Women We Love: Katherine Zappone; Educator, Feminist & Minister for Children

Firstly, this is an extra special Women We Love feature, so make yourself a cuppa and sit back. It’s a bit longer than usual, but it is one that embodies part of our ethos which is to empower our readers. I hope you enjoy the interview as much as we did.

Minister Katherine Zappone, is a woman who is at the forefront of political reform, equality in education, financial justice and gender equality in Ireland.

Anyone who has followed the recent Marriage Equality and Repeal the 8th Campaigns (which lets face it is everyone in the country) will know of Katherines involvement in the establishment and efforts of getting these two paramount issues in Ireland the attention they so badly needed, with the best possible results, in order to create a more equal, empathetic and liberal Irish landscape and political climate.

An American-Irish, her Italian heritage has clearly never left her either, as she has a gusto that would stop anyone in their tracks and demand attention, action and reaction.

I was unashamedly emotional, inherently captivated, and powerfully inspired whilst interviewing Katherine. Her words, work, views and actions on some of Ireland’s most prominent issues and topics have beckoned people to stop and think hard about how we want to reshape our society and its views on women’s equality, bodily autonomy, children’s rights and the devastating issues of the Mothers and Babies homes. 

Without further ado,  let us recap on what we spoke about together. 

Firstly, how did you get your start in politics? Do you feel it was a calling?

Politics is a calling. A calling to serve people, communities and country.

My pathway into politics came by way of a nomination to the Seanad by then Taoiseach Enda Kenny, upon the recommendation by Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore in 2011. Of course it was a huge honour.

A personal honour certainly, but also recognition for all who I stood shoulder to shoulder with to demand equality, fairness and justice. Entering politics does come with a risk. A risk of being overwhelmed and bogged down by a system which is slow to change and adapt.

However my late spouse Ann Louise Gilligan believed that on balance the opportunity to go into a system which for too long had been dominated by male conservative voices from two parties was one which we could not pass.

We firmly believed that politics needs more independent voices to speak up for those who had been forgotten or ignored.

It is a philosophy which I have remained true to and one which gives me drive to continue that work today, whether it is radically reforming childcare, improving child protection or assisting Ireland in confronting and accepting the truth about Mother and Baby Homes.

Is working with the public something you always saw yourself doing?

Our home was always open to our neighbours. The Shanty nestled in the Dublin Mountains is where Ann Louise and I laid the foundations for An Cosán.

We welcomed women and their families into our home. Empowered them through education by providing people of all ages with pathways to learning, leadership and enterprise.

From those small gatherings grow a community organisation and network which is now the biggest of its type in Ireland.

Today it is empowering people in every community in the country – not just by having a physical presence but also through a virtual college. Lives are being transformed.

Ann Louise was first and foremost an educator, and by its nature education means you work with people from all backgrounds. So working with the public was always our ethos.

Of course when we started off I don’t think either of us thought that it would bring me to the cabinet table.

But if you want to effect change you must work with others, and this is what I have done as a human rights advocate and campaigner, a Senator and now as the only Independent woman in Government. 

Tusla and HSE join forces in new initiative to support children whose parents misuse alcohol and other drugs Photo: Peter Houlihan

In May 2016, you became Ireland’s first openly lesbian government Minister and the first Minister to have been openly gay at the time of appointment to cabinet, when Enda Kenny appointed you as the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. What challenges did you face getting your career off the ground? And what challenges do you still face?

When I first arrived into Leinster House and looked around the Seanad chamber it was mostly male and party political members.

While there have been changes our parliament still does not reflect the communities which it serves.

Striving for that equality is a constant challenge.

However my own presence in Leinster House for the past eight-years and indeed the presence of people like Mary Lou McDonald, Clare Daly and Frances Fitzgerald have had an impact.

Our voices have changed views.

I saw this myself when I sat across the table from two Taoisaigh, Enda Kenny and Leo Varadkar, and made it clear that Repealing the 8th amendment was a key demand in supporting their Governments.

Both men had to embark on a journey. They had to become educated and informed of the complex issues involved. Together with other campaigners I had to make them see repeal as a gender equality and human rights issue.

To their credit this led to them setting in train a process which brought us to the historic referendum result last year.

