13 November 2008 Edition
An outspoken voice for Munster
TOIREASA FERRIS, the Sinn Féin councillor and South candidate for next year’s European elections, is from Ardfert, County Kerry, a small village five miles from Tralee. She talks to ELLA O’DWYER about growing up in a republican family, her commitment to securing basic rights for people and her desire to become a strong voice for Munster in Europe.
BORN in 1980, the year of the first Hunger Strike in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh, Toireasa Ferris was born into a time of heightened political activity in Ireland. Her earliest political activity occurred when she was just nine years old.
Fr Paddy Ryan was an EU election candidate for Munster. Ryan attained prominence when he went on hunger strike in 1988 in protest against British attempts to extradite him from Belgium to England on conspiracy charges. When he was selected as a Munster candidate on an anti-extradition platform in the 1989 EU elections, Toireasa did her bit to help the campaign. She recalls herself and her sister putting endless election pamphlets in envelopes for distribution around the constituency. Her father, Martin, was in jail at the time and her mother, Marie, was secretary of the local Sinn Féin cumann.
Though it was a time of heightened political activity and the Ferris family was a very political one, Toireasa says that it was by no means inevitable that she would get involved in politics. She is the only one of six siblings involved in politics, though she believes that it could only have been republicanism that would have appealed to her.
From her earliest years, Toireasa Ferris had the tendency to stand up against injustice and there is anecdotal evidence to support that. With some amusement she recalls a story often repeated by older republicans describing how a three-year-old Toireasa went out in protest at the police detention of a baby.
“I get embarrassed and cringe when I hear some of the stories. Áine Ní Mhurchú, a republican from Waterford, loves to tell one particular story.” Ní Mhurchú had been visiting the Ferris home with her young, breast-feeding baby when there was a Garda Special Branch raid on the house and Áine was arrested. The mother refused to leave without her baby and so, both were taken away by the police. An angry young Toireasa ran around to all the houses in the local authority housing estate where the family lived, knocking on the door to announce (“in fairly colourful language at the time”, as Toireasa puts it): “They’ve arrested Baby Tadhg!”
In future years that same social consciousness presented itself when she went on to do a Masters in International Human Rights, credentials she took with her to Mexico when she was voluntarily fighting for the rights of workers in Central America.
Toireasa acknowledges that it wasn’t easy for the Ferris children and their mother when her father, veteran republican Martin Ferris, was arrested and imprisoned at various stages during their years growing up.
“I was four when my dad was arrested. I’d started school just weeks before that. He had actually driven me to my first day at school.”
She remembers gradually coming to understand that her father was involved in something different than most fathers.
“When I was very young I obviously didn’t understand what was gong on. I came to understand all that gradually. I remember one occasion when certain people came into the house and they went into a room and the door being closed. The children were taken to my granny’s house for the day and then I knew something was up.”
Did she ever feel angry about her father’s commitment to the struggle? “No, especially after my daddy was taken to jail – my mam could talk a little more about what had been going on and about what he was involved in.”
From their earliest years she and her brothers and sisters were taught to be proud of their dad, and her mother, Marie, was central in developing that understanding that he “wasn’t putting the Republican Movement before us.
“Mam instilled a sense of pride in us about what our father was doing. We were taught that it was such an unselfish thing that he was doing because he wanted to make a better future for us and all the children on the island.”
In the 1980s, when she was just a youngster, it was very common for republican homes to be raided by the Garda Special Branch and the Ferris home was a very frequent target for raids. When her dad was imprisoned and their home was regularly visited by the police, life was at times confusing for the Ferris children but republicans like Rita O’Hare helped Toireasa to get a handle on what was going on politically.
“Sometimes the other schoolchildren would repeat things to me that they’d heard their parents say at home. I remember that during that time I was a bit down at one stage and I’ll never forget Rita O’Hare visiting us at home. My mother told her how I was feeling and Rita took me for a walk down Banna Beach – Banna Strand where Casement was captured. She explained the story of Casement to me and put the story into the modern-day context and it helped me to understand things more. Rita is absolutely fabulous with children.”
And that affection holds firm today. Toireasa smiles when she says:
“I got more afraid of Rita as I got older. She’s not as scary when you’re younger. I still love Rita but I wouldn’t cross her either.”
Noted as a highly intelligent and well-educated young woman, Toireasa Ferris had a lot of options when it came down to a career and life path.
Having completed her schooling at Ardfert National School, she furthered her education at the University of Limerick and Queen’s University, Belfast. Having attained an Honours Degree at the University of Limerick, she went on to complete a degree in Law and European Studies and a Masters Degree in International Human Rights and Criminal Justice from Queen’s University. But her studies had to be juggled with heavy political commitments.
“I remember when I was sitting my finals in 2003 at the University of Limerick when my father rang me the night before the last exam on Company Law and tactfully wished me the best of luck in the exam before going on to say, ‘Oh, and by the way, we’re thinking of co-opting you onto Kerry County Council.’ It hit me like a sledgehammer! I didn’t know how to respond. I thought he was joking first and then when I realised that he was serious I made sure the conversation got wrapped up fairly quickly and instead of spending the night studying I was asking myself how I was going to tell him I wasn’t going to do it.”
Although she eventually did take up the challenge, Toireasa was initially a reluctant councillor.
“I was totally opposed to the idea of being a councillor. I was enrolled for the entrance exam for King’s Inn and had just done my final exams. But, of course,” she laughed “they brought in the heavies, people that I have great grá for, other republicans, and basically they talked me into submission”.
