POLITICS is a brutal business at the best of times, but it's difficult to think of a politician who has come in for so much sustained and personalised criticism as Tánaiste Mary Coughlan.
Dubbed 'Calamity Coughlan' in the media, her verbal gaffes, her language, her clothes, her cheery demeanour and her record in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment have all been put under intense scrutiny. The whole government has been in the firing line for the past 18 months, but it is the Donegal woman, once seen as the rising star in Fianna Fáil, who has been getting most of the brickbats.
Never more so than on last Monday night's edition of The Frontline, when audience member Paul Curley, chief executive of Norkom Technologies, could not have been more blunt. "She is not fit for it [the job of enterprise minister]. Worse still is that when we go out and go into the international world… to her colleagues, to her staff and to the business people around her, there's a cringe factor around it. There is an embarrassment level around it and how we are being represented."
Fine Gael's Leo Varadkar was quick to make political capital, following up on the comments in the Dáil in the most cutting manner possible.
"On The Frontline last night, somebody in the audience talked about your representation of us abroad and said there was a cringe factor to it all," he said, addressing Coughlan. "Another article in the paper suggested that the IDA are embarrassed by you when you go overseas with them. Others have said that you are unable to talk to business people and that, when you do, the language you use is often inappropriate and vulgar. What do you say to those who level the charge at you that you are not suitable to represent Ireland overseas?"
As attacks go, this was up there with Garret FitzGerald's 'flawed pedigree' speech on Charlie Haughey, Dick Spring's "cancer on the body politic" verdict on Haughey and Fianna Fáil's regular onslaughts on Nora Owen when she was justice minister.
Maintaining her composure, Coughlan responded: "I appreciate very much that many of those comments are politically motivated. Perhaps, Deputy, you should take the opportunity of seeing the work that I have done on behalf of this country in working with my development agencies, in ensuring that we continue to have positive foreign direct investments here in this country. My personality is a matter for others to decide. Political charges of that nature, perhaps, show the ineptitude of some people in the opposition who cannot prove that on this side of the house… The political charges are ones which I may take from you but not from others."
Later that evening there was some comfort for Coughlan from an unlikely source. Speaking on RTE Radio One's The Late Debate, Labour's Kathleen Lynch said she had "a huge amount of sympathy for her and I probably shouldn't be saying this. She hasn't done an extraordinarily good job in the position she is in but I don't think she is entirely responsible for 400,000 people being unemployed, even though none of them would thank me for that. I have to say that if you were being criticised every day of the week, then your confidence would go and I am not certain that any of us would react any quicker than she reacted in terms of Michael O'Leary.
"I have to say that I find it personally very difficult to listen to people criticise her in the manner that they do and I think that there just is – and you'll get reams of paper in on this one – I think there is a little bit of sexism there too. I am not certain that type of criticism would occur if it were a man."
While not unanimous, Lynch's assessment of Coughlan is shared by many other female Oireachtas members across all the political parties. The Sunday Tribune tried to contact the other 32 women TDs and senators (excluding Coughlan and Mary Harney, who is in New Zealand). Of the 29 that could be contacted, 20, or 69%, agreed with Lynch, and just nine (31%) disagreed.
While the survey was carried out on a confidential basis, some of the women Oireachtas members were happy to speak on the record.
Labour deputy leader Joan Burton, who last week accused Ceann Comhairle Séamus Kirk of sexism, said the Dáil was "quite a cold place for women". While she said Coughlan's performance has "not been in any way adequate", she added: "There is an element of sexism to some of the attacks on the tánaiste…There are lots of male ministers who are not exactly star performers, but they do not generate the same invective that is generated towards her.
"The Dáil has a certain sense of male 'clubbiness'. Women of all parties come under attack so it is easy for some men to cross a line that is sexist in the undermining of women that would not be used to undermine their male colleagues," she said.
This was echoed by Labour senator Ivana Bacik, who said that while some of the criticism of Coughlan was "fair", the tánaiste had been "scapegoated" and "singled out unfairly for criticism", some of which had descended into sexism. Bacik said she didn't personally like Varadkar's attack on Coughlan. She described it as "inappropriate" but "not necessarily sexist".
Her party colleague, Joanna Tuffy, agreed. "I think that the kind of criticism, whereby her personal style was criticised, was not proper criticism and it was the wrong approach for Leo Varadkar to take. Mary Coughlan is being singled out for personal criticism in a way that she shouldn't be."
Less surprisingly, there was praise for Lynch's comments among Fianna Fáil women. Mary Wallace said Lynch was "brave and courageous to come out and say what she said. The same things would not be said about a man".
