Gemma Kavanagh speaks to Joan Burton about life and her political views in our second piece on the former Tánaiste.
Having sadly lost her adoptive mother at a very young age, Deputy Joan Burton wished she could share her success with her mother as she entered the Dáil for the first time in 1992. “She got sick when I was 17 and she died when I was 20,” Burton explains.
“When I was two and a half she adopted me, I also thought about my birth mother and how I’d love to tell her but in those days trying to access details about your background or make contact with your birth parents was almost impossible.”
Former Tánaiste, Deputy Joan Burton went to Stanhope Street School in Stoneybatter. Coming from a working class area, she placed huge value on education. She received a scholarship to UCD and studied English and commerce, and became one of Ireland’s first female chartered accountants. Before her life in politics, Deputy Joan Burton was an accounting lecturer in Rathmines.
She loved working with students and taught some modules on the journalism course in DIT. She then lived in Africa for a period of time. “I worked in the university of Dar Es Salaam in Africa developing business education there in cooperation with the Irish Aid programme.”
On her return to Ireland in the mid 1980s, she began working with the Labour Party and was encouraged to run for election. “I got involved in running the presidential campaign in Dublin West for Mary Robinson and at the time there was growing support for women candidates in the government.”
Describing herself as a late vocation to politics, Joan Burton did not run for election until she was 40. “I am glad I had the opportunity to travel and work abroad and get life experience before starting my career in politics, when I became a minister my experience stood to me.”
Joan Burton became involved in county Dublin politics when she was on the council for Mulhuddart in 1991. “What attracted me to politics was education, housing and planning. One of my passions was developing housing and to make sure there were sports facilities, parks and trees lining the roads in neighbourhoods.”
Joan was an advocate for ‘Planning for people not for developers’, and helped to bring projects such as the Blanchardstown Shopping Centre to Dublin West. “I want to see Dublin West as a really good place to grow up in, when you see the impact good neighbourhoods and schools have on people’s lives, it’s the best return.”
Joan placed huge emphasis on education, and how important good schools are to a child’s life. “We’ve had over 20 new and refurbished schools in the Dublin 15 area. Education for me was an enormous opportunity to do the things I wanted to do so I want to do that for someone else.”
In order to encourage young girls to take an interest in politics, Joan spoke about how we need to develop the subjects like CSPE (Civil, Social & Political Education) and issues that explain community and encourage discussion. When people are involved in their community or their part of the city, it helps people to develop ideas about how they can help and improve their area. “The issues that attracted me when I was young were education and housing and planning. I was from Stoneybatter in a two room cottage, nobody had indoor toilets.”
Last May, Joan Burton lost her position as Tánaiste when Labour came out of government. I asked her what she wanted her legacy to be after she had been the Taoiseach’s right hand woman for so many years. “I was very happy that when Labour came out of government the unemployment rate had more than halved [from] what it was before, and more funding was going into areas such as arts, which is seen as a very important quality of life in our society. We had a huge school building project which we’ll only see the benefits of in 20 years but I was happy that we provided really good places for children to go to school.
“As Minister for Social Protection, I tried to turn social welfare system [from] more than [just] a support system but more of an opportunity to go back to education or training, giving people the power in their own lives to get jobs. I tried to build a system where the social welfare is more than just getting a payment but has a whole list of opportunities built into it.”
It’s one of the biggest issues in Ireland at the moment and pressure is mounting on the government to address the 8th amendment as a huge ‘Repeal the 8th’ campaign takes hold across the country. I asked Joan what were her thoughts on it and does she think Enda Kenny will ever address it.
“I campaigned against the introduction of the 8th amendment 30 years ago and I campaign against it today.” She spoke very passionately explaining that the Irish constitution was not the place to deal with such an “extraordinary, important, sensitive complicated issue”.
“It was not a good political day when that amendment was brought into the constitution,” she said.
With respect to others who are of a different opinion she acknowledges the fact they are difficult and sensitive issues and everybody’s story in relation to a pregnancy is a different story and everybody’s story is important to them. “I do think there has been a political parking of the issue. I think the timeline of it is far too slow, it could be even slower than the Taoiseach suggested. He said there were at least six ways of approaching it but never specified what they were, we need to try and bring people together on it and be respectful of people’s views. I wouldn’t preach to anybody what they should do; life is complicated enough. I don’t think it’s for me to make the decision for people and I think people should be supported in whatever decision they make.”
With the Pope planning to visit Ireland in 2018 Joan Burton remarked she assumes it will be left for longer still and be addressed after the Holy Father’s visit.
“As Tánaiste I insisted on setting a date of the marriage referendum [and] the Taoiseach. Enda Kenny had changed his views in relation to marriage equality and he came to respect the desire for change and equality. I pushed for a date and he respected that. Perhaps some of the people in government with him now need to convince him we need to address the 8th amendment as a country.”