Former Tánaiste Mary Coughlan has spoken publicly for the first time since she lost her Dáil seat in the 2011 General Election and the death of her husband, David, in September 2012.
Speaking about politics, motherhood, the death of her husband, David, and how she got through difficult times in politics and in her personal life by looking after her physical and mental health, Ms Coughlan said she had no plans that involved a return to politics or anything else.
The mother of two teenage children, she said she had plenty to keep her busy.
She said that she was going to “take some time” before deciding on her own future. Speaking on a chat show at the Abbey Arts Centre in Ballyshannon on Sunday night, Ms Coughlan was in a relaxed mood,
Reflecting on losing her seat, the former Tánaiste and six-times minister, said “a door closed and another one opened”.
Defending the bank bailout, she said it was the “right decision” at the time.
Asked where she saw her future following her Dáil defeat, she explained she had not decided, but revealed she had briefly started some work with her brother, who is based in the UK, when her husband took ill:
“I hadn’t really decided what I was going to do after I lost my seat. I had been working in politics for 25 years. I took some time to close down the office and to ensure all the staff who worked for me got organised and got back to work,” she said.
“I had a great team and you could forget that it is not just me that loses out, it is the team. I had a great team and they had to get jobs,” she added.
She said that when she returned home after politics it was a big change for her children and herself: “I had to learn I was stepping into their world. It was a big change for them too. David was always there, I was not always there. It took me a wee bit of time to get into their way of going, football schedules and all that, but we got through that.”
She was reflective when asked about life after politics: “Things change inevitably. A door closed and another one opened, when it came to my political career.
“I started to try and do a little bit of work with a brother of mine in the UK and then David got sick so my responsibilities were with David and looking after him. David passed away in September, so I really have not decided what I am going to do. I will take some time and see after that what I will do.”
Asked about the economic collapse and in particular the banking collapse, she said the decision to bail out the Irish banks at the time was “the right decision”.
Ms Coughlan told interviewer Gerry Gallagher and an audience of approximately 150 people that she had come through difficult times personally and politically by looking after her physical and mental health, and by making the decision not to sit and “mope in the corner”:
“I have been through a lot in many ways, like a lot of people in your audience, through political life. I had to let other people rare my kids. I was never about for almost ten years. I relied on a lot of people. You sit back and think, well what was it all about when you have a lot of loss to bear.
“You have to do a couple of things, you have to believe in yourself. You can sit in the corner and mope and do nothing about it, or get off your backside and do something about it. That’s what it is all about. It is about being healthy. I would try to aspire to healthy eating and exercise. It is so good for your mind. If someone asked me what was the thing that got me through very difficult times in political life and in personal life, definitely those are the things, get out, get a bit of fresh air, look after yourself. That’s hugely important.
“Your health is your wealth, your physical and mental health and that is the thing that stood to me.”
Saving the Banks was right decision
Recalling the decision to bail out the Irish banks when the financial crisis struck, she said:
“It was a very tough time. I was in the office at one o’clock in the morning and the late Brian Lenihan came in. He said the banks were in and there was a very serious problem, that there was a cash flow problem and it would be of immeasurable damage to the State. The Taoiseach was involved and the people who should have been there were there. It was actually 4 o’clock in the morning when he (Brian Cowen) rang me and we had a Cabinet meeting about it in the morning and then the decision was made.”
She initially appeared reluctant to comment any further, but did respond: “We are not going to get into all this now, because I’m sure people are sick to the eye teeth of it, but the decision that was made at the time was the right decision. Part of the decision that did not stand up was the unsubordinated debt but the (now) President of the Central Bank, who was an academic at that time and not President/Head of the Central Bank at that time, did indicate, quite categorically that we made the right decision at that time.
“It is hard to believe that the decision with Lehmans had such a catastrophic effect not just on us, but on the European countries and the United States. It has been very difficult for a lot of people and the banks have been a huge burden on the State. I think if we didn’t have the bank burden we would manage our own situation relatively well. I would hope in a very short period of time we would be able to move on from the IMF. It has been very tough.”
Asked her view on the Donegal economy today, she said Ireland today reminded her of Ireland when she first went into politics in the 1980s - “unemployment was then and now the big issue.”
She said Donegal had been very reliant on old industries and needs to move onto the new ones. She cited technology advances at LYIT and Sligo IT as examples of progress in the direction Donegal needs to go in.
“I can’t look into a bowl and say when we can see more jobs, but the only way that jobs will be created is by our own people.”
Turning to the issue of suicide in Ireland she said she had consented to give the interview, her only time to do so, since she lost her seat, because part of the proceeds from the event were going to mental health. “You are the only person I have agreed to speak to since I went out of politics because of the cause that this event is supporting - mental health.
“A first cousin of mine was lost to suicide and you can see now it affects every age group. Being physically well is important and being able to talk to people.
“Anyone here who has a teenager will know they are glued to a game or a mobile phone. Nobody talks to each other. The art of conversation, getting people to talk is very important,” she said.