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Column: 'We are required to provide a sick cert to cover the period of absence to give birth'

If we have any hope of enticing more women into public office here in Ireland, the existing policy on maternity supports and arrangements needs significant reform, writes Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee.

Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee Senator

I AM IN a unique position. When I gave birth to my son last year, I was a Senator. Since the election of the current Seanad and Dáil in the spring 2016, just one Senator and one TD have given birth.

Politicians in Ireland are not considered to be employees and therefore statutory maternity leave of twenty six weeks is not available to members of the Oireachtas. Not only are we confronted with an archaic voting system, we are required to provide a sick cert to cover the period of absence to give birth.

Reluctant to take leave

The reality of the situation is that the vast majority of female public representatives are reluctant to take a period of leave following childbirth, both out of duty to those we represent and in part, out of fear of the potential negative scrutiny and commentary.

While our time is divided between tending to a newborn, recovering from childbirth and fulfilling our political responsibilities; extra administrative support in those immediate weeks would be a useful and practical option to assist with an often heavy constituency workload.

Thankfully, technology meant that I could follow Seanad proceedings from home on my iPad but when it came to voting, I needed to attend the chamber in person. I recall all too vividly how difficult it was to attend Leinster House to vote when all I wanted to do was sit at home in leggings and a t-shirt with my newborn and do my work there.

Pairing arrangements

Oireachtas members who give birth should be entitled to automatic pairing arrangements. Introducing remote voting by means of videoconferencing also has the potential to support new mothers and should be considered.

The narrative around combining political life and motherhood is almost always negative and the culture can be off-putting to some women considering running for election. In fact, I have found it to be extremely rewarding and my children are a regular sight around my constituency with me as I attend meetings and events.

That’s not to say that life in politics isn’t demanding or that the late nights and long days – in Leinster House, at meetings in our constituencies and media appearances – don’t take a toll at times. Having a supportive and understanding husband makes balancing a career in public life and two young children that bit easier.

Powerful role models

The recent birth of little Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand has shone a light on female politicians giving birth while in office. A matter of weeks ago, Canadian Minister of Democratic Institutions, Karina Gould became the first federal minister to give birth while in office.

These women are powerful role models for women worldwide and will hopefully demonstrate that high political office can be compatible with motherhood.

In an historic move earlier this year, the House of Commons voted in favour of adopting a more modern voting system to support a new mother’s ability to make arrangements to allow another MP to vote on their behalf by proxy. If we have any hope of enticing more women into public office here in Ireland, the existing policy on maternity supports and arrangements needs significant reform.

Motherhood is a juggling act for all women, and politicians are no different. It is now time for Houses of The Oireachtas to rise to the challenge of providing a nuanced approach to how we do business to ensure an increased participation rate among women.

Senator Lorraine Clifford Lee is Seanad Spokesperson on Justice, Children and Youth Affairs and also Chair of the Oireachtas Cross Party Group on Workplace Equality.

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Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee  / Senator

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