IN 2004, Margaret Murphy O’Mahony became the first female mayor of Bandon. It was her first time running for local elections and she topped the poll.
In 2016, she was the first female TD ever elected in Cork South West.
Now, in 2019, the centenary of the first Dáil, she is the only female representative in all of Cork in either Dáil Éireann, or the Seanad.
In the midst of a busy day at her office in Bandon, Margaret sits down with The Echo for a chat. She is full of energy and clearly passionate about what she does.
The only daughter among three boys, she remembers from an early age attending Fianna Fáil meetings with her parents. While neither ran for office, they were immersed in politics and took the young Margaret along with them.
“There was never a time when I wasn’t interested in politics,” she says.
“I remember my first vote when I was 18 was for my brother Con. He stayed in local government for 20 years before resigning to work in the judiciary.”
This is the late Judge Con Murphy, who sadly passed away in 2011.
Back in 2004, Margaret contested the seat at the next round of elections and from there has worked passionately as either a Fianna Fáil councillor or now TD. When asked about juggling family life and the full-time job of public representative, she replies: “No-one, male or female, could do this job properly without support from a partner at home. Paddy is great with our two sons, John who is 18 and sat his Leaving Cert, and Philip, who is 16 and just finished fourth year.”
Margaret then recounts an anecdote from the night of the election in 2016.
“I was there with my two male colleagues also elected that night, but the question about children was only asked of me. That was very telling.”
Some time later, she met the journalist who had directed the childcare question to her, and pointed out that the query was only for the female TD. The journalist acknowledged that Murphy O’ Mahony was correct.
She thinks even 100 years since Countess Markievicz had her historic victory, that women remain hesitant about running for public office because of having to juggle childcare and family commitments with the life of politics.
“Society needs to change in how we view women in public life. There are childcare facilities near the Dáil, there is no reason for a woman not to immerse herself in the life.
“There is an over-emphasis that it’s harder for women. Public perception may hold women back. But it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female once you’re passionate enough.”
Currently, Fianna Fáil has six female TDs and three female senators.
Margaret does feel very much that she must be a strong voice for women.
Speaking of the recent cervical check debacle, she says: “That is potentially such a life and death issue, I felt it was my place to speak out. I felt it was my job to make sure that no woman would refuse a test due to the controversy.”
She thinks the fact that her sons are proud of what she does is a big help. Also, she never goes to Dublin on a Monday night or stays over on Thursday night.
“While this does involve much early morning or late night travel, it means she is only away from home two nights each week. In this way, and with Paddy’s input, there has been no major disruption in the boys’ routine.
“And I make a point at least once a month of taking them for a coffee or a walk individually, just to chat and check in with them. They both know they can come to either parent at any time,” she said.
Asked if either child shows signs of following in her footsteps, she replies that the elder, John, is very interested in public affairs but it is too soon to tell. He reminds her of herself at that age.
Currently is a spokesperson on disability. She and Minister of State for Disability Issues, Finian McGrath (Independent), agreed not to make disability a political football. However, if she was in government she is confident certain measures could make a difference.
“The Disability Act of 2005 provided that an assessment of need happen within three months of applying and that within a further three months a plan be put in place. This maps the needs and guides what care is required.”
The waiting lists are much longer than those laid down by the act and are particularly bad in Cork and Kerry. She would love to address this.
“At a time when early intervention is critical, often the child has doubled their age before they are seen and they lose out on the importance of critical early intervention.”
Asked how she would address this, she says there is a need to hire more therapists.
“It’s not all about the money. There are many things we could do to make working in the HSE more attractive. Conditions of work and recognition of the vital role of health professionals would go a long way to addressing the dire problem of recruitment and retention within the HSE. We need to make it so these workers want to stay.”
In the long run, she says it saves money and mitigates against the psychological effects of patients feeling overlooked.
Her first aim would be to shorten the waiting list for services. Even if a short term bridging situation could be achieved, she is confident she could make this argument successfully to a Minister of Finance.
Reflecting on the recent local elections, Margaret said: “I am very pleased how Fianna Fáil did in the local elections. In my own constituency of Cork South West, across three Local Electoral Areas, we gained a seat and had two poll toppers.”
As to the female imbalance that remains, regarding women public representatives, she added: “Work needs to be done on encouraging women to put their names forward for election. I still don’t think the quota system is the correct approach though.
“With regard to more female participation, I think young children (both male and female) need to be taught about the political system and how one can make a difference.”
Looking to the future of her political career, she says long term: “I’d love to lead the party. Not that there is currently a vacancy or anything. But I’m also realistic and know that it’s a bit of a pipe dream.
“For now, my main ambition is to be re-elected. I feel privileged to be where I am as a representative for Cork South West. And I must credit Paddy for his support in making this possible.”
As to her plans for the summer? It’s not feet up, that’s for sure.
“ I plan to continue to call on the doors over the summer, working from three constituency offices. I will take a week off in August to charge my own batteries.”