So yes it is challenging, it can be difficult to be heard but you must keep your eye on the end game. That gives you the drive and determination to keep on going and to make a difference.

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You and your late spouse, Ann Louise Gilligan, founded An Cosán which supports individuals and communities to engage in the process of social change through transformative education. You invoke social change and do it so admirably. What advice would you offer young women actively seeking to do the same thing and make changes within their communities and political sphere for the better good?

Be determined. Build friendships, coalitions and alliances. Do not be deterred by setbacks. Never tire of learning.  Work across classes, ethnic backgrounds and all differences.

It is important to remember that when right is on your side that history is also on your side and change will come.

Ann Louise put it best ‘Imagine the possible’. We always believed that the Irish are a generous people who have great empathy and love for their neighbours.

When they hear and learn of the experiences – often horrific experiences – of others they respond. We saw that with Marriage Equality we saw it too with Repeal the 8th and we are seeing it now in the response to the revelations about Mother and Baby Homes.

I do believe that the truth telling processes we are putting in place now will bring Ireland to a better place. We will be a more open and transparent society, more accepting of our past, even those parts which make us uncomfortable.

We owe it those most impacted by the Mother and Baby Homes but we also owe it to future generations because it is only through truth that we can ensure that this never happens again.

Of all the projects you’ve worked, which has been the most memorable experience and why?

We are transforming childcare and I know from hearing from parents across the country that our changes are having an impact. Our 117% increase in Government investment since 2015 has opened up opportunities for parents, allowing them to go back to school, training or work.

I have seen first-hand how the care and social workers of Tusla are transforming lives. I have supported that frontline work by introducing Mandatory Reporting and bringing the agencies budget to three-quarters of a billion euro for the first time ever.

Protecting vulnerable children is the most important part of my work. We must listen to our young people. Young voices should be the loudest in deciding our future. I saw the impact of this with the launch of the LGBTI National Youth Strategy – a world first. More than 4.000 young people helped draw up this strategy.

Our response now to the revelations surrounding Mother and Baby Homes will be judged by future generations. I am determined that we will get to and acknowledge the truth. I am working with Government colleagues up to the Taoiseach to make this happen. 

What advice would you offer young women aspiring to fulfil a career in politics and activism? 

Politics needs more women. Politics needs more young women.

I would encourage every girl and woman to speak up and have a say on the issues which are important to them. Local debate is the pathway to politics and more women must follow it.

This can be at local level in the community, through letters to the editor or radio phone ins or indeed by running for local, national or European elections.

If you hadn’t pursued politics as a career what do you think you would have done?

Exploring my creative side would be my next choice. I have always enjoyed writing in particular.  I am hoping to do some more self-narrative writing in the near future – to draw on my experience of grief, and joy.

I draw inspiration from art. My own office has the works of Grainne Cuffe, Grainne Dowling, Alice Maher, and Pauline Bewick hanging on the wall.

In the cabinet room I sit across from a portrait of Countess Markieviecz.

During times when the pressure is on I draw inspiration from them.

It is so important that women inspire and allow each other to grow together through mutual support. What women in Ireland, as well as Irish women abroad, do you most admire whom you feel inspire you today?

Our world would be a much safer and more stable place if Hillary Clinton won the US Presidential Election. As an American-Irish (and of course a good share of Italian blood) I exercised my right and voted for Hillary.

I look too at those I stood and marched with to Repeal the 8th. People like Ailbhe Smyth who dedicated her life to the cause. Former President Mary McAleese has been an ally and friend. Not just on Marriage Equality but also in confronting the Church and making it accept its role in the dark chapters of our past and in inequalities which continue today.

So yes women do need to inspire and encourage each other. I truly believe this.

Katherine, you were initially the only member of cabinet to have unequivocally spoken out in favour of repeal of the 8th and legalisation of abortion, arguing that the 8th Amendment “oppresses us with the burden of choicelessness”, and that “as long as the Constitution treats a foetus as equal to a woman, her autonomy can be nothing more than a myth”. Thankfully many others eventually followed pursuit in your belief. What did it feel like when Ireland voted YES?

