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'The Dáil is no Westminster - but it certainly is a boys' club'

We spoke to female TDs and ministers past and present about the issue.

THE DÁIL IS no Westminster, but it certainly is a boys’ club: that’s the view of some current female TDs - and former Tánaiste Joan Burton.

Their comments came after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was criticised for his response when he was asked if Leinster House was a safe place to work.

Varadkar managed to deflect the blame for macho-ism onto the political parties of the left.

“That is not to say there isn’t macho behaviour on occasion, in the Oireachtas, there certainly is, but I have spoken myself in the past about how very often when you’re trying to conduct normal business in the Dáil you’re interrupted and shouted down constantly,” he said, before adding:

But that is largely perpetrated by men and women of Sinn Féin and the left rather than men specifically.

His response sparked a backlash from two female Sinn Féin TDs, who said the discussion of sexual harassment is not the time to be taking political “pot shots” at the opposition.

“These are very serious issues and it is disgraceful that the Taoiseach would view such matters through the prism of political advantage,” said the party’s deputy leader, Mary Lou McDonald.

“This is not the first time that the Taoiseach has sought to play to his gallery when matters of significance are raised with him. It happens daily. Women inside and outside the Dáil deserve more from the head of government.”

‘Boys’ club’

While McDonald said Leinster House is very much a “boys’ club”, it does not appear to have the same dark undercurrent that has been revealed at Westminster, where there has been a raft of sexual harassment allegations.

“I don’t feel it is very toxic in the Oireachtas in the same way that it is playing out in Westminster. That is not my sense of it,” said McDonald.

“It is a boys’ club. Sure how could it not be when you look at the numbers,” she said, adding it is important to begin to ask questions and look at ourselves and the cultures that operate within workplaces.

“People know I am well able to handle the cut and thrust and the heckling. This isn’t about women being ‘cry babies’ or ‘why us?’ This is about any woman who might have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace being able to speak out,” she said.

“Outrageous” is how Louise O’Reilly dubbed the Taoiseach’s response, adding that having worked in trade unions in the past she acknowledges there can be a level of sexism in all workplaces. However, she said strong leadership on the issue can stamp it out – leadership which she said that the Taoiseach is lacking on this topic.

‘Slap in the face’ 

“That response feels like a slap in the face to any woman that raises the issue of sexual harassment… it is very unbecoming,” she added.

The Taoiseach’s remarks came on the same day in which Junior Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor spoke out against sexism in our national parliament.

She was asked if she had ever experienced sexual harassment in the Oireachtas.

She said she had not.

But when asked about bullying, such as women being put down at meetings and their voices not being listened to as much as their male counterparts, she said:

I certainly have, I would believe there is sexism in the Dáil, I have said that before. I also believe there is a revolution happening, women want their voices heard in the arts, in industry, in education and in politics.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Due to the serious allegations in the UK parliament, it was only a matter of time before similar questions were asked of Irish politicians.

The Houses of the Oireachtas moved swiftly, putting proposals on the table to introduce a new set of policies on dealing with sexual misconduct allegations by staff at Leinster House.

The issue is also due to be raised by the Houses of the Oireachtas commission in the coming weeks.

Ireland: Dublin Daily Life Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Labour’s Joan Burton agreed with McDonald last night, saying that the Dáil is the “archetypal male club”.

“There is a culture problem – whereby men feel powerful and women do not feel empowered,” she told TheJournal.ie.

In 2010, the former Taoiseach Brian Cowen came under fire when he told the then-Labour party leader Eamon Gilmore to “rein her (Joan Burton) in now and again”.

When asked about it now, she said: “That was the culture at the time. It was a case of ‘can you ever shut her up’. There is still a feeling of a boys’ club, notwithstanding the fact there are more women in the Dáil, but it is not a situation of empowerment in women.”

Burton said there are still a lot of “traditional” men in Leinster House, as she put it, who might think it is okay to “pat women on the head”. She said there is still an element of “typecasting” women in some cases, but added that the vast majority of men in the Dáil see women as equal. However, “from time to time, they can fall bad of that”.

