Mary Hanafin: 'Some people [at cabinet] have experienced life's difficulties in all different forms'

THE Audis and Mercs went by in twos and threes. There was a cabinet meeting in Farmleigh House on Monday night. The image of each government minister being whizzed up the driveway of Farmleigh House to make crucial decisions on how savings of €15bn can be made over four years incensed a public that is already convulsed with anger.

"I don't believe we are out of touch," said the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Culture, Mary Hanafin, when asked about the symbolism of the luxury cars ferrying ministers to a meeting where decisions over draconian cuts were thrashed out.

Defending herself and her ministerial colleagues, she claimed: "All forms of life experiences are around that cabinet table, people who have had their own life experiences individually and from what they know from their constituents. We are taking our job really, really seriously.

"Some people there have experienced life's difficulties in all different forms. So we bring those experiences around the table as well but we are also faced with the reality of getting this country back on track, of keeping the 1.8 million people who are at work in their jobs."

Some of our cabinet ministers have been driven around in state cars for over 13 years and Senator Donie Cassidy's remarks last week that he found it hard to get by on €65,000 with four children fuelled questions over whether politicians are detached from reality altogether.

In what could be viewed as the lack of self-awareness a minister gets after too many years in cabinet, the former Minister for Agriculture, Joe Walsh, once gave a radio interview about the challenges facing politicians after they retire. Among the aspects of everyday life that he found difficult to grapple with were the queues at check-in desks and boarding gates in Dublin Airport and having to use a ticket machine to pay for parking tickets in multi-storey car parks.

While Hanafin may argue that there are "all forms of life experiences around the cabinet table" and that "I don't believe we are out of touch", the Sunday Tribune has looked at the each of the 15 cabinet ministers to test Hanafin's argument and see if they really do live in a bubble.

Taoiseach, Brian Cowen

Taoiseach Brian Cowen studied law at UCD before he became a solicitor. Now 50, he has been in the Dáil for 26 years as he was elected in June 1984 following the death of his father, Ber. Since becoming Minister for Health and Children in 1997, and serving in the foreign affairs and finance portfolios he has been at the cabinet table for 13 consecutive years.

Pre-politics occupation: Solicitor

Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan

Born in 1959, the future Minister for Finance was educated at Belvedere College, before pursuing his study of law at Trinity College, Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge and the King's Inns in Dublin. As an 'Oxbridge' graduate, he is a rarity in Irish politics. Lenihan has the luxury of being removed from all the bad decisions, or lack of decisions, that were made during the bubble years as he only arrived at the cabinet table in June 2007, when he was appointed Minister for Justice. He has held the Finance portfolio since May 2008.

Pre-politics occupation: Junior counsel (later senior counsel)

Minister for Agriculture, Brendan Smith

The Minister for Agriculture has a degree in politics and economics from UCD. He worked for 15 years as a special adviser to the late Tánaiste John Wilson. He was elected a TD in 1992 and after becoming Minister for Children in 2007, he was appointed Minister for Agriculture in May 2008, where he has remained since.

Pre-politics occupation: Political adviser

Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Eamon Ryan

Eamon Ryan is one of the few people at the cabinet table to have some grounding in the business world. After his schooling at Gonzaga College, he completed a bachelor of commerce degree at UCD and before entering politics he worked as a tour operator. He displayed entrepreneurial skills in founding and running a company called Cycle Safaris, which organises cycling holidays around Ireland and Europe. First elected to the Dáil in 2002, he has held the Communications portfolio at the cabinet table since 2007.

Pre-politics occupation: Tour company founder

Minister for Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs, Pat Carey

The 62-year-old studied at St Patrick's College in Drumcondra, UCD and Trinity College before starting work as a national school teacher. He was a deputy principal before he was elected a Fianna Fáil TD for Dublin North-West in 1997. He was appointed junior minister in 2007 and a cabinet minister in March this year.

Pre-politics occupation: School vice-principal

Minister for Defence, Tony Killeen

The 58-year-old Clare TD completed his teacher training degree at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick. He was first elected to the Dáil in 1992 and has retained his Dáil seat ever since then. As defence minister, he is a newcomer to the cabinet table following the resignation of Willie O'Dea last March.

Pre-politics occupation: National school teacher

Minister for Education and Skills, Mary Coughlan

The Tánaiste has been a TD since she was first elected to the Dáil in February 1987 as a 21-year-old. She has a social science degree from UCD and worked briefly as social worker before her entry into politics. Coughlan (45) has been a cabinet minister since 2002 and has held four different portfolios in that period.

Pre-politics occupation: Social worker

Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, Batt O'Keeffe

Batt O'Keeffe obtained a BA degree from UCD and later worked as lecturer at Cork Institute of Technology before he became a full-time public representative. The 65-year-old was first elected a TD for Cork North-West in 1987. He has been in cabinet since 2008, holding the Education portfolio first and has been enterprise minister since March.

Pre-politics occupation: Third-level lecturer

Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government, John Gormley

The environment minister was educated at St Munchin's College, Limerick, UCD and the University of Freiburg in Germany. The 51-year-old ran an academy of European languages before he entered full-time politics. He was first elected a TD for Dublin South- East in 1997 and has been in the cabinet as environment minister since 2007.

Pre-politics occupation: Language teacher

Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheál Martin

The Cork South Central TD completed a BA at UCC. He later completed an MA in history at UCC before he began his career as a secondary school teacher. He was first elected to the Dáil in 1989 and the 50-year-old has been at the cabinet table since 1997 holding the Education, Health, Enterprise and Foreign Affairs portfolios over the last 13 years.

Pre-politics occupation: Secondary school teacher

Minister for Health and Children, Mary Harney

Mary Harney graduated from Trinity College Dublin with a BA in modern studies in 1976. She was a secondary teacher for a brief period and also worked as researcher before she was nominated to the Seanad in 1977. Four years later she was elected a TD and has been in Leinster House ever since. The 57-year-old has been at the cabinet table since 1997 and has held the enterprise and health portfolios.

Pre-politics occupation: Research worker

Minister for Justice and Law Reform, Dermot Ahern

The Minister for Justice was educated at the Marist College in Dundalk and UCD before he became a solicitor. The 55-year-old was elected in 1987 and has been in the Dáil ever since then. He has been at the cabinet table since 1997, holding the Social Welfare, Communications, Foreign Affairs and Justice portfolios over the last 13 years.

Pre-politics occupation: Solicitor

Minister for Social Protection, Éamon Ó Cuív

Prior to his entry into full-time public life, 60-year-old Eamon Ó Cuív, who has a degree from UCD, was the manager of a cooperative company that was involved in agricultural services in the Gaeltacht. Elected at the 1992 general election, he was Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs from 2002 until March of this year, when he was appointed Minister for Social Protection.

Pre-politics occupation: Co-op manager

Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport, Mary Hanafin

After completing her BA degree at St Patrick's College Maynooth, Mary Hanafin worked as a secondary school teacher at the Dominican College in Sion Hill, Dublin, before entering public life. The 51-year-old was elected to the Dáil in 1997 and has been at the cabinet table since 2004, holding the Education, Social and Family Affairs and Tourism, Sport and Culture portfolios.

Pre-politics occupation: Secondary teacher

Minister for Transport, Noel Dempsey

The Minister for Transport completed a BA degree and a diploma in career guidance at UCD. After completing his HDip in education at St Patrick's College in Maynooth, he worked as a career guidance teacher before he became a full-time public representative. First elected in 1987, he has been at the cabinet table since 1997. Over the last 13 years he has held the Environment, Education, Communications and Transport portfolios.

Pre-politics occupation: Teacher/Career guidance counsellor