My Column in the Echo on the culture within Leinster House

20th August 2013 - Deirdre Clune MEP

In the last number of weeks we have witnessed a focus on women in politics, the 3am scenes involving my colleagues Tom Barry and Aine Collins in the Dail chamber in the last week were not acceptable.  Apologies have been issued and accepted and I know that both parties are hugely embarrassed by the incident. This was followed by Senator David Norris’s totally inappropriate comments concerning Deputy Regina Doherty, again an apology has been forthcoming. Of course apologies have to be accepted in good faith and the hope is that lessons have been learned from the unfortunate experiences but I have my doubts.

There has been much speculation and discussion over the past week on these matters. The spotlight has been cast on women and how they fare in the political workplace. Of course Leinster House is a place of work, however in my own opinion it is the political way of life generally which needs to be highlighted.

I have been in public life for a long time, serving as an opposition TD twice before I became a senator. Most TDs do not live inDublinand leave home on a weekly basis to spend three days a week away from their families.  However depending on the circumstances of each week, it can be longer. For instance, the last month it has been four days a week with long days of voting on important issues. The extension of time until 5.00am during the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill was unusual but not exceptional.

In my view, this was not a good idea and I can appreciate that anybody looking on would think that the commitment to that lifestyle is too much to consider.  It is not a woman friendly nor is it man friendly. It certainly is not family friendly and only politicians themselves can change those practices. This is not going to be easy, as the need to spend time in our constituencies dictates the fact that business is packed into three days .The traditional working week of five days Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm would not be feasible, particularly for Deputies and Senators who are based outsideDublin. This would necessitate five nights a week away from home, particularly for people with young families, this is far from the ideal.

So whilst we hear a lot about extending the Dail working week, I wonder will this be a disincentive to parents of young children from entering politics. We need young minds and to encourage the right people into the Dail, I am concerned that this would not happen if a longer week was put in place.  In isolation from the work within the Dail Constituency work is very demanding but at least it allows you to be at home for meals and bed time. The end of a phone (or Skype) is no substitute for this valuable family time particularly when you have young children I had four children under the age of 10 when elected first and I did find it hard not to be at home every night to talk with them about their day or help with homework I don’t believe they were deprived as their father was fully involved but I missed out . I think we should avail of technology and recognise that people could possibly do the necessary work at their constituency office and that all preparation for the Dail or committees does not need to take place in Leinster House. This is an accepted fact of parliamentary work in Scandinavian countries and they have a high female participation, which is encouraging.

We have very low level of women participation in our national parliament, only 15% of the Dail is female. This places Ireland 79 th  (out of 134 countries) on a world classification list compiled by the Interparliamentary Union. There are attempts to address this neglect following the next general election, political parties will face a cut of half their State funding if they do not have at least 30% women candidates at the election. This will rise to 40% after a further seven years. These targets will present a challenge for the political parties and this challenge has been made all the more difficult in recent times with an extremely poor portrayal of what life is like for women in politics in this country.

The boy’s club culture has been identified as one of the key deterrents for women when asked if they would become involved in politics. This includes all aspects of the career from meeting in pubs to being heckled at in meetings. Unfortunately, I have found that in politics there is a lot of endless waffling at meetings with no real decisions been taken in some but certainly not all cases. Most women TDs and Councillors I speak with prefer the work behind the scenes as it is more productive and it gets better results for their constituents.

In my own personal experience, I have not found the atmosphere in the Dail as sexist. However, there have been various incidents in my career where I feel my gender was unnecessarily referred to. There have times when I was referred to as “the girl” but it was always to my face and not behind my back so I knew where I stood and felt that sometimes I was tolerated as a token woman rather than have my views taken seriously .  Generally I have been and still am comfortable with the environment. I did get support from both men and women within the Fine Gael party therefore I have no real reason to say that my gender was an issue in terms of access to the ticket. However, I can only speak for myself in that regard.

It is undeniable that the work environment was and is male dominated and that is the real kernel of the problems facing women in politics. That fact is there are just not enough of us! I’m hoping aand expecting that this will change. Until we reach the 30% figure my party and I will strive for, we are going to have the ‘macho’ culture that has been evident in the past number of weeks. We can blame individual men who behave poorly for this culture, but it is natural that in a workplace which has such a dominance of male members for these occurrences to crop up. The recent focus on the male-dominated culture in Leinster House has not helped in our quest to get more women into politics. I have heard calls for a code of conduct, which could be a positive albeit symbolic step but surely as responsible adults we should know how to behave and show respect for our work colleagues? Similarly to all organisations Fine Gael does have an anti harassment/bullying policy that all staff and members are made aware of.  That policy does include unwelcome physical conduct and unnecessary touching and there are procedures through which complaints can be considered and processed. Therefore the necessary regulations are in place but it is a change of attitude which is crucial if circumstances are to change in politics. Women need to help other women and give them guidance and encouragement in equal measure. The necessary shifts will not occur unless a supportive environment prevails.

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