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'I'm unequivocally a feminist': Party leaders have their say on inequality and other issues facing Irish women

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The general election has the potential to set the political agenda for the next five years, and will be crucial in deciding the future direction of this country.

At a time where we have the highest childcare costs in Europe, one of the highest rates of women homelessness in Europe, and only one third of the recommended refuge spaces for women fleeing violence, it is critical that our political leaders demonstrate their commitment to women’s equality.

This is why the National Women’s Council of Ireland has asked the leaders of the main political parties in Ireland to answer four key questions on women’s equality. Here’s what they had to say:

Micheal Martin - Fianna Fáil

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Fianna Fail Leader Micheal Martin (Niall Carson/PA)

Fianna Fail Leader Micheal Martin (Niall Carson/PA)

Fianna Fail Leader Micheal Martin (Niall Carson/PA)

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Absolutely — as a republican, one of my core values is equality and creating a society where everyone can reach their full potential. When I look at my own children, particularly as they begin their careers, I am committed to fighting for a society where my daughter has the same opportunities as her brothers.

As a nation we have taken strides to address inequality between men and women, but a lot remains to be done.

As a politician and party leader I am committed to working towards a fairer Ireland.

What has been your biggest achievement for women’s equality to date?

I strongly believe the 32nd Dail was correct in holding a referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment.

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Voting in favour of repealing the provision was not an easy decision for me. As more and more women came forward to tell their stories, I had to examine myself and my own conscience. I couldn’t get past the question — who am I to impose upon those women an obligation to proceed and have the baby?

Fianna Fáil has a proven record in providing leadership in the field of equality legislation. I am proud to have been a part of the Fianna Fáil government which brought in the ground-breaking Employment Equality Acts and the Equal Status Acts.

What is the most important change that you want to achieve for women’s equality if elected as taoiseach?

The under-representation of women in political life undoubtedly contributes to gender inequality.

The case for greater female representation is clear - greater female representation would improve the quality of decision making and would deliver more effective representation for women voters.

Of the TDs elected in 2016, 136 of them had been Councillors at some point in their careers, which amounts to 86pc of TDs.

We cannot possibly expect to increase female representation in the Dáil on a sustained basis if we do not introduce gender quotas in local elections.

I am committed to introducing gender quotas in local elections.

I have heard from countless women who are deeply frustrated by the lack of availability of high-quality, affordable childcare.

If elected taoiseach, I will make it my goal to build a childcare system that provides high-quality and dependable childcare to all Irish families.

This would go a long way in assisting women reach their potential in the workplace.

Will you commit to having a gender balanced cabinet?

Fianna Fáil is running more women than any other party in this general election.

All six of our female TDs are running again, and we have another 20 female candidates. A lot of these are very strong candidates, that would bring a lot to the table.

For example, Catherine Ardagh has a strong legal background; Sandra Farrell has experience in the healthcare system. We hope that as many women as possible are elected and I would of course aim to have a gender balanced cabinet if returned as taoiseach.

Leo Varadkar - Fine Gael

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Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pictured at Fine Gael’s election manifesto launch in Dublin this afternoon..Picture Gareth Chaney / Collins Photos

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pictured at Fine Gael’s election manifesto launch in Dublin this afternoon..Picture Gareth Chaney / Collins Photos

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pictured at Fine Gael’s election manifesto launch in Dublin this afternoon..Picture Gareth Chaney / Collins Photos

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Yes. Some of the strongest influences on my life and career are women - most notably my mother and my two sisters and also my female friends.

They’ve always challenged me to see the world differently, and to understand the challenges women often face when it comes to things like childcare, career progression, and work-life balance.

Some actions I took as Taoiseach, for example, bringing in better parental leave, paternity benefit, greater financial support for childcare was influenced by the experiences of the women in my life and wanting to make a difference.

I’m also mindful that a lot of the work-life challenges that parents face can sometimes be regarded as women’s issues to solve when in fact they are challenges for both men and women and the solutions should involve both.

What has been your biggest achievement for women’s equality to date?

I’m not going to say the repeal of the 8th Amendment, because that was something that was achieved by so many people in Irish society, over a long period.

As Taoiseach I provided an opportunity for the people to make that decision and they did.

Two other things stand out. First, we ratified the international convention on violence against women, the Istanbul Convention.

There is an epidemic of violence against women and that needs to stop. We also incentivised political parties to field more women candidates because I want Dáil Éireann and council chambers to be more representative of our society as a whole.

Gender equality is good for men as well as women; it benefits everyone.

We get better results when there is a diversity of views around the table. And we’re going to do more.

What is the most important change that you want to achieve for women’s equality if you are re-elected as taoiseach?

Yesterday, the Citizens’ Assembly on gender equality, that we established, met for the first time.

