Saturday 1 November 2014

Backlash against Enda over gender isn't fair – we've a historic level of women in Cabinet

Published 19/07/2014 | 02:30

Heather Humphreys, Fine Gael deputy for Cavan-Monaghan, at Leinster House yesterday. Photo: Tom Burke
Heather Humphreys, Fine Gael deputy for Cavan-Monaghan, at Leinster House yesterday. Photo: Tom Burke

IT might be surprising but I don't share in the media clamour about the Taoiseach's failure to appoint any women to the junior ministerial ranks this week.

There have been rather exaggerated headlines of females being "snubbed, shocked and miffed" and of Fine Gael women "left out in the cold" in the recent reshuffle of junior ministers.

Colour writers paint a picture of "Angry Birds". Interesting how it never takes long for the misogyny to emerge albeit masked in humour.

This Government has attracted its share of criticism since 2011, some of which was justified. But blocking or sidelining the equality agenda is not one of them.

We now have a historic high of four female cabinet ministers and a female AG at the cabinet table. By any measure, that is a significant indicator of diversity in a modern Irish Government and should be roundly applauded. The Chief Justice, Chief State Solicitor, acting Garda Commissioner and the DPP posts are also held by women. The appointment of Judge Yvonne Murphy to chair the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation was widely welcomed given her authorship of the Murphy Report into clerical child abuse in the Dublin diocese. There are now six female MEPs, and Emily Logan is to be the Chief of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission.

As well as two senior posts at Cabinet, Labour has two junior ministerial posts occupied by females, Kathleen Lynch and Anne Phelan. Since Lucinda Creighton swept off the stage, a masterpiece in self-harm in my view, all the FG junior ministerial ranks are stubbornly male. Lucinda could well be in Cabinet today but for her principled opposition to the Protection of Life during Pregnancy law. But the trajectory is steadily upwards when it comes to female ministers.

There is an abundance of female talent in both coalition parties but, as acknowledged by Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor yesterday in a candid intervention, many are first term deputies.

More women will be elected to add to the current high of 27 at the next General Election, thanks to the Government enacting the long-awaited gender quota legislation requiring a third of candidates on the party ticket to be female. The Electoral Amendment (Political Funding) Act 2012 will be a game-changer in Irish political culture, turning the tide of opportunity for women to get on the ticket and run for election.

The biggest obstacle to women in politics is securing a nomination to compete for a winnable seat. Once on the ticket, women tend to do well. Unlike "big talk" by previous governments, this Coalition has legally facilitated the election of more women by making space for them by quotas.

Diversity in politics has suddenly become all the rage.

Prime Minister Cameron astounded his critics by a "bulk promotion" of women to Cabinet in this week's reshuffle. This means that nearly one in three (five of 17) Conservative ministers who can attend cabinet are female; a move fulfilling a 2009 pledge to bring the percentage of women ministers up to 30pc by 2015. Predictably, the tabloid press are screaming "Catwalk" with paparazzi snaps of stylishly dressed female ministers strutting their stuff like models. Just as happened in the UK in 1997 when the 101 newly elected Labour women were titled "Blair's Babes".

Cameron makes no secret that his motivation is to "reflect modern Britain "and that by "reflecting all of modern Britain it will get the best for our country". It is, therefore, a political strategy designed to modernise and feminise politics. Importantly, he ditched even close allies like Michael Gove and replaced him with a woman and appointed Philip Hammond as Foreign Secretary, to pander to the Eurosceptic vote.

The Taoiseach similarly used the juggle of junior ministerial posts as a seat-saving exercise. In the case of Fine Gael, it was about geography and polls.

The surprise elevation of Heather Humphreys from the backbenches to Cabinet was a blend of geography gender and religious diversity; an inspired move in a constituency overrun by Sinn Fein and clearly aimed to garner the votes of non-Sinn Fein types and border Protestants.

Likewise in Donegal, the promotion of Joe McHugh to the junior ministerial ranks even "gan gaeilge" is about countering the rise of Sinn Fein in that constituency, evidenced by its spectacular performance in the recent elections north and south.

Cameron had been hounded for not delivering on his 2009 promise of 30pc women in cabinet by 2015. The "backlash" against the Taoiseach on gender grounds in this week's reshuffle is unwarranted.

Diversity and equality for women in politics ought not to be presented as a tyranny. Enda Kenny, as Taoiseach, has made historic space for women in Cabinet and other senior appointments and in the Dail by introducing gender quotas.

Credit where credit is due, ladies.

Irish Independent

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