There were few surprises when newly voted in Taoiseach (Prime minister) Enda Kenny announced his reshuffled Irish cabinet on Friday afternoon, but one name signaled a historic departure.
It was that of feminist theologian, US citizen and independent minister Katherine Zappone who was appointed Minister for Children.
Not since Eamon De Valera, considered the father of the Irish state served as Irish leader and cabinet member has another American served in an Irish government.
Zappone, 62, is openly gay and is now Ireland’s first openly lesbian minister. A high profile campaigner for same sex marriage in the Republic of Ireland last year, she has been appointed the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs by Kenny.
Born in the United States, in Washington state, Zappone was educated at Boston College (PhD), The Catholic University of America (MA) and University College Dublin (MBA) Zappone met her Irish partner Ann Louise Gilligan, a former nun, at Boston College in 1981 and the couple moved to Ireland 28 years ago. They have been a couple for 35 years.
Described as Ireland's most high profile lesbian couple, their 2006 court case to recognize their 2003 Canadian same sex marriage is widely credited for kick starting the debate on gay marriage that led to the 2015 marriage referendum.
When the High Court rejected their case in 2006 it noted that it recognized same sex couples could face difficulties because of the ban, suggesting that legislation should be introduced to amend that. The path to the 2015 Marriage Referendum was set.
Zappone's political career began in May 2011, when she was nominated by Kenny to the 24th Seanad (Senate). She was later elected to the Dail (Parliament) for the Dublin South-West constituency in the Irish general election on February 26, 2016.
On the evening of May 23, 2015 as Ireland became the first country in the world to vote in favor of legalizing same sex marriage, Zappone once again proposed to her partner again live on air.
In January the couple renewed their vows in a public ceremony in Dublin attended by then Tanaiste (Deputy Prime minister) Joan Burton and the Irish President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina.
The event was attended by a who's who of Irish politics and broadcasting, signaling Zappone and Gilligan's stature within Irish political and social worlds. Tipped as a strong potential candidate in the next presidential election in 2018, when asked if she would consider running she said she “wouldn't rule it out.”
As Minister for Children Zappone job will be tasked with the job of harmonizing policy issues that affect children in areas such as early childhood care and education, youth justice, child welfare and protection and other areas.
Zappone and her partner Gilligan have extensive policy experience, having established the hugely successful An Cosan (The Path) organization to deliver adult education and enterprise opportunities to women in disadvantaged areas of Dublin.
Since its inception, An Cosan has grown into Ireland's largest community education organization supporting over 1,000 families annually. In 2012 the organization tracked the progress of 1,500 past students and found that 1,200 were employed.
Speaking at an event for International Women's Day in 2010, the then Social and Family Affairs Minister Mary Hanafin celebrated the effectiveness of organization. “They are involved in education courses and communication and childcare and bettering themselves and their children, and they are making a big contribution.”
Zappone added, “Imagine creating something like An Cosan together with the community. You really feel like you're bringing about some change for the good. Why wouldn't you want to do it?”
Meanwhile Zappone was the only one of the 15 independent ministers who participated in the government formation talks to vote in favor of Kenny’s nomination for Taoiseach this week.
Observers say she was subsequently tipped to receive a plum ministerial role in the Fine Gael-led minority government for her support, but Zappone has insisted that she received “no formal offer” of a ministry in exchange for supporting Kenny's election as Taoiseach.
Speaking after voting for Kenny, Zappone told the press of her input in the discussions: “I have made numerous recommendations with regard to the housing crisis, the lack of affordable childcare, that we must address the issue of a referendum on the Eighth Amendment, and that people with disabilities require more government support to achieve independence. I believe that full equality is possible. I think that Fine Gael is willing to do this.”
Zappone further explained her vote in favor of Kenny on her Facebook page on Friday afternoon: “I have received commitments to further women’s right and tackle inequality in the Program For Government by reducing the gender pay gap, making childcare a priority, addressing a Referendum on the 8th Amendment, supporting lone parents, extension of Breastcheck to all women aged 65 to 69, and changing Ireland’s record on Violence Against Women.
“I understand there is some concern that this Government may not have the ambition to pursue a Referendum on the 8th Amendment, which is all the more reason why I should participate in Government, as I do not believe my commitment to this can be questioned.”
In the run up to the election in February, Zappone was repeatedly asked what difference an Independent member could make in the Dail (parliament).
Her answer is that the newly introduced Program For Government showed the influence that an Independent can bring, “with promises to reduce poverty and achieve greater equality for women, people with disabilities, lone parents, and the LGBT community, along with other commitments I have fought for in public spending, health, housing, and education.”