Mary Banotti obituary: A talented politician and campaigner for social justice

Fine Gael candidate elected to the European Parliament at her first attempt and held the seat for 20 years until 2004

Born: May 29th, 1939
Died: May 10th, 2024

Mary Banotti was a Fine Gael MEP for two decades, the party’s candidate in the 1997 presidential election and a committed campaigner for a range of causes, particularly those dedicated to improving the lives of women and children. A bubbly personality, her optimism and good humour were infectious.

In a tribute after her death, Taoiseach Simon Harris said: “Mary was a talented politician, a trailblazer and a joy to be around. She was smart, wise and funny.” It was a perfect description of her impact on the people she met in the course of eventful life.

Mary Elizabeth O’Mahony was born in Malahide, Dublin, in 1939, the eldest of six children. Her mother Kitty was a niece of Michael Collins who had moved to Dublin after the family home in Woodfield, Co Cork, was burned by British forces in 1921. Her father Jim was a bank clerk and an occasional actor who died when she was 10, leaving her mother with six children to bring up.

The family was steeped in politics and, given the Collins connection, identified strongly with Fine Gael. Her younger sister Nora was a leading figure in the party who was elected to the Dáil in 1981 and went on to become deputy leader and Minister for Justice between 1995 and 1997.


The family lived on Seafield Road, Clontarf, and Mary started her education at a private primary school run by the Misses Walsh. “It was a lovely, intimate place to go school, and every day we played around the apple trees in the big mysterious garden,” she recalled many years later in an article for The Irish Times.

She stayed at the school until she made her first Communion and then went to the Holy Faith Convent, Clontarf. “My daily journey to school remains etched on my mind. In those days Clontarf was much less developed than it is today. I always think of myself of having a rural childhood. We lived on Styles Road. At that time the newer end of the road was still pasture land, where cows grazed. Clontarf Castle was set in a vast and — to us children — mystical demesne.”

After her father died her mother returned to work as a domestic science teacher at Cathal Brugha Street. She found it difficult to find someone to mind the children and Mary and her sisters were sent as boarders to her mother’s old school — the Dominican Convent in Wicklow. She enjoyed her time at the school, particularly its emphasis on drama and music.

“The Dominicans were great and they included educators of the highest calibre. They had a great love of learning which they passed on to us,” she recalled. As the eldest of six children, she felt it important to get a job at the earliest opportunity. After her Leaving Certificate, she did a commercial course and got a job in a bank but quickly discovered that she wasn’t temperamentally suited to the work.

She left the bank and went to London to take up nursing which allowed her to support herself and gain qualifications at the same time. While she was in training she supplemented her income by running an antiques stall in the Portobello Road at weekends. She remarked later that during her time in London, she developed great self-discipline and resilience.

Nursing allowed her to travel and she worked in New York and Canada before going to Kenya as a development aid worker. There she met and married an Italian doctor, Giovanni Banotti, and the couple lived in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) before moving on to Rome, where her daughter Tania was born.

After the marriage broke up, Banotti and her daughter returned to Dublin in October 1970. She got a job as a nurse with Irish Distillers and threw herself into numerous social causes, particularly those involving the welfare of women. As a single mother, she did not allow her struggles to inhibit her from an active role in public life. She was a co-founder of Women’s Aid, which opened the first refuges for the victims of domestic violence and she also served as chairwoman of the Rutland Centre.

She became widely known through a stint on afternoon television on RTÉ, dispensing social welfare advice. This proved a springboard for politics as it brought her to the attention of the then Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald who was struck by her combination of Fine Gael pedigree and a commitment to liberal social causes.

She was selected as the party candidate to contest the 1983 Dublin Central byelection to fill the vacancy caused by the death of George Colley. While she failed to win the seat she performed well in the media and was selected by Fine Gael to stand for the Dublin constituency in the European elections of 1984.

She was elected to the European Parliament at her first attempt and held the seat for 20 years until she decided it was time to step down in 2004. In Strasbourg, she served for two decades on the environment, consumer protection and public health committees of the parliament.

She used her influential position to continue her battle to expand the rights available to women and children. She also focused on environmental issues and put them on the European agenda long before they became a political priority across the Continent in response to climate change. She was named one of the top 10 environmental legislators in Europe in the late 1980s. Another area in which she broke new ground was her work supporting parentally abducted children in the EU and she became the first person to hold the official role to deal with the issue.

In 1997, she decided to make a bid for the Fine Gael nomination to contest the presidency in succession to Mary Robinson. She first suggested this in a telephone call to party leader John Bruton in the spring of that year but had to overcome significant opposition in the party to get the nomination. In a keenly fought contest, she defeated Wexford TD Avril Doyle for the nomination but ultimately lost out to Mary McAleese in the election itself.

After that, she continued to throw herself into her work in the European Parliament and the various causes to which she was committed. She was a long-serving member and vice-chairwoman of the board of the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, a global nonprofit organisation that combats child sexual exploitation, child pornography, and child abduction. She also served as honorary president of Health First Europe, and a member of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems board.

Banotti once wrote that her mother grafted hard to give her six children the best possible education. “She was highly ambitious for them and wanted her children to come out of the top drawer and make something of themselves.” It was a matter of great satisfaction to Banotti that she fulfilled her mother’s ambitions.

Mary Banotti is survived by her daughter Tania and siblings, Michael, Nora, Catherine and Joan. She was predeceased by her sister Una.