We are asking it to bring forward proposals on a range of issues that affect women today.

If re-elected as Taoiseach I want to drive forward with its recommendations and build a society where we have true gender equality at all levels — in homes, in workplaces, in government, and throughout our country.

As a society, we will be stronger when we hear women’s voices. With gender equality we can enhance our capacity to think creatively, and our ability to come up with new and better solutions.

We’re also introducing gender pay legislation to make sure that men and women are paid the same for doing the same work.

Will you commit to having a gender balanced cabinet?

I was fortunate to be able to lead a government with ministers as talented as Heather Humphreys, Regina Doherty, Katherine Zappone and Josepha Madigan, and not forgetting Frances Fitzgerald who was my first Tanaiste, or Helen McEntee, and her work on Brexit, or Mary Mitchell O’Connor who sits at cabinet and leads on higher education.

Only 19 women have been cabinet ministers in the history of the State. That must change and that will change.

Only 11 women TDs supported the outgoing government, so to have a gender balanced cabinet we need more women TDs.

That’s what Fine Gael is working to change.

We have 25 women candidates this time out.

Brendan Howlin - Labour Party

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Ex-minister Brendan Howlin. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM

Ex-minister Brendan Howlin. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM

Ex-minister Brendan Howlin. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Yes, I do. I have been proud to work side-by-side with inspirational, campaigning woman all my political life.

Some of those were very lonely, very tough battles.

I remember in particular being actively involved in the referendum campaigns to oppose the introduction of the 8th Amendment in 1983 and the first divorce referendum in 1986.

The voices of equality and compassion were defeated in both.

However, it was largely the commitment and determination of women which ensured that decades later we could revisit these issues and help build a better Ireland.

That fight for equality continues today.

What has been your biggest achievement for women’s equality to date?

I have been proud to campaign to repeal the 8th, tackle the gender pay gap and promote the equality of women.

Change takes vision but also determination to see through to the end.

One important measure I was determined to achieve progress on in Government was women’s representation on State boards.

Upon entering government in 2011 the target of 40pc of women on State boards had not been achieved, often being treated as a worthy aspiration, not an achievable goal.

Labour in government recommitted itself to meeting the target as part of an overall review of state board membership.

An open and transparent process of application and decision-making was introduced and progress towards meeting the 40pc target was monitored on a six monthly.

By 2017 not only had the 40pc target been surpassed, more than 50pc of appointments made that year were female.

What is the most important change that you want to achieve for women’s equality if elected as taoiseach?

I think the economic equality agenda is now the urgent issue for women.

Women are still undervalued in their careers and there are intolerable gender pay gaps in every economic sector.

I’ve worked closely with my colleague Senator Ivana Bacik to tackle this issue.

Ivana’s legislation to require gender pay reporting has been frustrated by the current Government but we are both determined that this is a measure that should be enacted within the first 100 days of the new Dáil.

Then we need to continue the pressure on critical issues such as childcare to ensure that women in work are treated equally.

The lack of affordable quality childcare is a major barrier to real equality at work.

Labour has a State-led solution that will work.

I am also very supportive of the work that Labour colleagues such as Cllr Rebecca Moynihan have achieved in respect of period poverty and want to see her initiative with Dublin City Council rolled out nationwide.

Will you commit to having a gender balanced cabinet?

I am supportive of the principle of a gender balanced cabinet.

I think a breath of fresh air like that which followed the recent victory of Sanna Mirella Marin in Finland and the composition of her cabinet would be very welcome in Ireland.

However, gender on its own is not a guarantee of a real progressive commitment.

I would urge voters in this election to support candidates’ committed to equality, social justice and fairness.

That commitment often transcends gender. It about political values and belief. I am proud to lead a party of women and men that cherishes its commitment to equality.

Eamon Ryan - Green Party

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Green Party leader Eamon. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM

Green Party leader Eamon. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM

Green Party leader Eamon. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Yes.

What has been your biggest achievement for women’s equality to date?

I believe one of our recent key feminist achievements my party has delivered has been the great work of my colleague Deputy Leader, Catherine Martin on extending maternity leave to mothers of premature babies.

I commend her and have been honoured to support her in her work. This is the sort of practical politics that helps women.

Additionally, our party has ensured 44pc of our candidates for the local elections in 2019 were women and now 41pc of our candidates are women running for the general election and will continue to ensure that there are more women in politics.

Moreover, our party’s management committee is greatly represented by women with five out of six of our committee members are women.

What is the most important change that you want to achieve for women’s equality if elected as taoiseach?

I believe it is important to advance women’s leadership in politics and across the business sectors by introducing mandatory gender quota for executive boards of all large companies registered in Ireland.

It is important to have a gender balance in all offices. Moreover, it is important to ensure that we rearrange the political structures to facilitate more access for women and men allowing them to balance personal/family and work life.