It was a tremendous moment. I spent result day firstly in my local count centre in Citywest, Tallaght. From early on it was clear that the years of local education and awareness coupled with a busy final few months on the doorsteps was paying off.

Later in the day I went to the National Count Centre at the RDS. There as well as the familiar faces of those who I had campaigned with from day 1 were other cabinet colleagues and indeed politicians from Sinn Fein and Fianna Fáil.

Many of them had been on a journey. The process I had argued for, the Citizens Assembly, had educated them and woken them up to the injustices happening in our country.

Of course I had taken a lot of flack, and on social media a lot of abuse, for advocating for the assembly. Hindsight is a great thing – but everyone now accepts that without the assembly we would never have repealed.

What mantras/mindfulness do you use to cleanse the mind and focus on the job at hand?

I have practiced mindfulness for years – very priviliged to have been taught by Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the foremost founders of modern mindfulness and a holy man.

I often use the mantra from a 14th century mystic, Julian of Norwich, who wrote:

‘All will be well.  And all manner of things shall be well.’

Speaking of mindfulness, how do you split your time between work and your downtime?

Weekends are important. I am lucky that my constituency takes in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains with the Blessington Lakes nearby. It has some of the greatest foot and cycle ways in the country.  I love cycling, especially on a Sunday.  Other days I like to take my dog, August, for a long walk in the forest nearby my home.

It is also important to take this time to reflect and to read.  I love going to the National Concert Hall, especially to hear piano and symphonies.  Movies are a great way to relax too. 

What has been your proudest career moment to date? And what are your goals for 2019?

Calling Ann Louise to tell her of my appointment as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs was an unforgettable moment for both of us. It was a moment of joy mixed of course with a realisation of the huge amount of work we had signed up to.

In 2019 it is my firm hope that Ireland will continue the process of accepting the truth of what happened in the Mother and Baby Homes, and other institutional settings of abuse against women, men and children.

I have spent a lot of time listening to survivors and their loved ones. It has not always been easy. Often our discussions and meetings have been highly emotional for all concerned. I am conscious that the process we have started will be difficult for people at times.

I firmly believe that secrecy, shame and guilt brought us to this place. We must ensure it never happens again and that will only be achieved by facing up to the truth.

What is your morning routine to get you through the working day?

Coffee! The first cup of the morning marks the start of my day. If I am lucky and my schedule allows I like to get some exercise in early in the day. Preferably at home but of course Leinster House also neighbours some of Dublin’s finest squares.  I try to hit the gym three times a week.  I phone my sister and brother in the USA whenever I can.
Where are your favourite places to eat and drink in Dublin?

Finding new places to eat is very exciting in Dublin. I do however have some firm favourites.

Top of the list is Pinocchios in Temple Bar and Ranelagh. Not only the best Italian in the city but also great friends. Owners Marco Giannantonio and Mauricio Mastrangelo are from Gildone, a small Italian hilltop town from which the Zappone’s left to go to the US.

Last year I was blessed when they invited me back to receive the Citizenship of the town during St Patrick’s Day celebrations.

It was a very proud moment which would not have been possible without the friendship, support and help of the guys from Pinnocchios.

I am blessed by their friendship – and they are top chefs too!

What are your favourite ways to keep fit?

Walking and cycling. While I love the outdoors and the Dublin Mountains I do also visit the gym when work puts pressure on the diary.

What are your top three life essentials?

Love and companionship.  Quiet time.  Changemaking.

Your greatest food pleasure?

Italian food and wine – a winner everytime!

If you could tell your 16 year-old self anything, what would it be?

Believe in yourself a bit more.  Soar.  Sing.  Don’t worry about loving girls. It is who you are.

Can you share any exciting plans you have in the pipeline?

This is going to be a huge year for Childcare. The Affordable Childcare Scheme will start later in the year, delivering more benefits to more children and more families on top of the 89,000 children already getting extra supports.

The information campaign starts next month. So my message to parents everywhere is watch this space.

Gonna start writing my next book …. Heading to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre soon to help me on my way.

You can follow Katherine on Facebook,  Instagram & Twitter

Article by Linda Coogan Byrne, Deputy Editor at IndulgeMe.ie. You can follow Linda on InstagramTwitter and LinkedIn.