Mary Lou criticised for 'petty and small-minded' comments about childless Varadkar
Sinn Fein deputy president Mary Lou McDonald has been branded "petty and small-minded" by furious senior Fine Gael figures for implicitly suggesting Taoiseach Leo Varadkar could not understand childcare issues faced by families because he was not a father.
Arts Minister Heather Humphreys rounded on Ms McDonald, saying that her comments "did not make sense" and insisted that the Taoiseach was "very much aware" of the issues faced by families.
"There are loads of TDs who don't have children and that doesn't make them less qualified to understand the difficulties parents face around childcare cost," Ms Humphreys told the Sunday Independent.
European Affairs Minister Helen McEntee also weighed into the controversy, calling Ms McDonald's comments "ridiculous".
She said: "It's the same as saying if you're not a farmer you can't understand agriculture."
Four Fine Gael senators also raised serious concerns about Ms McDonald's remarks, which were made during a heated Dail debate with Mr Varadkar on the cost of childcare, with one comparing the controversy to the furore sparked when UK Home Secretary Andrea Leadsom referred to rival Theresa May's childless status in the Conservative Party leadership contest last year.
During Leaders' Questions last week, Mr Varadkar told Ms McDonald that Sinn Fein was the only party in the country that had "never done anything for children".
Mr Varadkar said Sinn Fein opted out of government here, collapsed the Assembly in the North and refused to take up its seats in Westminster so the party could not claim to have fought for struggling families.
"I see around me deputies from Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, the Labour Party, Independents and the Green Party who can all say that they did something practical and useful for young people.
"When Deputy McDonald says she has made a choice and that she stands with young families, that is totally bogus," he said.
In response, Ms McDonald said that she had "raised one", referring to her own family.
The Sinn Fein deputy leader also said: "For the record of the Dail, I am actually raising two young children.
"While I regard that as something of a personal endeavour, it also puts me, like so many others, in a position to understand that all of the cant and empty rhetoric about balancing the books is not worth a fig to struggling families.
"To couples at work or individuals on their own who have to provide care for their children, lofty words about balancing the books from An Taoiseach in that dismissive way are of no use."
Mr Varadkar did not respond to the suggestion that Ms McDonald had a better understanding of the childcare issue because she was a mother.
However, yesterday Fine Gael's deputy leader in the Seanad and spokeswoman for children Catherine Noone said Ms McDonald's remarks were "crazy and very unfair" to the Taoiseach.
"I am not a mother and I am spokesperson for children. I don't think that means I'm not going to be capable of understanding the right thing to do when it comes to children," she said.
The senator also highlighted the fact that the Taoiseach was formerly a doctor and would have "dealt with children a lot" in his work.
"Katherine Zappone is Minister for Children but she doesn't have children. Does that mean she doesn't know the right thing to do for them?" she asked.
Ms Zappone yesterday said she would "prefer not to comment" on Ms McDonald's remarks to the Taoiseach.
Fine Gael senator Michelle Mulherin said that the Sinn Fein deputy leader's comments were "petty and small-minded".
"Everyone can contribute to political debates no matter what their personal circumstances are," she added.
Senator Neale Richmond compared Ms McDonald's comments to those made by British MP Leadsom about Prime Minister May during the Conservative Party leadership contest last year.
Ms Leadsom, who is a mother, suggested she was better placed to lead to the Conservative Party as having children meant she had a "real stake in the future of our country". Ms May and her husband do not have children.
"Mary Lou was challenged on SF childcare strategy and all she could talk about was that she raised two kids - she completely missed the point," Mr Richmond said.
"A pretty strong policy rebuttal was put to her and she said 'I am a mother so I know'.
"If that's the rule for all politics does that mean you can only have a farmer as minister for agriculture and you have to have a lawyer as the minister for justice and what is Mary Lou professionally qualified to do in politics?"
Senator Jerry Buttimer also added: "You don't have to be father to understand childcare."
Sinn Fein did not respond to a request for comment.