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Minister Anne Rabbitte: 'The voice at the end of the line told me to back down or they'd come for me'

The Fianna Fáil TD for Galway East describes the highs and worrying lows of life as a woman in Irish politics.

Anne Rabbitte

I’M OFTEN ASKED how I ended up in politics and it’s easy to pinpoint the year that started it all. In 2011, just weeks after my husband passed away, our house was broken into.

We were the latest statistic in rural crime at the time. As chance would have it, Niall Collins, then Fianna Fáil spokesperson on Justice, was holding a public meeting on crime nearby so I decided to go.

It was a big step for me to attend the meeting and I had to do so on my own for the first time. Tough as it was, going to that meeting changed the direction of my entire life. As I sat in the Loughrea function room, I noticed within myself a yearning that I had overlooked for so long – the desire to affect change in a greater way. I had already lost so much, surely there was only something to be gained.

My 40th birthday present to myself might seem odd to some. I gave myself the decision to run for Galway County Council in 2014. Then, after two years as a Councillor, I was elected to the Dáil in 2016 in the Galway East constituency. In 2020, voters once again bestowed on me this great privilege.

The public-private balance

As a single parent to three teenage children, I strive to find a work-life balance. Occasionally, this means I have to go back and forth between Galway and Dublin a few times a week to witness the important milestones in my kids’ lives. It’s important for me that my kids know I’m there for them.

While it’s positive that an increasing number of women are putting themselves forward for election, we have a long way to go before the Dáil more equally reflects our population, and not just on the gender front.

Without a balanced parliament, it’s difficult to achieve a more equitable society. Our views are shaped by our life experience and female politicians bring a different perspective to the table.

I would argue that some of the strongest voices in the Dáil are female. Regardless of whether you agree with their politics, women like Norma Foley, Mary Lou McDonald, Holly Cairns, Jennifer Carroll MacNeill and Neasa Hourigan (there are many more) are excellent examples of the passion women can bring to the Dáil and I hope they inspire confidence in other girls and women to enter politics.

By a woman putting herself forward for election, she’s empowering other women. It’s so important that we support and help each other. But we must also remember that while we are a voice for women, we are a voice for men too and we need to ensure that we reflect all of our constituents.

You need to be thick-skinned and believe in yourself because politics can be a lonely path to travel. You frequently miss special occasions with family and friends.

You spend so much time at work that colleagues become support networks and friends. I’ve developed very meaningful friendships in Dáil Eireann. I have had the privilege of seeing the people behind the politics. Like any job, it can be the social element that gets you through on some of the harder days.

Modern challenges

Being a TD can be difficult for anyone but there are some specific hurdles for women. A recent example is that the government had to find a workaround to facilitate maternity leave for Minister Helen McEntee.

It’s wholly inappropriate that Oireachtas members and Councillors have no right to this leave. I introduced a Bill in 2017 to tackle this issue, and I’m hopeful that this government will find a solution to something that is undoubtedly stopping women from considering a career in politics.

Social media is another element of the job that can be brilliant or brutal. Whether Facebook, Twitter or Instagram (I haven’t joined Minister Simon Harris on TikTok just yet!), social media is an important tool for me to engage with people.

As the Minister for Disabilities, I’ve had many invaluable discussions online on topics varying from the reopening of Day Services to assessments of need to therapeutic interventions. In fact, I’ve held numerous meetings with people of all backgrounds that started as a discussion on Twitter.

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For all its openness, however, there is a darker, more sinister side to social media. Like a lot of others online, I have received my share of abuse. For some reason, this is seen as fair and acceptable behaviour by some.

This online abuse can venture into the real world too. In 2019, after speaking in support of farmers during the beef protests, I received a late-night phone call that left me rattled.

Alone at home in Galway, the voice at the other end of the line told me to back down or ‘we’ll come for you’. Either by accident or he was feeling particularly brass, the caller didn’t anonymise their phone number. I reported the call to the Gardaí the following day, but to be safe myself and the kids moved out of the house for a few days.

Let’s not be naïve, we’ve seen how a toxic social media environment has caused an increasing level of division in other countries in recent years. I can see it happening here too.

We seem to be becoming more tribal, each of us increasingly entrenched in our views. Robust debate is part and parcel of politics and we have to be willing to accept alternative views but at times it seems social media has blurred the line between fact and fiction.

Democracy in the digital age has seen truth being placed on life support and we need to be more alert.

Anne Rabbitte is a Fianna Fáil TD for Galway East since 2016. She is currently the Minister of State with responsibility for Disabilities.

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