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Running and racing

The Interview
Typography
Edel Hackett

Running and racing

The interview
Aine Ryan


LONG BEFORE Edel Hackett came to live in Mayo, she had a strong familiarity with the county. Well, more accurately, its people. Not surprising really given that in the space of a few months in 1994, she inadvertently managed to co-habit with at least half of its population – or so it seemed. You could say Willie Walsh’s rented house in Dublin 6 was more Mayo than metropolitan.
Of course, her husband-to-be couldn’t have known that when he turned up at Westport native Willie Walsh’s house in Ranelagh and joined the queue for the sofa. How was he to know his courteous politeness would fall on deaf ears that first evening he met pinstripe-suited, briefcase-carrying Ms Edel Hackett?
“Hi! My name is Fergus McAllister and I’m from Castlebar.”
“I don’t care who you are, or where you are from, as long as you’re gone out of here by the weekend,” quipped the Public Relations executive.
Six months later they were travelling together in Africa. Two years later they got married in the tiny church on Clare Island. Ten years later they were settled in their split-level house in Westport’s leafy suburb of Knockranny, basking in spectacular views of Croagh Patrick and Clew Bay.
Doing things at a hectic pace has always been part of Edel Hackett’s way of life. Her athletics background probably makes it so. It was that enthusiasm – and not inconsiderable talent – for athletics that led her to spend a period of time in the US, when she received a scholarship to Arkansas University. It was a time that was to shape her future, in many ways.
“I was always sporty, I played hockey and ran. But I never took it too seriously, which used to really frustrate the coaches,” recalls Edel. “I don’t think I ever had that killer competitive instinct. To excel in athletics you need to be really disciplined, be utterly self-obsessed and make huge sacrifices.”
Despite the absence of a killer-instinct, Ms Hackett quickly managed to achieve fourth place in an American College Championship. However, a minor accident during her Christmas holidays in 1985 heralded the premature end of her competitive career.
“I was out running one evening near my parents’ home in Dundrum and fell over some  builders’ rubble on a pathway. My knee never fully recovered after that,” she explains.
However, Edel Hackett’s educational sojourn in Arkansas was about more than athletics. Her Communications and Journalism Degree would lead her to freelance for the Arkansas Gazette and, moreover,  rub shoulders with a future American President, Mr William Jefferson Clinton. In fact, her first interview was with the then Governor of the southern state.
“He had just fired a member of his cabinet for some reason and I asked him ‘why’. He turned the question around on me and said, with that inimitable drawl: ‘You’re not from around these parts’, and then spun me a line,” says Edel.
This was around the time rumours were beginning to circulate about his infamous romantic dalliances. The next day Edel was covering a big rodeo in the town, which Mr Clinton was officially opening. As he was propelled up the street waving regally at everyone, he suddenly spotted Edel.
“Hey. Hiya. Thanks for last night,” he roared in her direction. Of course, he was referring to her front-page story on him that day, but the crowds, who turned to look in Edel Hackett’s direction, weren’t to guess that.
After she finished college, Edel freelanced for the now defunct Irish Press and the Irish Independent. However, in a bid for financial security – ‘it was a difficult time in Ireland’ – she soon joined the haemorrhage of young Irish professionals and took a job with leading London Public Relations Company, Hill and Knowlton.
“The beauty of this was that my journalism qualification suited my new job, which involved taking a mass of information, distilling what’s important and rewriting it in a form that people want,” she says.
It was late 1992 and, after spending just nine months in London, Edel returned home. Within a couple of years she was living in the Mayo outpost in Ranelagh and working for Tyrone Productions, which had recently become famous for the Riverdance phenomenon.
“I quickly felt that a lot of the PR work I was doing was soulless, it lacked meaning for me. So I started trying to develop a niche for things that had some depth,” she says, explaining her decision to become an Independent Communications Consultant in 1996, the same year she married Fergus.
Over the next few years, Edel would become Press Officer for the neophyte Green Party and for Adi Roche’s presidential campaign.
“I remember when I started working in the Dáil office, it was Trevor [Sargent], his wormery and me. I soon told him it was either me or the wormery,” she says. Trevor Sargent was the only Green Party deputy at that stage and the party was being run on a shoestring.
Since this job was only part-time, she was ideally placed to become campaign manager for Chernobyl Children’s champion, Adi Roche’s 1997 presidential election bid.
“It was a gruelling campaign. I think she was unfortunate in that she was picked prematurely and she wasn’t ready for the bloodiness of the fight,” reflects Ms Hackett, who adds that she was very impressed by Ms Roche’s vision and aspirations for Ireland at the time. She strongly contends that the media made her a spectacle, rather than a player.
All the while, Edel had been developing her PR client list which, as the new millennium dawned, included Combat Poverty, the National Disability Authority, Concern and several workers’ unions.
“I began to see that PR could be used in a positive way to give support to organisations which may need help in gaining more of a voice. One of my big things is that powerful corporations will always be heard,” she stresses.
At this stage, December 2000, Edel and Fergus’s eldest child, Sorcha (8) was almost two and they had decided to move to Mayo. They since added Cian (6) and Rossa (4) to the family.
While Edel continued to work for her established clients, she also became involved both professionally and personally in local projects and issues, including the Clew Bay Archaeological Trail and the Westport Fairtrade Committee. She also recently gave voluntary communications support to the high-profile same-sex marriage case taken against the State  by Drs Katherine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan.
“This case was about equality and fairness. All they wanted was to validate a marriage that has been already accepted elsewhere,” she stresses.
So it’s not surprising that Edel Hackett took a sabbatical last year to do a Masters in International Human Rights Law at NUI Galway. Neither is it surprising that next April she will address a conference (Media, War, Conflict) in Marquette University, Milwaukee, on the subject of her thesis ‘To Report or not Report – Freedom of Expression in War Reporting’.
During her research, Edel interviewed such international journalistic luminaries as Robert Fisk and his partner and Irish Times correspondent, Lara Marlowe.
Ms Hackett cites a comment by The Guardian’s, Maggie O’Kane (ex-RTÉ) as central to her thesis.
“I suppose the best way to explain it is that The Guardian is recognising that its reporting on Iraq is being compromised because of constraints on access to information and media management by the military. As Maggie O’Kane said, it now operates within a policy that dictates ‘it is dangerous to give the impression that we’re covering the story’,” she explains. “Or, in the opinion of Robert Fisk, journalists have become complicit in the military war machine.”
Her research concludes there is too much emphasis on national security, especially since 9/11. “The European Courts of Human Rights are giving too much appreciation to national security. Maybe there should be more questions about what the concept means,” she says emphatically.
Running is still an integral part of Edel Hackett’s life. But nowadays, it is more for relaxation and head space, than for competition or career.  After all, establishing a busy Public Relations  office adjacent to a giant playroom is bound to have its frenetic moments. It is less stressful though than commuting from Ranelagh.