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Substitutes for female politicians on maternity leave should be considered, says Taoiseach

To do so in Ireland would require modification of our electoral system, said Leo Varadkar.

Image: Leah Farrell

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has said changing Ireland’s electoral system should be considered so that substitutes can stand in for parliamentarians who are on maternity leave. 

Speaking at the Congress of Women’s Caucuses in Dublin Castle today, he said other countries are far more progressive on the matter. 

However, any such change would require a change to the Irish electoral system, he said. 

“In other countries, for example, it’s possible for women and men to take a year out to take care of their newborn children, with their substitute on their parliamentary list replacing them.

“To do so in Ireland would require modification of our electoral system, but is perhaps something we could consider, and which I think would be of benefit to women, to men and to society.”

He went further in his speech, stating:

I think we could perhaps give consideration to having job sharing roles in Government, which is something that is increasingly common in private industry and the public service.

Sick notes for women TDs and senators 

The issue of female politicians not being able to avail of maternity leave has been highlighted by women TDs such as Fianna Fáil senator Lorraine Clifford Lee. 

Writing for TheJournal.ie, she said female politicians at Leinster House are required to provide a sick cert to cover the period of absence to give birth.

“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,” she said. 

Gender quotas 

Speaking at Dublin Castle today, Varadkar said “gender equality isn’t something for women; it benefits everyone. We get better results when there is a diversity of views around the table”.

He indicated that he wants to see a further increase in gender quotas. 

The Electoral Amendment (Political Funding) Act requires political parties to field at least 30% female candidates for national elections.

“As a result, 22% of the people elected in 2016 were women, up from 15% in 2011. A significant increase, but still one that puts us behind other countries, and we will need to see it increase again at the next election,” said Varadkar. 

‘Sexist’ Constitution 

The Taoiseach also made reference Ireland’s problem of the gender pay gap and how he believes the Irish Constitution is still “sexist”. 

“Despite some changes to our Constitution in recent months, many aspects of the Irish Constitution are still sexist and still backward. We have a provision dealing with women in the home.

“It says: ‘By her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.’

“Some people are opposed to making a change, arguing it is only symbolic. I believe symbols matter,” he  said.

A woman’s place is wherever she wants it to be, and our Constitution should say no different.

The referendum on the women in the home reference has been delayed after the Oireachtas Justice Committee voted last week to put it to pre-legislative scrutiny.

Doing so means the referendum will now not be held on the 26 October. 

Issues have arisen over concerns surrounding the deletion of the clause, with some arguing for an insertion to the Constitution surrounding caring. 

Speaking about the issues today, Varadkar said the government supports the holding of a referendum on the role of women in the home, stating that “removing something outdated and insulting from our Constitution without diminishing our recognition of the good work carers do in our society”.

“There is a counter argument that we should insert a new article dealing with carers in our Constitution. That is something we should consider, but something we should be cautious about because anything that we insert into the Constitution is open to interpretation by the courts and in some cases can tie the hands of Governments. And can even create a hierarchy of rights,” said the Taoiseach.

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