Tuesday 22 October 2019

Hallowed chamber is no place for laddish silliness

Michael Lowry insulted the Dail rather than women with his note to the Taoiseach

'Lovely Girl': Michael Lowry. Photo: Damien Eagers
'Lovely Girl': Michael Lowry. Photo: Damien Eagers

Emer O'Kelly

When Michael Lowry scribbled: "Taoiseach would you please consider re-appointing Valerie O'Reilly to the Board of the NTA [National Transport Authority], a woman, bright, intelligent, and not bad-looking either" and had it sent across the floor of Dail Eireann, arguably it was as sexist to point out that Ms O'Reilly was a woman, as that she wasn't bad-looking. But nobody seems to have thought of that.

Called to account, Lowry pointed out that he had read three pages of newspaper comment on how striking and elegant Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, looked when she attended a meeting in Dublin during the previous week. Interesting point.

Just as, internationally, the appearance of both Barack Obama and his wife Michelle is a matter of comment every time they appear, because they look spectacularly marvellous and elegant, with enviably perfect bodies. And then there are those in public life who don't look elegant. Most Irish people took enormous pride in how effortlessly chic Mary Robinson always looked during her presidency; a tribute to the care she took, because she is not actually remotely interested in clothes. Mary McAleese, on the other hand, obviously tried very hard (she had her make-up applied professionally, for instance) but she almost invariably looked like a nun in mufti.

When Enda Kenny became Taoiseach, one of the minor advantages for us was that he looked well on the international stage; his two predecessors, Brian Cowen and Bertie Ahern, both looked scruffy and unkempt no matter what they wore.

The bottom line is that none of it actually matters, which is one of the many reasons personal remarks are out of place in public, including in the Dail, even supposedly off the record. Members are supposed to behave with decorum

That's why the use of the most over-used four-letter word in the English language shocked us when it was used on the floor of the house a couple of years ago; we've all heard it before, but to use it there shows disrespect for the democratic process.

For good or ill, we all notice looks. The number of times I have looked at another woman and said: "Would you look at those legs; I hate her" would have made me a rich woman if there was a tariff for it (my own legs leave a lot to be desired).

I've had great giggles (not always in female company either) about the butt attributes of male acquaintances (and even of strangers).

And yes, of course it's sexist; it's also a bit of fun that adds to the jollity of life. Lowry never intended the contents of that note to reach the public domain, but that's irrelevant. - It's also pathetic for him to act all wounded about "political advantage" at its leaking.

The Lowry remark was arguably offensive. I say arguably because offence at sexist remarks is entirely subjective. For instance, I call most people whom I like, including colleagues at work, "love" and "darling" as a matter of course. And I've frequently been told (by women) that it's sexist to use it to a man. I wonder what it is when I use it to a woman?

The remark was unpleasantly laddish. Within the context of where and when it was made, it convinces women that a lot of men don't really like women. It's a step along the route to being the sort of man who claims to "love" women while boasting of the notches on his bed-post. But womanisers don't like women: they like going to bed with women, but they don't like them. Frequently (ask any psychologist), they're afraid of women as equals.

Had Lowry's remark been made in passing, maybe in a bar conversation, even a mixed bar conversation, it would have been unremarkable; many people, perhaps the majority, would have considered it merely a bit juvenile.

All of that being human nature, it's not worth getting worked up about, and women pretending outrage (or genuinely feeling it) need to catch themselves on.

I know there's a lot of talk about the "intimidating" atmosphere in Leinster House where women are concerned. It's a boys' club, many of the women members claim. Well, it's not: if it were, the women wouldn't be there. You can find discrimination anywhere if you're determined to find it; it can be an excuse for non-achievement, not just in parliament, and not just in gender terms.

What Lowry wrote about Valerie O'Reillly - a woman whom he had employed for public relations purposes, ie to promote his image and - was undignified and silly.

The remark was hugely inappropriate, as much as it would be mentioning in lobbying for a man to be appointed to a board, that "he's a great fella in the pub of a Friday night." Such remarks have nothing to do with sexism, but they have everything to do with professional detachment, even in our insular society with its nod-and-wink culture. (Yes, nod and wink is another term for so-called 'lobbying').

The parliamentary chamber is the heart of a system that has been hallowed and fought for over hundreds of years. Sorry to sound pompous, but that matters. Laddish tackiness should have as little place there as has pulling strokes.

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