Lorraine Clifford-Lee survived because she is a liberal woman in a party that is very short of liberal women, writes John McGuirk
There are very few politicians in the Oireachtas with a more conventionally liberal voting record than Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee. If you can think of a hot button issue over the past six or seven years, she has been on the liberal, feminist side of the argument, from marriage, to abortion, to gender identity, to divorce, and immigration.
When a Fine Gael national executive member, Barry Walsh, was accused, two years ago, of sending abusive tweets, she and I were on the Tonight Show on TV3 – me to defend him, her to condemn him utterly, and to say that there was no place in politics for somebody with his, in her opinion, misogynistic and offensive views.
She has consistently supported gender quotas, and other legislative boons for women, and proclaimed herself a feminist. She has positioned herself as exactly the kind of modern, left-leaning, liberal urban woman that Micheál Martin has tried to recruit in order to rebrand Fianna Fáil as a party acceptable to the liberal electorate in Dublin constituencies, and the opinion pages of the Irish Times.
But, the question we’re left with now is: was it all an act?
Gript.ie, the news website where I am the editor, published a series of tweets that Ms Clifford-Lee had posted in 2011 and 2012, when she was a 30-year-old solicitor sitting on the Fianna Fáil national executive.
Those tweets quickly became national news. The senator had said horrible things about travellers. She had made a disgustingly racist remark about a Brazilian immigrant, who had committed no crime other than sitting next to her on the bus. She had repeatedly called other women ‘bitches’, and worse. Of the young women in her constituency who went for a night out to the Wright Venue, the largest nightclub in Swords, she said that they were attending a ‘slut venue’.
Lorraine Clifford-Lee is by no means the only politician in the Oireachtas to have presented a new position”
The defence of her conduct was predictable, and the reasons for that defence obvious. She was very sorry, she said. Her views had changed, in the eight years that have passed. She would remain a candidate and suffer no sanction, her party leader said, because she was truly sorry. She survived, in truth, because she is a liberal woman in a party that is very short of liberal women. If she had been a man, would she have been out on her ear – like Barry Walsh was, at her behest, just two years ago?
So, what does this episode tell us? Has Lorraine Clifford-Lee really changed, from what some people might view as a relatively nasty, mean-spirited person that her tweets showed her to be in 2012, to the tolerant, liberal, feminist campaigner that she presents herself as today?
Or might it be that like so many of our politicians, she has felt a change in the wind and shaped her public image into something completely different from the truth of who she is?
Acres of column inches have been written over the past two decades about the transformation of Ireland from a closed and repressive country into one that is, to use the officially approved term, open and compassionate. The Dáil is full of politicians who have gone on ‘personal journeys’ and arrived at profoundly new understandings of the world, over that time.
It’s interesting to imagine what kind of politician Lorraine Clifford-Lee would have been had she come of age in the 60s, or the 70s or the 80s. Would she have still been the liberal crusader she is today, or would she have been one of those politicians lining up to condemn mothers of children born outside of wedlock, railing against contraception, and divorce?
We live in a country where our two largest political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, don’t really believe in anything”
When someone is as instinctively judgemental, and as instinctively cruel about those less fortunate than themselves as the Senator was just eight years ago, it becomes much harder to imagine that they have changed into a model of tolerance and compassion. Has she become who she thinks the voters want her to be?
The problem, of course, is that the voters very often fall for it. Lorraine Clifford-Lee is by no means the only politician in the Oireachtas to have presented a new position. She is merely unlucky enough not to have deleted her old tweets.
We live in a country where our two largest political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, don’t really believe in anything. In the UK or the US, the Conservatives and Labour, or the Democrats and the Republicans, have very firm fixed beliefs about how the world should work. In Ireland, we have two parties that will change their principles overnight if it wins them an election.
If you are an ambitious person who seeks power, there’s really nothing that you can think, or believe, that would stop you from joining either.
Increasingly, voters are starting to see through it. Both parties lost support in the Sunday Times opinion poll, and barely mustered 50% support between them.
With the utter cynicism, and unwillingness to believe in anything that defines both their brands, they don’t deserve even that much.