Mary Harney: the gutsiest politician of her generation

MARY Harney's ann­ouncement that she was exiting political life hardly came as a shock. Since the de­mise of the PDs, there was an inevitability that Harney would not contest another general election. The only surprise was that she left it so late in the day to reveal her decision.

That it was the correct decision is hardly beyond question. After 34 years in public life, there was nothing left for Harney to achieve and, to the outside observer at least, she does not appear to be the politician she once was.

Harney was arguably the gutsiest politician of her generation. The examples are numerous: she was barely out of college when she was standing up to Charlie Haughey, a Fianna Fáil leader who left most of his party's TDs quaking in their boots. She was finally booted out of Fianna Fáil for opposing the party's ridiculous stance on the Anglo-Irish agreement and encouraged fellow Fianna Fáil rebel Des O'Malley to establish the Progressive Democrats – she would later succeed O'Malley as leader, becoming the first woman to head a political party. As a junior minister for the environment in the first FF-PD coalition, she faced down a powerful lobby group to introduce a ban on bituminous coal.

She was one of the first politicians to raise the difficulties inherent in the way the single mothers' allowance scheme operated – although the knee-jerk and ill-thought out response to her intervention caused the PDs massive political problems at the height of the 1997 general election campaign. As enterprise and employment minister, she faced down the legal lobby by introducing the Personal Injuries Assessment Board.

In 2004, she also volunteered to take on the most difficult job in Irish politics – a position nobody else wanted – by becoming minister for health. Her logic was simple: she believed her role in politics was to implement change and the department most in need of change was health, so she went for it.

With, it has to be said, decidedly mixed results. But that is more a reflection of the enormous difficulties in that job than on her abilities.

In retrospect, there may have been a certain amount of naivety about Harney's approach to taking the Health portfolio. She believed she could do in Health what she did with smog in Dublin or the PIAB. But the issues proved far, far more complex. It's hard to change a system when virtually everybody who works in it is resisting that change and when a large chunk of your time is spent fire-fighting.

Despite her declaration of a 'national emergency', the A&E and patients-on-trolleys problems in certain hospitals remain as intractable as ever and the disparity between the public and private systems is as vast as it was when Harney took over.

But there have been notable successes. Huge advances have been made in cancer care, with local vested interests faced down over the centres of excellence. A new consultants' contract was finally agreed, albeit at too high a price. Harney grasped the nettle of long-term nursing home care with her 'fair deal' proposal. And when Fianna Fáil deputies were losing their nerve the summer before last, Harney held hers and faced down the pharmacists – a vested interest that for years successive ministers had shied away from tackling.

Because of the economic collapse, we'll never know if her co-location policy would have achieved its goal of freeing up beds in public hospitals. But whether you agree or disagree with it as a policy, at least it was a genuine effort to address a problem – something which previous ministers had not done.

The paucity of alternative solutions was highlighted during the last general election campaign. Health was viewed as a potential Achilles heel for the government going into that campaign but Harney won every radio and TV debate in which she participated.

As with any political career, there are 'what if's'. Her biggest mistake arguably was staying in Enterprise and Employment for another two years after the 2002 election triumph for the PDs. The original plan was that Harney would take the Transport ministry with a view to fast-tracking the Dublin metro and deregulating the bus market. But she changed her mind at the last minute. One wonders would the PDs' performance in the 2007 general election have been different if, as transport minister, Harney had reformed the bus sector and delivered a metro system for the capital.

Instead, with its two cabinet ministers tied up in two of the most politically contentious departments (Harney in Health and Michael McDowell in Justice), the PDs lost their way in that 2002-2007 period. And it wasn't just the lack of radical new policies. One of the party's founding principles was to keep a tight rein on public finances but that went out the window when the huge tax revenues generated by the property boom started to flood in.

For that reason, some of the criticism of the PDs' role in our economic collapse is warranted. But the same party also helped bring an economic realism to politics in the dark 1980s and that should not be ignored.

Harney's popularity inevitably suffered because of her tenure in the dep­artment famously dubbed 'Angola' by Brian Cowen. But despite all the crises she faced, she still retained the respect of large sections of the electorate, who admired her integrity and her courage. She may not have been a massive vote-getter but after her unsuccessful attempt at getting elected in Dublin South-East in 1977, she was returned to the Dáil in nine successive elections.

Many of those were as a PD candidate in a constituency where the party would not have been strong. The electorate liked what it saw and heard from Harney. Her party may have simplistically been regarded as elitist but that charge could never have been levelled at Harney. She called it as she saw it and more often than not she was right. The 31st Dáil will be considerably poorer for her absence.