1997 - 2011



"When I was growing up the idea that someone like me could be a politician was unheard of."

- Interview with Mary Banotti, 'Something about Mary’, Liberties Press, 2008.

Mary Harney was the longest serving female TD in Ireland’s history. She was Teachta Dála for Dublin South-West and Dublin Mid-West constituencies from 1981-2011 and served as Tánaiste for nine years, from 1997 to 2006.

Mary Harney being presented with her seal of office by President Mary Robinson.
Maxwell Photography

Cabinet Appointments

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment with responsibility for Environment Protection 1989-1992

Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment from 1997-2004

Minister for Health and Children 2004-2011

Government of the 29th Dáil
RTÉ Photographic Archive.
Mary Harney, 1997
RTÉ Photographic Archive.

Ministerial Achievements

Her work in environmental protection led to a major improvement in the air quality in Dublin City – she tackled the problem of smog in the capital by making Dublin a smokeless fuel city.

Founded the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) which led to the unified response among all 31 local authorities towards licensing and monitoring environmental standards. New office established in July 1989. Established the first recycling initiative in the country.


Pioneered the first ever major programme of investment in basic research in Ireland through Science Foundation Ireland based on internationally peer-reviewed projects. Established the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, which dramatically cut the cost of insurance.

Established the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement.


Established HIQA as an independent standards and quality authority. Consolidated cancer services in 8 specialist centres.

Introduced ‘Fair Deal’ a financing mechanism for delivering nursing home care for the elderly.

Political Career timeline

  • In 1977, Mary was nominated to Seanad Éireann by Taoiseach Jack Lynch and served until 1981. 
  • She stood in the General Election of 1977 but was unsuccessful.
  • Between 1979 and 1981, she served as a member of Dublin County Council for Fianna Fáil.
  • First elected to Dáil Éireann in 1981 as a Fianna Fáil candidate.
  • Member of Joint Committee for Secondary Legislation, 1977-1981.
  • Member of the Select Committee on Crime, Lawlessness and Vandalism, 1983-1987.
  • Vice-Chairperson on Dublin County Council Vocation Educational Committee, 1985-1989.
  • Member of Dáil Committee on Public Accounts, 1988-1989.  
  • Minister of State in the Department of Environment with responsibility for Environment Protection, 1989-1992.
  • Founder member of the Progressive Democrats with Desmond O’Malley in 1985.
  • Progressive Democrats Spokesperson on Justice and Social Policy, Health and Social Welfare and the Party Chief Whip. 
  • In 1993, Mary Harney became leader of the Progressive Democrats, a position she held until 2006.
  • Served as Tánaiste for nine years from 1997 to 2006.
  • Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, 1997-2004.
  • Minister for Health and Children, 2004-2011. 
  • Member of International Women’s Forum.
  • President of EU Council of Ministers during the Irish Presidency 2004.

Mary Harney, 1989
RTÉ Photographic Archive.

In 1974, Fianna Fáil was revamping its profile and seeking to attract young women as members

In 1974, Fianna Fáil was revamping its profile and seeking to attract young women as members. Mary spoke at youth conferences and came to the notice of the leader of Fianna, Jack Lynch, who asked her to stand for election in Dublin South East.

Aged 21 at the time, it was reported: ‘Mary Harney is probably the youngest candidate in the whole election.’ A student of Trinity College Dublin, she was studying for her Higher Diploma in Education.

She was one of six women candidates imposed on constituencies by head office.

She later said: ‘she came to admire Lynch in a way that she’ll never admire anyone else’

Mary Harney- Fianna Fáil Election Literature.
Mary Harney Collection.

When the leadership of Fianna Fáil changed in 1985, it was a different party and Mary felt like 'an alien' within it.

When the leadership of Fianna Fáil changed in 1985, it was a different party and Mary felt like ‘an alien within it.’ She felt the party had become conservative and she decided that when the next issue arose that she disagreed with, she ‘was not going to take it anymore.’

She left the party that year and was a founder member of the Progressive Democrats with Dessie O’Malley. ‘It was a question of staying in politics and when she did it, she never had any regrets about taking that stand.’

Mary Harney (1986)

PDs' First Annual Conference (1986)

In 1987, she topped the poll, getting 8,169 first preference votes

In 1987, she topped the poll, getting 8,169 first preference votes.

By 1992, she was regretting getting into politics and told Ursula Hanigan: that she thought, ‘she missed out a huge chunk of her life’ by choosing politics. In 1992, she was definite that she would never go for the Leadership of the party. But that changed the following year when, in 1993, she became the Leader of the Progressive Democrats.

She left politics in 2011, having served 34 years in the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Members of the Progressive Democrats in Dáil Éireann, 1988
Progressive Democrats Collection
Mary Harney, Election Literature.
Mary Harney Collection.


Born in 1953 in the parish of Ballinasloe, County Galway, Mary was the eldest of five children. Her childhood was spent on a dairy farm, Upperlands, Newcastle in County Dublin, her father supplementing his income by working in a meat factory in Leixlip. All her father’s family had emigrated to Chicago with the exception of one brother. Her father had planned to emigrate before he met her mother. Her mother’s family all emigrated to Manchester.

Her parents were interested in current affairs and her father was active in Fianna Fáil. She told Mary Banotti in an interview in 2008 that it was her mother who was the one who made all the big decisions; as Mary described it, her mother was the driver.

Following her education in the Convent of Mercy, Inchicore, and Presentation Convent, Clondalkin, Mary got a county council scholarship and went to Trinity College Dublin where she studied economics. She was the first of her extended family to attend University. Her mother encouraged her to be a teacher and she later taught maths and economics for one year at Castleknock College.

In Trinity, she was the first woman elected auditor of the college's Historical Society, the ‘Hist.’ one of the most prestigious college debating societies. She was also very active in Fianna Fáil's youth organisation. Later, working at United Dominions Trust as an economic researcher, Mary fulfilled her ambition to be elected to the local council and eventually to the Dáil. Over time, she built up an electoral base in Tallaght where she was previously totally unknown.

Newspaper Article, 'Mother to a Leader', 1994
Mary Harney Collection.
Mary Harney
Mary Harney Collection.

After Politics

After leaving politics, Mary became an independent company director and business adviser.

She is on the board of the Hospice Foundation Ireland and chairs a twenty-two country Sustainable Healthcare Project.

Earlier this year, she was elected Chancellor of the University of Limerick. She is also on the European Board of Vital Voices supporting women leaders Worldwide.

Thanks is due to Mary Harney for giving access to her personal collection and to Ann Wheatley for access to the Progressive Democrats archive.
Thanks also to the RTE Stills Archive, the Alan Kinsella Collection and Maedhbh MacNamara for access to her research.