independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

How do I juggle being a TD and raising a family? Meticulous planning!

Regina Doherty admits it's not easy being a public representative and mother, but it is certainly worth it, she tells Graham Clifford

Fine Gael TD for Meath East Regina Doherty and her children Ryan (8) Grace (11), Kate (6), and Jack (13)

From the moment Regina Doherty's alarm goes off in the morning until she falls into her bed later that night, she seamlessly carries out a hectic juggling act.

You see, the 42-year-old is not just a Fine Gael TD for the Meath East constituency – she's also the mother of four young children.

"Before I was elected I would never have considered myself to be the most organised of people but now every aspect of my life is planned and I stick to those plans meticulously."

Regina is just one of a handful of Dáil deputies who are mothers to young children, and with four aged 13 and younger the Doherty house is a hive of activity.

Jack is the eldest at 13 years old; then comes 11-year-old Grace; followed by eight-year-old Ryan, and Kate who's six.

Political commitments, though, ensure that Regina spends most of her working week away from home.

"Mid-week is hectic, then I have a clinic on Saturdays but Sunday is our own time come hell or high water. It's our family time and it's precious."

Today 25 women hold seats in the Dáil out of a possible 166 – that's a paltry 15pc of TDs.

Nevertheless, we've come a long way from 1969 when only three female TDs were returned, and as recently as February 1982 only eight women took their seats in the chamber.

Of the total 4,744 Dáil seats filled since the 1918 elections, only 260 (5.48pc) have been occupied by women.

Ireland falls behind both the world average of 19.5pc and the European Union average of 24pc and lies in 76th position in a world classification table of women's political representation in parliament.

A new bill passed by the Dáil last summer means that political parties will have to implement a gender quota for general elections in the future or else face financial penalty.

The legislation specifies that at least 30pc of a party's list of election candidates must be women. If not, the party's state funding will be cut by half. This figure will rise to 40pc at subsequent general elections.

On International Women's Day earlier this year, IMF chief Christine Lagarde said she used to find the idea of gender quotas 'offensive' but now feels they are needed.

During her trip to Dublin, the mother of two said: "Once a threshold has been reached ... we can do away with quotas and demonstrate on our own merits that we can be trusted, that we can contribute, that we deserve to be elected, hired or promoted."

Still, many believe women will be put off from running for election because of the levels of commitment required.

The long hours both in Dublin and within each TD's constituency leave little time for bedtime reading and lazy lunches (something fathers also miss out on, of course).

But Regina Doherty isn't buying the old lines.

"We don't sell the idea of a political career to mothers. Many stay-at-home moms could do what I did and be a successful local councillor earning €16,000 but they think it's not possible – it is and I wish we could get that message across.

"Women are not put off running in elections because of the long hours – they are put off because of the way politics is carried on in Ireland."

Regina sticks to a strict regime so she can bring her children to school.

The system works but she admits there are times when duty calls – even when the Dáil is meeting.

"Grace, my second eldest, is sensitive. If she rings when I'm in the chamber and I can't take the call we have an agreement that I text back straight away and ring her as soon as I can."

A pro-life campaign in her constituency in which her face and name appear on posters has produced a new challenge for her as a mother, though.

'They were saying something like "don't let her legalise abortion" – I sat Grace down to explain what all this meant. I didn't want her to be curious. Thankfully, I'd already had the birds-and-the-bees chat with her; otherwise, it would have been very difficult to explain."

Between them Regina, her husband Declan, her father and a childminder make sure the children are always looked after and the longest it will ever take the TD to get home from Leinster House is an hour and a half.

For mothers who are TDs in rural constituencies the distance creates inevitably more headaches.

"You end up missing things like school meetings," says Sandra McLellan, mother of three and a Sinn Féin TD in the Cork East constituency.

"My party colleague Mary Lou McDonald is busy with her young family but every night she can go home, however late, go into their rooms and give them a kiss goodnight because she lives in Dublin.

"She can send them off to school in the morning before she starts her work – for rural TDs we can't do that because we have to be in Dublin."

The pressures of looking after a family took their toll on former Fine Gael TD Olwyn Enright.

The Laois-Offaly Deputy decided she wouldn't attempt to retain her seat at the last election, citing pressures of juggling her family life and career – at the time Enright, who's married to Joe McHugh TD, was pregnant with her second child.

Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy effectively took Olwyn Enright's seat and the mother of two, now in their 20s, told the Irish Independent that had her children been younger she wouldn't have accepted the party nomination.

"I wouldn't have run if my children were young, to be honest, but that's just my personal view. Dáil-life is not family-friendly. The long hours would have put me off but I know for some, with the right support behind them, it's possible."

Dún Laoghaire's Mary Mitchell O'Connor, whose two sons are now adults, says that she felt she needed to be there for her boys.

The Fine Gael deputy said: "I didn't enter politics until my boys had nearly finished secondary school. I made a decision that their education was paramount and felt I needed to be home to supervise study and know who they were with and what they were doing."

Labour's Anne Ferris in Wicklow/East Carlow says everything must be done to entice more mothers into politics.

"I feel strongly that if there were more women TDs in the Dáil that measures would be taken to ensure it was more family-friendly."

One woman who has been able to combine her role as TD for Waterford and mother of one is Ciara Conway.

The Labour deputy became the youngest woman ever elected to Dáil éireann when she took a seat at the last election at the age of 30. Helen McEntee has since taken that title at the age of 26.

Incidentally, Ciara was the only female candidate out of 15 running in Waterford.

"My daughter Aeva May is nine. There are only two female members of the Dáil from outside the greater Dublin area who have young children.

"The structure of our parliamentary democracy is that its sits every week and for long hours, requiring you to be away from home a lot.

"But there are many other reasons such as culture and party structures that act as a barrier to entry for women also."

The quotas will help tackle the problem of gender inequality in the Dáil but many believe that the priority should be changing the way we do politics so mothers and fathers can carry out their job while spending enough quality time with their children.

Irish Independent

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