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Monday 2 October 2023 Dublin: 11°C
LEAH FARRELL Just two weeks after giving birth, a photo of Ardagh with her twin boys and Micheál Martin on the campaign trail made the newspapers in February. Ardagh says that day is "like a haze" now.
# Women in Politics
Pregnancy, parenting and politics: 'It's not advisable to go on a campaign trail two weeks postpartum'
This week saw the government announce Justice Helen McEntee will take six months of paid maternity leave, but the conversation has already turned to bigger questions.

LEAVING POLITICS AFTER having a baby “wasn’t an easy decision”, according to former Roscommon-Galway senator Maura Hopkins. 

She was due to contest the general election for the Fine Gael party in 2020 but withdrew as a candidate – she had her first child in December 2019, and shortly afterwards a snap general election was called.

“I just thought it would have been exceptionally difficult to lead an effective campaign with a little baby at home.

“Certainly I didn’t see how it was possible. I suppose that was really the reason that I  made that decision back in January. It certainly wasn’t an easy decision,” she said. 

This week saw the government announce, after much hand-wringing, that Justice Helen McEntee will take six months of paid maternity leave from 30 April. But the conversation had already turned from the specifics of this case to bigger questions – with ever-increasingly more obvious answers – such as why there aren’t more women in politics and what the obstacles are.

But also: Why has it taken so long for something as normal as maternity leave to be dealt with by the political class.

It’s taken this long because McEntee is the first female minister ever to be having a baby while also in Office. 

irish-government-cabinet-meeting PA PA

Speaking on Thursday about her own maternity leave, McEntee said she hopes it marks a starting point of more reforms which will support women in political life.

As a new mother and as a female public representative based in a rural constituency, Hopkins didn’t think those supports were there for her to be able to continue with her work.

“I would have always tried to work as best as I could, in terms of my role as senator and I put a huge amount of work in over the past five, six years,” she said.

‘I miss politics’

She explained that as a new mother, based in a rural area, she felt it would not be possible to balance the responsibilities and demands of her personal and professional life. 

“I really miss politics. The landscape has changed over the last year, but I miss the work involved. It is obviously a big change when I had devoted so much time to being a senator, travelling up to Dublin every week from Roscommon,” she said.

Having only had a second child last week, Hopkins said more change is needed if Ireland is serious about increasing the level at which women participate in Irish politics.

“There is a need to support young women and young families if we want to see more women enter politics,” she said. 

90429415 Maura Hopkins, with former TDs Maria Bailey and Marcella Corcoran-Kennedy in 2016.

She added that the multiple conversations taking place about women’s role in Irish politics wouldn’t be taking place this week, had the issue of McEntee’s maternity leave not presented itself, and forced the government to address it. 

“Certainly it has the potential to create momentum around supporting changes,” she said. 

The long, arduous hours of Dáil and Seanad sittings is one issue for women, but as a new mother so is the huge demand on time that the constituency aspects of the job entail. “You need to be able to be responsive to your constituents,” she said, noting it can be “around the clock”.

“It is not easy for any mammy… In every other job, you do see supports being given to women to support them to spend time with their newborns – which is important,” she said.  

When asked if she will re-enter politics one day, she said:

I don’t know. I still have a huge interest in politics, who knows. I miss it.”

Hopkins highlighted that the working hours in the Dáil and Seanad can be a deterrent for some.

Working hours

Two nights this week the Dáil went on until 9pm.

That’s not unusual. In fact, it could be deemed early given that Dáil sittings can regularly go on into the early hours, sometimes only concluding at 1am and beyond.

Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy said how we run parliament is “very much designed by men”, pointing out that it is the Westminster-style of ‘doing politics’. 

national-day-of-commemoration-ceremony PA Cabinet ministers in Dublin July 2020 PA

As a former member of the Oireachtas Business Committee – which deals with the order of business in the Dáil, as well as the scheduling of sitting times each week – Murphy said it was always a concern about how to strike a balance.

She said it was the certainty of the hours that was an issue for many potential – particularly female – representatives.

Changes to the Order of Business – namely extending the hours that the House might have to sit, sometimes at the last minute – “caused the most problems”, she said. 

“It is more difficult for women, particularly women away from home, from rural areas,” she said, as they often had to organise childcare and rely on family members when they stay up in Dublin.

Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald has previously labelled Dáil working conditions as “family-hostile hours”.

The Oireachtas itself identified the “long-hours culture of parliamentary politics has repeatedly been identified by women legislators as a disincentive to women’s political participation”.

Murphy said it was often difficult to strike a balance at the Business Committee. Some people want sitting days to be “normal hours” (9am-5pm), spread over five days, like how an office might be run.

Other politicians argue that they would like to pack as much into three days, so they can return to their constituency and families on Monday and Friday, spending weekends at home.

Zoom calls post-pandemic

Catherine Ardagh, a Fianna Fáil senator, and mother of twin boys under a year old, said she hopes that some of the changes that the pandemic have brought about, such as remote working and parliamentary party meetings via Zoom, will continue to be an option.

She said the hours and the changes to the Dáil schedule at the last minute are issues for women, who rely on the créche or family members to help out with childcare.

Ardagh believes efforts should be made not to return to the status quo when the pandemic is over.

“I am able to listen to [parliamentary party meetings] with earphones while I put the babies to bed. It is great that I can do both now,” she said.