Additionally, increase paid parental leave to allow men to share with women in caring for children/relatives and managing family life and bring proposals for basic income to facilitate better choices and flexibility in career development.

There is a lot of significant work that needs to be done to ensure women’s equality from prioritising Women’s health to leading a Green New Deal.

Will you commit to having a gender-balanced cabinet?

It is important that a cabinet is diverse in its opinions, expertise, and experiences.

We are committed to a cabinet that is as diverse as possible in terms of age, gender and race/ethnicity with regard to the composition of Dáil Éireann.

Roisin Shortall and Catherine Murphy - Social Democrats

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Catherine Murphy, left, and Róisín Shortall . Photo: Gareth Chaney

Catherine Murphy, left, and Róisín Shortall . Photo: Gareth Chaney

Catherine Murphy, left, and Róisín Shortall . Photo: Gareth Chaney

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Yes, unequivocally. Equality is one of the key principles that drives our party and feminism is equality. Women are the largest minority in society, so gender equality sits very high on our list of priorities and informs all of our policies.

What has been your biggest achievement for women’s equality to date?

We are extremely proud of our very active involvement in the Repeal campaign and our respective local Together4Yes groups. But for many years prior to Repeal, we have fought for social change at a personal, local, and national level.

Gender equality remains a fundamental principle of our policies as we our party has grown. Most recently, we have advanced the rights of families through our Parental Leave Bill. This has had a huge impact on the lives of working mothers to achieve greater balance in their lives and we have been overwhelmed with the positive response from families enjoying this change.

Of course we also established a political party led by women, with women in senior roles, and fielding the largest percentage of female candidates in the upcoming General Election. In fact we are the first political party in Irish history to have a majority of women running for us.

What is the most important change that you want to achieve for women’s equality if elected as taoiseach?

We will prioritise childcare; the great leveller. A nordic socially democratic approach which sees childcare as a public service is crucial to women’s equality. It contributes to the gender pay gap, the experience of lone parents, child poverty and many more areas.

Health is a platform priority for us and that includes the unique health needs of women. We will ensure that healthcare for women is the best in the world, that religious influence of hospital ownership is removed and that the implementation of the abortion legislation is effective for all women.

We will care for the most vulnerable women in society and provide crucial services which we currently lack for women experiencing domestic violence, women experiencing homelessness, and women in marginalised groups of society. Improving the lives of women has been proven to improve the lives of families and communities

We will amend the archaic Article 41.2 of Bunracht na hÉireann, which defines a woman’s place as in the home; an important signal to the gender equal society we want for our country.

Will you commit to having a gender balanced cabinet?

Without doubt. We are seeing the positive impact of this in other countries and we are already the most gender friendly party in terms of candidates so we will absolutely carry this through to our cabinet and appointments process.

Having gender balance in central government makes sense on so many levels. As a rounded approach to the leadership of our country, as a beacon to all employers in society, and to role model to our younger generations that all of us have the choice to be who we want to be.

Mary Lou McDonald - Sinn Féin

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Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald speaking at the party's general election candidate launch in Dublin.  Niall Carson/PA Wire

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald speaking at the party's general election candidate launch in Dublin. Niall Carson/PA Wire

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald speaking at the party's general election candidate launch in Dublin. Niall Carson/PA Wire

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Yes, I do. Feminism at its core is about equality and the equal treatment of men and women. That is what Sinn Féin is about — building an equal society.

We are committed to changing the type of attitudes that prevent this, including the gender pay gap, and ensuring that we have a diversity of voices in public office to build a fairer, more inclusive society.

What has been your biggest achievement for women’s equality to date?

I think the campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment was a significant victory for women in this State, and I was very proud to play a small part in that.

I am also proud of the role that I have played, among many others, in the campaign for recognition and justice for women who were incarcerated in Magdalene Laundries.

What is the most important change that you want to achieve for women’s equality if elected as taoiseach?

I think we still have a huge amount of work to do on various issues, but one that I have worked on for many years is the issue of domestic violence.

One in five women experience violence in their own home, and over 40pc of Irish women know someone in their circle of family or friends who have experienced intimate partner violence.

As a society we need to step up to our responsibility to ensure that domestic violence victims’ rights and entitlements are enhanced and protected.

The establishment of independent regional multi-agency domestic homicide reviews would be an invaluable tool to protect women and eliminate domestic violent crime in this regard, and I would also like to introduce legislation to provide for a statutory entitlement to paid leave for those who suffer domestic violence.

Will you commit to having a gender balanced cabinet?

Ultimately the decision of who serves in cabinet is one for the people to make.

However, we have seen the effects of successive government decisions that have disproportionately affected women; particularly women from disadvantaged backgrounds.

This shows the necessity of a cabinet, and government that is representative of all sections of society.


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