskey, who, she says “awakened her intellectual curiosity”.
“Perhaps the most valuable thing I learned was to examine the genesis of a social problem, which is very relevant to politics. A big part of my job now is to start with an individual problem brought to me by a member of the public and broaden it out to measure the impact on wider society, a skill I also practised first at university.” She still keeps her lecture notes in the attic, just in case.
Minister Frances Fitzgerald was in conversation with journalist Louise Holden (MEd 2007)