Friday 18 January 2019

Martina Devlin: Fine Gael's crassness and stupidity over recognising female talent is breathtaking

Team Taoiseach: Leo Varadkar in jovial spirits as he unveils his new Junior Cabinet outside Government Buildings last week. The new leader has come under criticism from some quarters over its gender and geographical balance. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Team Taoiseach: Leo Varadkar in jovial spirits as he unveils his new Junior Cabinet outside Government Buildings last week. The new leader has come under criticism from some quarters over its gender and geographical balance. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

'PLEASE, sir, I want some more," says Oliver Twist, empty bowl in hand, addressing the workhouse master.

Narrating the scene, Dickens describes how the well-fed overseer turns pale, while his assistants are paralysed by wonder. When the stupefaction wears off, Oliver gets a clatter with the gruel ladle for his trouble.

And so to Leo Varadkar and his unwillingness to share what's in the pot with women.

Surrounded by his primarily male gang, well looked-after in the wake of the leadership change, he seems as frozen as that workhouse master when women ask for more.

"No can do," he says, or words to that effect. "Can't break this important new rule I invented a few weeks back. Nobody elected in 2016 is eligible for promotion."

Which precludes a group of able people, women and men, from serving - although we were led to believe that our new Taoiseach accepts the importance of promoting talent as opposed to rewarding supporters.

To recap: there has been a dearth of women in the Dáil since the first one was established almost 100 years ago, and a push was made to swell numbers in last year's General Election to the 32nd Dáil. When the supply was increased - with a record 22pc of women TDs due to quotas - a new barrier was hastily introduced. Experience. Riddle me this: where is the value in adding to the number of women politicians, only to raise yet another obstacle against their participation once elected? Naturally, experience matters - but so does talent.

We need diversity in key decision-making roles. Not a boys' club reinforcing one another's viewpoints. This isn't about tokenism or political correctness, it's about openness to other voices, other experiences, other backgrounds. Uniformity is not in the State's best interests.

Only seven in 34 ministries are held by women, around 20pc of the total. So much for Ireland's progressive face, of which Mr Varadkar is presented as the manifestation.

I didn't feel proud of our multicultural young Taoiseach representing Ireland in London and Brussels this week, citing the film 'Love Actually' and posting photos of himself with Angela Merkel on social media - I felt let down that nothing of substance has changed.

We are assured we have a Taoiseach who represents a transitioning Ireland. In reality, however, the wrong kind of more is happening - more of the same.

Incidentally, Taoiseach, we're not going to be fooled into believing you're supportive of women simply because you appear to have introduced another new rule: Helen McEntee must be at your side in every photo. Women won't be fobbed off that easily. We can tell when we're sidelined. Both Women For Election and the National Women's Council of Ireland have called you on it, as have a host of female politicians and other public figures.

Mid-week, Fine Gael woke up to the depth of anger among women and forward-thinking men, and cobbled together a statement claiming commitment to raising female numbers in politics and at all levels of the party, yak-yak-yak. Spare us the pious platitudes. Actions not words, if you please.

Huffy in the face of criticism, Fine Gael reminds us it introduced electoral quotas. In fairness, it did stipulate 30pc of candidates should be female or funding would be withheld from a political party. That helped a record 22pc of women TDs to enter the Dáil - the previous 'high' was 15pc. But 30pc is regarded as the tipping point, or critical mass, when change can be expected, and we're not there yet.

Those reshuffles at Cabinet and junior ministerial level were a missed opportunity to show leadership. It's hardly a ringing endorsement of the new Taoiseach to say he kept numbers more or less the same for women in ministries. That's setting the bar low.

Where is the sense of a flying start made? New ground broken? Commanding from the front?

Mr Varadkar was helpful enough to explain his promotion policy when deselecting two junior ministers. I'm summarising here, but it goes along the lines of: "Afraid I have to take your jobs away and give them to people in my gang."

Mary Mitchell O'Connor is the only Cabinet minister demoted rather than withdrawing voluntarily, and presumably she feels aggrieved. Yet even allowing for that, it took courage to step out from the Fine Gael ranks and say publicly what others in the party are thinking privately when she attacked Mr Varadkar for "not leading by example" on diversity. "Power and success don't just come in a pinstriped suit," according to the super-junior minister for higher education, speaking before the WXN Network recently.

Predictably, she attracted a wave of personal abuse and I dare say she knew to expect it, but was undeterred. What she says is true. But the men in suits, no matter how trendy the cut, prefer to bat aside her words.

Why agree to divide things up if you are can get away with refusing to share?

There are incompetent male politicians and incompetent female ones - neither deserves to be retained because they supported Campaign for Leo. I do not defend ineptitude in either sex. I simply note that Simon Coveney performed inadequately as housing minister, making promises that won't be kept - for example, the Government has built only 10pc of its social housing target so far this year. Yet he's been promoted to a key ministry.

The stupidity and crassness as regards recognising female talent is breathtaking for a party in a rickety minority government - one that knows not the day or the hour when it will be returning to the electorate.

Our head of Government may be a clever and highly educated young man, but I am dismayed to observe him behave in such a heedless way, not once but twice, in his ministerial selections. Granted, he has a lot on his plate between Brexit, the implications for the Border and the housing crisis. But accepting a mistake was made is not pandering to pressure, it is being mature enough to set right a wrong.

The male, stale cycle needs breaking. It required an act of imagination to see Mr Varadkar as Taoiseach, something he acknowledged himself when he quoted Robert Kennedy and his appeal to people who "imagine the world as it might be and ask, why not?". Where is the corresponding imaginative response towards the women of Ireland in return?

Irish Independent

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