MAYOR OF KERRY
She was only 23 years of age when she was co-opted onto Kerry County Council in 2003 in place of her father, Martin after he became a TD in 2002. She was elected onto Kerry County Council in 2004 and at the age of 26 was mayor of the county from 2005 to 2006. Last month, the 28-year-old was co-opted onto Tralee Town Council in place of another councillor, Sinn Féin’s Maisie Houlihan, who had to step down for health reasons.
So the King’s Inn dream had to be forfeited for the Kingdom.
“King’s Inn is in Dublin and it was going to be impossible to do my council work and commute to Dublin to study. So I started the Masters degree on a part-time basis with Queen’s University and I completed that in December 2005. I was doing the Masters with a view to studying further and I started studying for a PhD in 2006. It was to be in Law and History in Limerick University but then with the general election coming up in 2007 I was made director of canvass in Kerry North and I agreed to put my studies off.
“I had hoped that I would be able to get a lot of preparation for the PhD done during my maternity leave last year but then I was very ill for the first few months with the pregnancy [Toireasa now has a six-month-old daughter, Liadain] that I was just about able to do the council work and I was working part-time as well to put the mortgage together. So then I said I’d put off the PhD until this year but the European election comes along. But I’ll eventually do either the King’s Inn degree or the PhD. One of the two is going to happen.”
So why did Toireasa decide to suspend her studies and personal ambitions for republicanism?
“I did it because I’m a republican and also the work I would have done as an outcome of further study is largely what I’m doing today. Achieving basic rights is what it’s all about.”
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Constituency work can be hard, intensive, and requires huge commitment. Does she enjoy the work?
“Constituency work I absolutely love. I hate other aspects of being an elected representative. I hate going to the meetings. I don’t particularly like doing the media stuff because you’re always afraid you’ll say the wrong thing.”
She reflects back on a TV interview with Pat Kenny on the Late Late Show in 2006 after which the media focused on her clothing and the length of her skirt rather than the depth of her knowledge and the content of the discussion.
“I can’t understand why women’s groups remained so silent when they saw that so much focus was being put on the attire of a young female politician. There was disgusting commentary in the media about my dress. The commentary about Mary Lou a few months earlier about her weight was even worse. The woman was pregnant and they (overwhelmingly men, no doubt) were slagging off her weight!
“There was an excellent letter in the papers at the time about the issue basically saying that if they don’t like your politics they will throw you to the wolves.”
But though the media coverage at the time was highly offensive it actually reinforced Toireasa Ferris’s determination to get further involved in politics.
“It was already an exhausting year with being mayor and you tend to be a bit tired and negative. But it was after that media coverage that it occurred to me that if they were attacking me like that there had to be a reason for it – I must have been doing something right.”
Is she excited about the European elections and how important does she think it is for Sinn Féin to have seats in Europe?
“It’s hugely important for Sinn Féin to have representation at every level and to give a voice to people that the other politicians are ignoring and choosing not to listen to.
“Honestly, I won’t say I’m excited about the EU elections. I’m very nervous. It’s a huge burden to represent our people. It’s not like any other political party. At every stage I want to do justice to our membership and to the people who brought our party to where it is today and you’re always afraid that you’re not going to perform to a level that those people deserve.
“I am very nervous about it and I so desperately want to do the work to the standard that our people deserve because I have so much respect for them.”
And what does she hope to bring to the Ireland South constituency if she becomes an MEP?
“If I’m elected I hope to be a strong voice for the constituency at the European table because Europe impacts on ordinary people in many ways not least the fishing and farming sectors who have suffered due to poor negotiations at EU level.
“Look at how the fishermen of this country have been criminalised over recent years as they try to make a living. We’ve seen the protests where they have handed out free fish to highlight their plight. Inadequate quotas and the rising price of fuel are crippling the industry. Farmers here in Munster and across Ireland need protection from unregulated providers when the likes of Brazilian farmers can sell their beef here at a lower price because they don’t have to meet the same strict criteria around animal testing. But I believe that too much power is being concentrated in Brussels: the free market gets priority over the rights of workers and the protection of public services.
“I love helping people at any level, people who are being denied basic entitlements and who have nobody to speak for them, and whether at a local or a European level I aim to continue that work and the European Parliament provides a more expansive forum for securing the rights of Irish citizens.”
Where does Toireasa Ferris see herself 20 years from now?
“I think I’ll always be involved in republicanism, whether as a political representative or an activist working day-to-day on the ground. I want a socialist republic though I think it will take a bit longer than we had anticipated up to about two or three years ago. I used to think we’d get it by 2016. I think it will take slightly longer to get a united Ireland and longer again to get the socialist republic.”
Toireasa lives in Ardfert with her partner, Patrick, and daughter Liadain. She maintains a close relationship with her parents, of whom she speaks very highly and with tremendous love.
“My mother used to be the prime carer when my dad was in jail. She was always very loving and supportive. My father is always very calm, no matter what arises, and he is always there for us. People tell me that I’m ‘Martin Ferris without the beard’ but I can feel a lot of both my parents in me. I can see a lot of my ways in both my parents, both the good points and the flaws too. I’ve never been shy about saying how much I love both my parents.”
FAMILY: Toireasa on her grandmother Agnes's knee during a visit in Portlaoise Prison in 1987 with Martin and brother Cianán