For female Irish politician, leadership of party is within reach

DUBLIN, IRELAND — DUBLIN, Ireland -- Mary Harney, a career politician, stands poised to become the first woman to head a political party in Ireland, whose politics has been decidedly male-dominated in its 72-year history.

The battle for the leadership of the Progressive Democrats has been narrowed to Ms. Harney, the party's co-founder and deputy leader, and Patrick Cox, a member of both the Irish and European parliaments. The party will vote Tuesday, unless one of the candidates withdraws.


Ms. Harney's bid for leadership comes nearly three years after Mary Robinson was elected president, a position that is largely ceremonial. While Ms. Robinson's election was hailed internationally as evidence that Ireland was becoming more liberal and inclusive, Ms. Harney's election could have more impact.

Liz O'Donnell, who campaigned for Ms. Robinson and is Ms. Harney's parliamentary colleague and ally, said Ms. Harney's election is a potential watershed because with it will come political power.


"The time is right," said Ms. O'Donnell, sitting in her office at Dail Eireann, the parliament. "You get the same sense of excitement, that change is in the air, as you did when Robinson was running for president. Robinson stretched the bounds. Now, Harney's in a position to make policy."

Formed eight years ago, the Progressive Democrats are the fourth-largest political party in Ireland and, with 60 percent of its members female, the only party in which women outnumber men.

Before Des O'Malley, the party's leader and a co-founder, stunned the nation by resigning Tuesday, he let Ms. Harney know in advance, and she was sitting next to him when he met the news media to make his announcement public.

In Mr. Cox, a 40-year-old father of six, Ms. Harney faces an opponent who is more associated with the traditional gregarious, back-slapping pols who meet at Buswells Hotel for drinks and talks about sports. By contrast, Ms. Harney is single, shy and introspective, described by some as married to her work.

Ms. Harney's parliamentary colleagues consider her an able, pragmatic, hard-nosed politician. She represents the new breed of career woman, having gone straight into politics after graduating from Trinity College 18 years ago. She won high marks as environment minister in the last coalition government.

"There is not a hint of tokenism in all this," Mr. O'Donnell said. "Everyone knows Mary has 18 years of experience in public life."