I would like to take this opportunity to commend my colleague Deputy Sean Ó Feargháil for putting forward this bill but who is unfortunately unable to speak on it today. I rise to speak in his absence on this timely measure to address an anachronism in how the Oireachtas operates and to confront a broader, deeper issue at the heart of Irish political life.
Simply put, the aim of this bill is to provide maternity leave for female members of the Houses of the Oireachtas.
The merit of the bill is reflected in the welcome acceptance by the Government of the bill. I trust that Minister Shatter and his colleagues will expedite its passage towards full enactment over the coming weeks. The bi-partisan spirit of the bill and its appeal across the floor is a measure of the conscious desire amongst the members of the Oireachtas to change how we do business and the pressing need to throw open the doors of Leinster house to all citizens regardless of sex.
This bill is a simple measure to address an historic Oireachtas oversight but it touches upon a far more profound and important issue of widening participation in the political process.
At the very heart of a democratic state is the ideal that all citizens regardless of class, creed, colour and gender are equally entitled to participate in shaping the collective decisions which bind us all. Our constitution reflects this aspiration declaring that “every citizen without distinction of sex”” will be eligible for election to Dáil Eireann.
In order to breathe life into these words we need to organise the business of governing in an open, accessible manner for both men and women.
A system that inhibits full participation by over half of the population cannot be said in any meaningful way to be a democratic state. A society that alienates the majority of its people from the process by which it makes collectively binding decisions cannot lay claim to be genuinely democratic.
However a cursory glance over the benches of this House on all sides reveals that those democratic aspirations have not been realised in Ireland. The call of the Proclamation to both “Irish Men and Irish women” has not been answered.
Despite the seminal election of Constance Markievicz in 1918 as the first female MP in the British Isles, the oldest parliament in the world Ireland has failed to meet the promise of that election. Over the course of its history, only 91 women deputies have been elected since the foundation of the State. Ireland currently has one of the worst gender balances in its parliament in the free world. Following the 2011 general election, women held 25 seats out of 166 in the 31st Dáil with the Meath East By–Election in March improving that to 26 out of 166 Deputies, representing a figure of 15.66%. 21 of our 43 constituencies did not elect a single female TD in 2011, largely as a result of a lack of female candidates on the ballot paper.
Although low by international standards, this was a record high for the number of women elected in a general election in Ireland. Progress in Dáil Eireann has been excruciatingly limited over the past number of years. The notable strides forward taken between 1977 and 1992 where the percentage of female TDs increased from 4.1 to 12% have petered out. Progress since then has slipped into stagnation, with just five more women TDs elected in 2011 than had been in 1992.
This abysmally low record must be confronted if we are to fully embody our democratic principles. The case for greater female representation is clear and broken down it centers around three propositions:
- That greater female representation would improve the quality of political decision-making.
- That it would deliver more effective representation for women voters.
- That gender equality is an essential requirement of social justice.
The often cited five Cs remain the major barriers to the full participation of women in political life. Childcare, Cash, Culture, Confidence and Candidate Selection collectively hinder and deny free access to the political process.
We have taken small steps forward to confront some of these problems. On a national level the introduction of gender quotas, a hard legislative measure was a welcome move. Quotas however, as even their most ardent advocates recognise, can only be one part of the solution. At a lower scale my own party has taken action to deal with a problem that has been all too clear for years that reveals the scale of the challenge. In 2003, Fianna Fáil carried out a comprehensive Gender Equality Audit. A steering group was appointed to oversee the process with independent academic consultants.
Based on those audit results, a Gender Equality Action Plan for the period from 2004 to 2014 was produced, containing a range of measures designed to support women members’ participation within the party and within elected politics. The plan opened up the internal organization to unprecedented levels of female participation using a blend of hard and soft measures to facilitate greater participation. It generated much controversy and some resistance. The impact of the last election has led to further internal reviews as we seek to play our part in enabling expanded female engagement in local and national political life.
The success and failures of the plan has given those of us on this side of the house an opportunity to see what steps needs to be taken on a broader national scale to address the problem and a sense of the scale of the challenges involved.
This bill is a short part of the necessary response to those challenges.
Looking specifically at the Culture problem faced by women and the thrust of this bill the 2010 CSO Women and Men in Ireland report (CSO, 2011) showed that while the employment rate by gender was similar for those without children (85.7% for males and 86.3% for females), it drops dramatically for women once they have children. While 80.2% of men whose youngest child is aged three or under are in employment, the respective figure for women falls to 56%.
Many women balance work and family life by taking up part-time employment. Women represent approximately three-quarters of those who worked up to 29 hours per week in paid employment in 2010 partly explaining the dogged persistence of the gender wage gap. Women earn just under 70% of the average male income and this increases to 90% when one adjusts for average hours worked.
This underlines the one of the cold, hard facts preventing strong female participation levels in political life – time and money.
A survey of women Oireachtas members by Yvonne Galligan in 2000 illustrates this enduring problem. 67% of those surveyed felt that ‘family care responsibilities’ had been the biggest personal source of difficulty in achieving political office.
Childcare responsibilities can continue to pose a problem for women with young children once they are elected to the Oireachtas, especially those living outside of the Greater Dublin area. The heavy amount of female TDs centred in proximity to Leinster House, 19 out of 26, some 73%, represent a constituency in Dublin or Leinster, bears this out. For many women a political life is incompatible with a family life.
Drawing on extensive international experience discussions at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and within parliamentary associations such as the Inter-Parliamentary Union have considered methods in which parliaments can better accommodate women.
Options range from parliaments reorganizing their work to become more gender-sensitive – for example, by instituting family-friendly hours, ending parliamentary business at a reasonable time; reorganising work schedules to allow for “family days”; or spreading parliamentary business over a number of shorter days.
This is something that all members, regardless of gender, should welcome. While family-friendly changes to how parliament works help both women and men, women are more likely to benefit, as the CSO report illustrates, due to the fact that they continue to spend more time than men providing care.
Across the globe some of the countries with a higher proportion of women parliamentarians have made family-friendly changes to the way parliament works. For example, Sweden’s parliamentary calendar is prepared one year in advance with sittings scheduled Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, commencing in October and ending in June. The Scottish and Welsh assemblies reflect a similar focus on family friendly operating procedures.
This morning’s piece of legislation mirrors that commitment to gender equality.
This bill seeks to take a small step towards ameliorating the sacrifices imposed by a political life. Facilitating maternity leave will ensure that women are not penalised by a work regime that reflects an archaic male centred set of work practises. The current oversight is indicative of a completely outdated approach to the business of the Oireachtas. It is one minor piece of legislation that must form part of a broader holistic approach to widen out political participation.
Challenging the 5 Cs will require a fundamental culture shift of which the Oireachtas has a central role to play in delivering a blend of soft and hard measures to heighten female engagement. Today’s bill is a small but welcome part of that process.
The Government’ support for this piece of legislation must be broadened out into a meaningful suite of fundamental political reforms if we are to throw opens the doors of Leinster House to men and women alike.
I look forward to hearing the thoughts of other Deputies on the bill, any suggested improvements and its ultimate passage through the Oireachtas.
More importantly I trust that today’s legislation forms but one piece of a series of measures to prise open the political world for all citizens in the words of the constitution “without distinction of sex”.