Thursday 27 October 2016

Equality first casualty as Enda breaks promise

Published 07/05/2016 | 02:30


All day long, I had a sinking feeling that I might need to quote Enda Kenny's words back at him. I hoped I was wrong and that he'd remember his promise - it was given less than five months ago, after all.

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But as soon as his new Cabinet followed him into the Dáil chamber, it was clear that Enda had broken his word. Not a promising omen so early in the life of the 32nd Dáil.

"If I have the opportunity on the next occasion to appoint a Cabinet, it will be a 50-50 on merit of men and women," Enda pledged in December. And it came to pass. He did have the opportunity to choose a Cabinet.

Except he decided not to opt for that 50-50 split. Instead, he stayed in his comfort zone with a 75-25 split, just as in the last Cabinet.

We've travelled a long way since the 1st Dáil in 1919, an assembly with only one woman (Constance Markievicz) in its ranks - although she was unable to take her seat, being held at His Majesty's convenience in Holloway Prison in London. We could have travelled still further with the 32nd Dáil, though - the talent is there. But not the will to avail of it.

Back into high office arrive Frances Fitzgerald and Heather Humphries, with Mary Mitchell O'Connor joining them at the Cabinet table as a new minister, along with Independent TD Katherine Zappone.

So, four women were counted out and four women were counted back. No improvement there.

Enda spoke of a "sense of possibility" as he named his Cabinet, but his responsibility to promote a critical mass of women and include them in the decision-making process was one possibility he overlooked.

The jobs portfolio for Mary Mitchell O'Connor is an important one, however, while Heather Humphreys has the broadband rollout in her ministry - crucial for rural areas which have been left behind.

As an Independent, Katherine Zappone broadens the diversity of voices - other Independents, Shane Ross and Denis Naughten, do likewise. Hopefully, it might undermine the group-think ethos.

Regina Doherty, who had Cabinet hopes, becomes a junior minister as well as Chief Whip or Government enforcer - a tricky job, and no mistake. Especially with such a wafer-slim majority.

The need for strong female participation at Cabinet cannot be underestimated. Research shows that organisations with a good gender balance in senior positions perform above those lacking in that department. The benefits are tangible. It is in all our interests, and not just women's.

That's why the Council of Europe recommends that national parliaments include at least 40pc of each sex, while the EU has set equivalent targets. Enda's targets are more modest, unfortunately.

As for the man himself, he made it over the line eventually: to the victor, the spoils. Except I doubt that he sees a victor when he looks in the mirror, with that most meagre of majorities. Incidentally, Michael Lowry helped to have him re-elected.

For spoils, Enda must make do with the trappings of office because the levers of power are not in the Taoiseach's hands. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. Especially when it's a crown which Fianna Fáil can snatch off at any time.

That 'supply and confidence arrangement' fills no-one with confidence. Even the word 'arrangement' has a fleeting ring to it, calling to mind short-term arrangements or temporary little arrangements.

Clearly, the 32nd Dáil is an experimental government. A test case government. A government on probation. And its members know it.

Consequently, its formation was a sombre affair rather than celebratory. Scant sense of renewed purpose and enthusiasm for the job of governing was discernible. Instead, an air of anti-climax - indeed, of unreality - hung over the chamber, not least when word trickled through that the Independent Alliance's delayed arrival was caused by turf wars in the most local sense.

If Enda and his new government are fretful from yesterday's protracted affair to have him elected, then they not half as jittery as citizens watching the horse-trading.

"This is not the politics of the cattle mart," Michael Fitzmaurice said earlier, during negotiations. In fact, it is. Thank you for the reminder, deputy.

But unlike the cattle mart, a handshake between buyer and seller is not enough. There's a third party here - the taxpayer - and we have a right to full disclosure on the specifics of every deal with Independents. Including the cost to the Exchequer.

We also have a right to know about side deals, unspoken deals and a-nod's-as-good-as-a-wink deals. We can be sure those are part and parcel of this accommodation between Enda and the TDs who have committed themselves to buttressing his administration.

Because while Enda has achieved something unmatched by any other Fine Gael leader, the question remains: at what cost? The bill is unknown. What we can be certain of is that it will be picked up by all of us.

As to the future of this querulous Dáil, it may well prove short. Fine Gael could end up putting it out of its misery before Fianna Fáil does, frustrated by its inability to implement its Programme for Government.

Each policy will have to be debated fully in the Dáil, and the minority government will be defeated on its legislative programme on a regular basis. How a Budget will be managed by the autumn is anyone's guess. But even if that happens, a second Budget next year seems a bridge too far.

And so back to promises. Don't you just love how full of look-you-straight-in-the-eye sincerity politicians are when they make them? Me neither.

Currently, there are 35 female TDs in the 32nd Dáil, a historic high, although still nowhere near critical mass. Not all were willing to serve at this time. Nevertheless, there were considerably more than four women to choose from for full Cabinet positions.

Oh, but it's hard to see how he can have met that 50-50 aspiration, and it was only a hope and not a pledge, say those who want to make excuses for him.

Wrong. He simply decided not to keep his word.

Irish Independent

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