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Maternity Leave

What is a pairing agreement in politics?

This evening’s eviction ban vote has shone the spotlight on maternity leave provisions in politics.

THERE ARE NO formal provisions in place for members of government to take maternity, paternity or parental leave in the same way other employees can and are entitled to.

This gives rise to a host of problems when TDs do have to take periods of absence.

A recent example can be seen in the case of the eviction ban vote due to take place this evening, in which Independent TD Violet-Anne Wynne has broken her Dáil pairing with Justice Minister Helen McEntee, who is currently on maternity leave, to vote against the Government.

Wynne’s decision has shone a spotlight on the  pairing agreement, but also once again raised the question – what provisions are in place for politicians on maternity leave and are they adequate in ensuring fairness in government?

What is a pairing agreement?

When a TD has taken any leave of absence and is therefore not present to vote, they can enter an informal pairing arrangement with a TD from an opposing party who agrees not to vote and so balances out their absence.

These agreements generally only cover short-term absences, but have been implemented in the case of maternity leave in recent years, which has evoked criticism.

Caitríona Gleeson, the CEO of Women for Election, an organisation that aims to reduce the level of gender inequality in Irish politics, described the arrangement as a “band aid solution to a more systemic problem”.

Speaking to The Journal, she said: “It’s a stopgap solution that’s facilitating at the moment, but it’s vulnerable.”

She also raised concern about how pairing agreements stand up around the time of contentious votes.

This could present a scenario that somebody on maternity leave may be required to come back in to vote if the government were short a vote.”

She added: “Really in 2023, there should be a clear mechanism for taking maternity leave that doesn’t doesn’t require somebody to put in a sick cert or have a pairing arrangement.”

What can be done about it?

Two pieces of legislation have been brought forward to implement maternity leave for Members of the Oireachtas in the last decade, the most recent of which lapsed on the dissolution of the Dáil in 2020.

There have been numerous calls to formalise the pairing agreement system and introduce maternity leave for female politicians since then.

Announcing her pairing agreement with Helen McEntee in May 2021, Holly Cairns described the lack of maternity leave provisions in place in the Dáil as a “blatant deterrent” to women entering politics and called for formal pairing arrangements to become “standard Dáil etiquette”.

In November 2021, a forum – which the Social Democrats leader was a member of – published a report including recommendations to make it easier for politicians to have families.

Among those recommendations were the introduction of a proxy voting system as adopted by other parliaments around the world, including in the UK, whereby a politician on maternity leave can nominate another MP to vote in their place, as well as the introduction of a panel of pairs in place of individual arrangements.

The forum highlighted the need for participation in pairing arrangements to be noted on politicians’ voting records. This was in light of feedback from politicians who said they received backlash for not voting while in a pairing arrangement covering maternity leave.

It also called for increased involvement from male politicians in forming pairing agreements, which has been echoed by Women for Election.

Gleeson said: “The pairing arrangements that have been made public tend to be women pairing with women.

We have only 37 women in the Dáil. So when a woman is going out on maternity leave, that’s taking two women out of the Dáil and reducing the votes of two women.

She also highlighted legislation introduced last year which has enabled members of local government to take formalised parental leave and measures should be introduced to give TDs and ministers the same choice.

“For local councillors, there’s the option of administrative support and cover.

“There’s an option for somebody else to be able to vote on your behalf. And so those are the kind of things I think we should be able to look at, so a woman can go on maternity leave and be confident with the options she selected for herself based on her own needs as a politician.”

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