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Column: We need family friendly politics if we want more women in the Dáil

Italian MEP Licia Ronzulli has brought her daughter to work with her since she was a baby in a bid to highlight the difficulties faced by working mothers, something Irish politics needs to look at, writes Regina Doherty TD.

Regina Doherty

I, LIKE SO many others, was struck this week by the pictures of the Italian MEP Licia Ronzulli with her gorgeous three-year old daughter, Vittoria, sitting on her lap as she voted in the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

The montage illustrated how Ms Ronzulli has brought Vittoria to work with her since she was just one month old, in a bid to highlight the difficulties faced by working mothers. Media organisations didn’t need much encouragement to publish the picture of the photogenic pair, but the eye catching image underlined a very serious issue; how are the mothers of young children supposed to juggle a career in politics with raising a young family?

I am a mother of four children

I should put my cards on the table here; I am the mother of four young children. My eldest is 14 and my youngest is 7.  This revelation often elicits gasps from those inside out and outside the political system. ‘How on earth do I cope?’ they wonder. I have to admit, this often irks me more than a little, as I have never heard any of my male colleagues, who are fathers to young children, being asked the same question.

The truth is, I have a fantastic husband and very strong support from my family. And I live within driving distance of Leinster House. Could I do it if I lived in Cork? Or Donegal? Possibly not.

I have long believed that politics should be viewed as a career choice. But what young women would consider running for election to our national parliament if she was hoping to have children over the next few years?

How can we expect to attract young, ambitious and talented women into politics, when the entire system remains largely incompatible with raising a young family? Not only are female TDs not entitled to maternity leave, taking a break for six or nine months to care for your new baby would be considered career ending.

It has been widely accepted that we need to attract more women into Irish politics. The charge has been led by my own Party, Fine Gael, through the introduction of gender quotas.

Abysmal female representation

It’s for good reason; we have abysmal female representation when compared to other countries. Just 26 of our 166 TDs are women. And that’s an all-time high. Within the EU, we rank 25th out of 27 countries in terms of female representation, and at a global level we rank 89th for female political representation, behind Afghanistan and Iraq.

If I take a glance at my female colleagues in Fine Gael, TDs and Senators included, just three of us have young children. Gender quotas might help to get more women onto the ballot paper, but will they actually help to encourage more women to enter politics in the first place?

Unless we are willing to take a close look at the Irish political system and how incompatible it is with raising a young family, we cannot expect a major shift in the male dominated status quo.

Many point to the unpalatable sitting hours of a national parliament as an example of why it is so difficult to manage family life and a career in politics. It’s true that Dáil sittings can start at 9.30am and last until after midnight. This is much longer than the average working day, but it’s not the biggest stumbling block.

The workload

If the legislative work I do in the Dáil was the only part of my job, it would be manageable. But the reality is, Dáil and Committee business takes up about 40 per cent of the average TD’s workload. The remaining 60 per cent is consumed with constituency meetings, branch business and local events.

The old adage that all politics is local is certainly true in the Irish sense. If there is something on in my local area – be it a cake sale or the opening of a new business – I have to be there. If not, I am judged for my absence. And in the process I’m putting my electoral future in jeopardy.

I am very privileged to have been chosen by my constituents to represent them in Dáil Éireann, and I hope they will allow me to continue this work when the next General Election comes around. But if I was hoping to have more children, I’m not sure if, knowing what I know now, I would run for election again.

Do we want national legislators, or do we want them to fix potholes?

We need to ask ourselves what we want from our representatives in Dáil Éireann. Do we want them to be national legislators, or do we want them to fix potholes? Because what we all expect from the political system is having a direct impact on the number of women choosing to enter the profession.

There comes a point where we have to acknowledge that working a 70 to 80 hour week, which is required in politics, just isn’t compatible with raising a young family. Many other countries, where female political representation is higher, operate some form of list system. I’m not sure if that would work in Ireland, but clearly our current system isn’t working either.

If we all recognise the value that women make to all walks of life, then we must acknowledge that our current political system remains hostile to female representation. Do we want to maintain a situation where politics is merely the preserve of men and women who have either finished raising children or don’t want them in the first place? I hope not.

The way our parliament looks and operates should reflect the way our society looks and operates. Right now, unfortunately, it doesn’t.

Regina Doherty is a Fine Gael TD.

Column: More female voices are needed in Irish politics to tackle societal imbalances>

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Regina Doherty

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