“I don’t know what we’ll do if we have to go back to the face-to-face meetings, I really don’t want to have to leave my kids every evening,” she said, adding that she is able to attend constituency meetings over Zoom also.

“I feel like I can still be part of the parliamentary party, while looking after my family and not having to curtail my time with them,” she said, adding that she had said as much to the Taoiseach, who agreed with her about the benefits.

MICHEAL MARTIN CANVASS 8L5A6045 LEAH FARRELL Micheál Martin on the campaign trail in Februrary with Catherine Ardagh and her twin boys. LEAH FARRELL

Just two weeks after giving birth, a photo of Ardagh with her twin boys and Micheál Martin on the campaign trail made the newspapers in February.

Ardagh says that day is “like a haze” now. 

“I didn’t really have a choice to take maternity leave, because I had to run an election campaign because I had spent the past five years, since 2009, working towards an election.”

“It’s not advisable to go on a campaign trail two weeks postpartum, and it doesn’t give a good image. In hindsight, I regret that I was giving this image out, that I was able to do all these things, because I wasn’t, physically it really challenged my body,” she said.

Prior to having her children, she said she had to deal with one election rival putting out a story saying: ‘Catherine Ardagh needs to tell us if she is taking maternity leave or not.’

“There was a big thing on Twitter about it, but I felt it was a distraction to what I had been fighting for over the last five years, so I remember being pretty annoyed about it,” she said. She also believes the discussion has moved on since then, welcoming the news that McEntee will be facilitated in taking maternity leave.

Belittling women

Speaking about the need for proper legislative change to allow for maternity leave for politicians, she said the current arrangement “belittles women” by making them hand in sick notes – “to say your’re sick, when you’ve actually had a baby”.

Similar to what happens in the European Parliament, Ardagh said remote voting should be allowed, though this could require a Constitutional change, she acknowledged.

All these calls from women are nothing new.

A National Women’s Council of Ireland report on women in Irish politics – dating back to 2013 – called for the Oireachtas to work more business hours and discontinue the practice of all-night debates. It also recommended video-conferencing and remote-voting be introduced, as well as maternity leave for female politicians.

But it is not just the women politicians that see the problems. 

Male politicians are also critical of the set up and how it deters women from entering the political realm. They also know the impact it can have on family life, for both men and women.

Minister of State at Dept of Agriculture, Food & Marine and Kildare South TD Martin Heydon’s fourth child arrived last November and because of the pandemic, he could spend more time at home for the initial few weeks which was “really important” to him. 

“I found it more acceptable this time to tell constituents and colleagues that I was taking two weeks at home.

“When our first was born on the morning of Budget Day 2014, I was back in the Dáil chamber that evening, voting on the budgetary measures.”

“There are some elements of our job that don’t fit well with family life for mothers or fathers, like the normal long sitting days of the Dáil. But for members who live a long distance from Dublin, that still is more preferable than five normal business-hour days. They are too far from home to drive back that night.

“Our second child arrived six weeks before the 2016 general election so that was a difficult time at home – where I needed to be out canvassing and I wasn’t able to be at home much. But the nature of politics is that for every elected politician, there is a whole family and circle of close friends who make sacrifices to allow you do the job,” he said.

“Our parents and siblings were a really big help at that time. As a father, when a new child arrives, your role tends to be as much about minding the older children as your wife or the baby.

“It’s a very special time to be cherished so it is right that Government improves the supports for new parents so that no one is put off running for public office because they intend on having a family.

“That said, it is a pretty unique job we do. It is a massive responsibility and privilege so you accept that it will involve some sacrifices by your family, at times, to do the job to the very best,” he told

Making the job attractive

Public Expenditure Minister Michael McGrath and his wife Sarah have seven children. Living in Cork, working in Dublin requires a commute, and the hours as a minister are long.

McGrath tells The Journal that politics can be quite a hostile environment, and very adversarial in nature, which can put both women and men off.

“I think we all need to reflect on the way in which politics is conducted in our country. We do need to make it attractive in every way,” he said, stating that solving issues such as maternity leave and parental leave is important.

In doing so, he said a level of understanding from the public is going to be needed as changes are made.

“To be fair, the public wants more women involved in politics. But then they’ll need to understand too when women are stepping back from the frontline of politics for a period of months in order to take leave. We need a level of understanding, from colleagues as well, not to seek to make or to take advantage of that situation where a woman has to step back,” he said.

The minister said there is a question the public will have to ask themselves: what they expect from politicians. He said the primary role of a politician is as legislators, but if politicians are expected to turn up to every event in their area and to be available 24/7, is it possible to do it with family-friendly hours? 

McGrath agrees with his Fianna Fáil colleague, Ardagh, that some of the changes that the pandemic have brought about should stay.

Issues around privilege at Oireachtas committees held remotely must be solved, according to the minister. 

Current government wisdom says politicians have to conduct their business on the Leinster House grounds in order to avail of political privilege.

“Many people, including politicians have had more time with their family, and more time at home in the evening, rather than spending evenings going to meetings and attending events. So there has been that advantage. I think some of the changes that have been forced upon us in the last year. We need to hold on to them,” he said.

“We need to modernise the way that we do our business.”

While a woman politician taking maternity leave in Ireland is making headlines here, in other parts of the world, women are breastfeeding their babies in parliament and making the front pages. 

Murphy said she has seen it at council level, but not in the Dáil.

It take a “stand out” woman to “take charge” and make that point in any parliament, she said. Maybe one day. Or maybe it won’t even be necessary. 

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