What is required now is a code of respect for all – women and men, said Burton. While anger is part of politics, she said there should be robust debate where people can express themselves and not in a “derogatory way”.

The Dublin TD said there are times when men are “less patient, have less regard and have less respect when women are speaking”.

‘The Dáil is no Westminster’

A number of female TDs have told TheJournal.ie they would be very surprised if allegations similar to those in Westminster emerged from Leinster House.

However, it was generally acceptable to most that certain “commentary” by male politicians around women’s appearances or their intelligence can be commonplace.

“Commentary is made, but it is not done so maliciously. It is done more to infantalise women,” said one TD.

“We live in a very sexist society,” said another, who added that they had never been sexually harassed in the Dáil, but said passing comments had been made.

One said it was more a case of “man-splaining” to women in Leinster House, while another described it as very much a “golf club” mentality at play.

“I have never experienced anything like that,” Fianna Fáil’s Defence spokesperson, Lisa Chambers told TheJournal.ie.

She welcomed the fact that women are now speaking out across many industries. “I don’t think it should be about vilifying all men,” she added.

Solidarity-PBP TD Brid Smith said she has never been propositioned or harassed in Leinster House, but said she has suffered sexual harassment in other jobs she has held.

“I wouldn’t say the Dáil is overtly sexist,” she added.

‘Lapgate’ 

It is not the first time that the words ‘sexism’ and ‘Leinster House’ have appeared together in the same headline.

One incident even got its own name: Lapgate.

Source: SineadOCarrollTJ/YouTube

This was when, in 2013, Fine Gael TD Tom Barry grabbed his colleague Deputy Áine Collins onto his lap during a break in a debate on abortion legislation.

At the time, a Fine Gael spokesperson said:

It was a silly incident that probably shouldn’t have happened, but the two of them are good friends and there was no malice involved.

This was followed by a separate incident in which Senator David Norris told Fine Gael’s Regina Doherty TD she was “talking through her fanny”.

There was also the case in which Mary Mitchell O’Connor was dubbed “Ms Piggy” by some male colleagues.

Mick Wallace, Shane Ross and Luke Ming Flanagan came under fire after Wallace was recorded in conversation with the TDs during the order of business, unaware that a nearby microphone was recording what he was saying.

In 2010, an allegation of sexism came from the then-Tánaiste Mary Coughlan. Fine Gael’s Charlie Flanagan asked her about legislation on reforming company law and when it would be complete.

Coughlan said the Bill was “huge legislation” and was being worked on.

Flanagan retorted: “It’s too big for you.”

“If the Deputy wishes to throw a condescending, sexist remark across the House, that is fine. It is very much the calibre of Deputy Flanagan but I would expect more from him after all these years in the House,” she replied angrily.

A bemused Fine Gael TD Olivia Mitchell asked “where was it sexist?”, while James Reilly said: “Talk about imagined slights.”

00003774_3774 Mary O'Rourke at Leinster House in 1999.

Rewinding a few more years, other utterances in the Dáil have also come under the spotlight, such as when Albert Reynolds said “that’s women for you” when heckled by former Justice Minister Nora Owen.

Former Fianna Fáil Minister Mary O’Rourke has also written about her own experiences of sexism during her long career in politics.

When she was a Cabinet minister, the Taoiseach Charlie Haughey would ask if she had been shopping lately or bought any new dresses.

One can only hope that the behaviour of some Westminster MPs was during isolated incidents, and cases that will not be repeated here.

But just because there are no allegations on this side of the water, it does not mean we should stick our heads in the sand when it comes to examining those in powerful positions.

We need to ask those uncomfortable questions and shine a light on the issue that has been left in the dark for far too long.

Read Mary Mitchell O’Connor: ‘There is sexism and bullying in the Dáil’>

Read Leo says he won’t be stopping his ministers at the airport if they want to travel to North Korea>

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