Sunday 9 December 2018

'It is a basic female right' - Female public representatives criticise the lack of maternity leave

Danielle Twomey
Danielle Twomey

Geraldine Gittens and Catherine Devine

Irish female politicians have criticised the lack of maternity leave entitlements for politicians here.

In 2016, Niamh Smyth broke new ground when she became the first female in the Cavan and Monaghan area to be elected to Dáil Eireann.

A few months later, the Fianna Fáil TD and her husband were overjoyed to learn that she was pregnant. It was to be a year of massive change for the couple.

Ms Smyth, a qualified art teacher, had worked as an education officer on the Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board before she was elected.

She was surprised to discover when her daughter Juliet was born that there were no provisions whatsoever for maternity leave for TDs or Senators.

“Assumptions are never a good thing… I was told I had to provide a sick cert. But I said I’m not actually sick, I’ve just had a baby.”

“I had to hand in a sick cert for a week after she was born. She was born on the 16th of November and I did come back for a few days but I was lucky that the Dáil broke for Christmas as well.”

“I think there should be a recognition of the fact that I’ve had a baby and I’m not able to attend for maternity reasons.”

Ms Smyth who travels between her constituency and Dublin, was unable to drive, because she'd had a C-section for Juliet's birth.

“I took the two weeks after she was born off. I had a section, I didn’t have a natural childbirth so it was particularly difficult. I couldn’t drive and I had to depend on the generosity of my parents to childmind and drive me as well.”

“You’re on autopilot because the job is quite demanding itself. And you had this new little vulnerable baby and all the attention you had to give her. Not every mum would have their own mum to do it for them.”

A spokesperson for the Houses of the Oireachtas confirmed to Independent.ie that there is no maternity or paternity entitlements for TDs and Senators.

She added: “But their attendance in Leinster House doesn't impact their salary.”

“They are paid from polling day up to the day of the dissolution of the Dáil or the day they resign their seat, whichever comes first.”

Ms Smyth said the lack of entitlements means extra pressure for rural TDs.

“It certainly pulls at your heart strings in the very early weeks and months. She’s 13 months now. She was a vulnerable little baby swaddled in blankets, and now she’s walking around.”

“It’s my mam and dad who mainly look after Juliet with the help of childcare as well, I have to be very grateful that I have them and my husband as well.”

East Cork representative Danielle Twomey (SF) told Independent.ie that she had to leave her breastfeeding child to return to work four weeks after giving birth.

Daniell two.png
Danielle Twomey

"Under the Local Government Act, there is no provision for maternity leave. Any public representative who is ill can take up to six months off, but there is nothing for maternity leave.

"Absentee councillors who are ill are entitled to receive their €16,645 salary for the six-month period and receive 50pc after that period. This does not account for cases of maternity leave as councillors are not regarded as employees of the local authority council they sit on," Ms Twomey said.

The 31-year-old mum of three girls, Saoirse (9), Lola (2) and Aoife (9 months) said that maternity leave "is a basic female right".

"My salary as a councillor is already low. I can't afford to take time more time off and be with my baby. I went back to work after Aoife was three weeks old. I felt a lot of pressure to return to work. I didn't like missing out on council votes and I wanted to be there for my constituents.

"I just had to get on with it but it's very hard because as a new mum your hormones are all over the place and and you're trying to breastfeed."

Ms Twomey said that the lack of maternity leave is "a huge barrier" for women in politics.

"There is huge emphasis that if you want to be a public representative you can't have children. That is a huge barrier for young women and men. We need more young people, especially women, in politics at the moment.

"You have to really love the job to be in it. It's a thankless, tough job at times."

Senator Lorraine Clifford, from Portmarnock is mum to seven-month-old Edward and her daughter Kitty.

While Ms Clifford wouldn’t have received maternity leave as a self-employed solicitor before being elected, she said extra provisions could be made to accommodate TDs and Senators who’ve just had a baby.

Provisions like remote voting for TDs and Senators or extra support staff for public representatives would be a massive help, she said.

“You need to have a supportive partner and husband and flexibility is required. I’m lucky that I live in Dublin and that I’m not travelling from Cavan as Niamh was.”

“Micheál Martin was very supportive and I made it clear to him that it’d be business as usual, and I wanted to work, and be considered for committees.”

“It is doable," she said. "I could work from home as well. Edward used to come with me if I was in meetings.”

“When you’re recovering from childbirth, the last thing you want to do is get out and put on a suit, but I had lots of my colleagues supported me as well.”

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