Ursula von der Leyen – They don’t call me ‘Elbows McGuinness’ to my face
EU Commissioner Mairead McGuinness has spoken about the double standards in political life, in which “this idea of being pushy or ambitious” is seen as a negative thing for women.
“Men regard that as a problem, whereas I think women understand it. I’m 61. It’s not as if I’m 17 and ambitious with no background. I often think the judgments made about men and women are interesting to contrast and compare,” she told Kathy Sheridan, who was interviewing her as part of the Irish Times Winter Nights festival.
In a wide-ranging conversation, in which she talked about Brexit, her background in journalism, how Phil Hogan was instrumental in her getting into politics – and in which she didn’t rule out running for the presidency of Ireland or the European Commission – the Louth-born commissioner said she has never had a plan for her career.
She finds the nickname reportedly bestowed on her by certain Fine Gael members of “Elbows McGuinness” amusing. They don’t call her that “to my face,” she said. “I find that ‘Elbows’ thing hilarious. Because actually I’m not that big physically, and I can’t do much with my size, but I do a bit with my brain … If you’d mention a man’s muscle, wouldn’t that sound better than a woman’s elbow? Why is that?”
She described having to use a cushion on her chair at the European Parliament to make her presence felt. “When you’re up on that stage, physically, it’s big. I remember the first time I sat down the chair, I wasn’t there. I was like this little poppet of a thing. And I had to get a cushion to sit on … to portray a little bit more strength, which when you’re a woman, is a factor.”
McGuinness, who has been European Commissioner for Financial Stability, Financial Services and the Capital Markets Union since October 2020, said that after the Golfgate scandal blew up last summer, “at no point did I think Phil Hogan is in trouble, here’s my chance. But I’ve always had the view that if I was able to do a job and there was a job to be done, I should think about putting my name forward.”
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When she spoke about her name being put forward to Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, “I did say I was prepared to come second, because there was no guarantee. What was really interesting as well, is that the president here [Ursula von der Leyen] was very clear when she said she wanted two names: a woman and a man. What was fascinating for me as a former journalist was the number of times she was quoted as saying ‘a man and a woman’.”
She described how, when the call came through from Taoiseach Micheál Martin to tell her that her name was one of two being put forward, she was about to take part in a live webinar and initially didn’t take it. “I just pressed, ‘sorry I can’t take your call now’. He texted and said, ‘This is the Taoiseach’.”
She revealed how, after they spoke she texted her husband, Tom, and said “game on”.
Irish Times columnist Kathy Sheridan made the point to McGuinness that “one of the great ironies” was the role Phil Hogan had played originally in her entry into politics. “There were various conversations with various people, and ultimately I talked to Phil Hogan, and he was instrumental. He didn’t persuade me but he said, ‘if you’re interested in running’ … they were interested that I would run. He would have been extraordinarily helpful. As you know, Phil is the great campaigner and the great strategist.”
She also spoke about the incident when Nigel Farage was delivering his final speech to the European Parliament, and he and some of his supporters began waving Union Jacks. In a move that promptly went viral on social media, McGuinness cut his microphone.
“I was troubled by the jeering and the heckling. You could sense, the tension in the air. I just thought to myself, this is our parliament here. Nigel Farage … used our parliament and he’s using it now to do things that I just found very difficult to deal with, and it was disrespectful. So because of all that was going on, I cut his microphone, and he didn’t have the last word. I suppose I hadn’t realised that this was his last hurrah.”
And what of McGuinness’s future? Would she run again for president of Ireland? “I don’t know what I’ll do, because I didn’t know I’d be in this job a year ago. What will be will be.”
Would she like to be President of the Commission? “I don’t know what the honest answer is. I don’t think I’ll retire.” She might end up returning to study horticulture and history and English after her term is up, she suggested. “I’ve four years in this role, and if I’m healthy and if my family are well, let’s see after four years. But at least I hope after four years, if I’m still around, that I can say I did my best. And I gave it a good shot.”
The Irish Times Winter Nights festival is a series of online talks and events running until January 29th. The festival is supported by Peugeot. Still to come on Thursday night are Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon, Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Prof Luke O’Neill of TCD and on Friday, writer Dara McAnulty, actor Gabriel Byrne and Fintech Zoom news anchor John King.
For tickets to the remaining events in the festival, see irishtimes.com/winternights. A single ticket costing €50 admits ticket holders to all events at the festival. Irish Times digital subscribers can purchase tickets at the discounted price of €25. Just make sure you are signed in, and the discount will be applied automatically.