Cavan-Monaghan TD Margaret Conlon told the Sunday Tribune: "I agree with Kathleen Lynch… If you are constantly being got at in a personal way, that will have an effect on your confidence. I have seen both inside and outside the Dáil that when women TDs enter a room they are looked up and down. People look at your shoes, your clothes, your hair and your make-up and it is commented on. The leader of Fine Gael commented on Mary Coughlan's tangerine-coloured outfit one morning and that would not have happened to a man. It is unfair and unwarranted as we all should be treated in here as equals."
Another Fianna Fáil deputy, Máire Hoctor, was more pointed in her criticism of Varadkar. "As a practising GP dealing with women's issues that are sensitive, I was surprised that Leo Varadkar made such an attack on the tánaiste. Some of the female journalists are harder on her than the male journalists as well."
Senator Maria Corrigan echoed this point. "Whether you are a man or woman, the exchange between Leo Varadkar and the tánaiste the other day would certainly not encourage anyone to get involved in politics. I can't think of a similar exchange ever taking place in the Dáil and I believe that it would not have taken place between two men."
Her fellow senator Ann Ormonde said that nobody should talk about a colleague like that. "He would not say that to a man. It was a pure sexist remark. Kathleen Lynch was great the way she stood up for the tánaiste. You may not agree with the tánaiste politically, but it is wrong to make comments about her personality. He was in bad taste. It was unbecoming of a man who is meant to be so highly educated."
Another senator, Fine Gael's Fidelma Healy-Eames, told the Sunday Tribune that it was "regularly said to me in Galway West that a woman does not have to be as good as a man in politics, we have to be twice as good, and I think that is the case for women in politics".
Green party deputy leader Mary White also felt that Coughlan had been subjected to sexism and spoke of the Dáil being an "old boys' club". It was much harder for women to break into that club and when they do, "they get this nonsense thrown out".
However, not all women politicians agreed with Lynch's assessment. Labour's Róisín Shortall spoke for many of those when she said Coughlan was "performing very badly in a critical ministry and the criticism is justified".
And, privately, even some Fianna Fáil women Oireachtas members conceded that at least some of the criticism of Coughlan was justified. One described her as a "mediocre politician", but noted that other mediocre male politicians were not attracting the same criticism.
The tánaiste's tendency to use expletives was also mentioned. "Her language is choice," said one politician, before adding that the Fianna Fáil men "love it". That comment itself raises the question as to whether Coughlan's language would be at issue if she were male. Are different standards being applied?
Ironically, despite so many of her female colleagues coming to her defence, Coughlan is not seen as having pushed the equality agenda for women, despite her own success in breaking through the glass ceiling. One of those surveyed went so far as to say Coughlan had "tried to be one of the boys".
But the more pertinent question is, how justified are the constant attacks on Coughlan? It is clear many women Oireachtas members believe sexism is a factor, but at times the tánaiste has not helped her own case.
There is no doubt that being responsible for employment and enterprise during the worst recession in the history of the state would test any politician. Some of the blame she has shipped in the case of Dell, the aircraft maintenance jobs at Dublin airport and other job losses has been ill-informed and over the top. But the feeling persists in Dáil Eireann – among both male and female deputies – that Coughlan has been over-promoted.
A fairly common view is that, while she is not the bungler she is being portrayed as in some quarters, her talents and warm, easy manner are much more suited to the Department of Agriculture, where she was very well regarded, than to the more senior Enterprise, Trade and Employment ministry, which requires more subtlety, nous and diplomacy, particularly in dealings overseas.
There is a feeling in government circles that Coughlan has upped her game considerably in recent months, but she erred badly in her initial handling of the PR battle with Ryanair's Michael O'Leary by indicating that she would not be willing to pick up the phone to him. Despite having a strong case, she was on the back foot from that point on. That inability at times to think on her feet has also caused her problems when filling in for the taoiseach on the order of business in the Dáil on Thursdays.
Coughlan is certain to stay on as tánaiste – the taoiseach's loyalty to her will ensure this – but will not remain in her current ministry. Her department is likely to be broken up and a new souped-up enterprise department created, with a special emphasis on job creation and economic planning. Coughlan will not take this ministry but she might keep the trade element of her portfolio, with a less demanding trade and tourism position being mooted. This should mean at least some relief from the constant onslaught of criticism. Few would begrudge her that, certainly not her female colleagues.
"It's my belief," former Fianna Fáil minister Mary O'Rourke told the Sunday Tribune, "that Mary Coughlan would be happier in another role, but I want to say quite clearly that what's written about her and said about her – supposedly on the basis of competency – underlying any of those comments is a strong thread of sexism".