Monday 23 April 2018

'We should look at gender quotas for local elections,' says minister

Europe Minister Helen McEntee's whirlwind 18 months sees her tie the knot today, writes Cormac McQuinn

European Affairs Minister Helen McEntee. Photo: Caroline Quinn
European Affairs Minister Helen McEntee. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

When Helen McEntee stood beside the Taoiseach on the Leinster House plinth the day she was appointed to the European Affairs brief, she was one of just two women in the ranks of junior ministers.

She has had mixed views on gender quotas in politics in the past, but now says they should be considered for local elections.

The Meath East TD has had a whirlwind 18 months where she's been appointed as minister twice, wound up in a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel two days into her new job, and today will marry her fiancé Paul Hickey.

That picture with Leo Varadkar with his cast of mostly male, newly minted junior ministers sparked a debate on gender balance in politics with the Taoiseach widely criticised for failing to appoint more women.

Ms McEntee knows how it looked. At the time she says she was only thinking how happy she was for her colleagues, but in hindsight she suggests perhaps she should have brought fellow minister Catherine Byrne into the centre of the picture as well.

In Ms McEntee's view "the biggest problem" is that there aren't enough women for the Taoiseach to choose from.

Helen McEntee pictured with her fellow junior ministers. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Helen McEntee pictured with her fellow junior ministers. Photo: Steve Humphreys

She points out that there are just 12 women TDs in Government - of them, seven are ministers - and overall there were just 35 women elected to the Dáil last year.

She said she "might not necessarily agree" with gender quotas, but she's come to the view that without them "we'd still be another hundred years trying to get to the level we need to".

Ms McEntee said many TDs began their careers as councillors and said the introduction of gender quotas at local level should be considered. So could they be brought in for the next elections due in 2019?

"It's something that could be discussed and I don't see why we couldn't. I think you need to start from the grassroots up if you're going to try to make a difference."

She said she'd love to see a 50:50 gender split in Cabinet, adding: "I think we need to get to that stage."

Has she got designs on being Fine Gael's first female leader or the first woman to be elected Taoiseach? "I think that's a question for another day," she says laughing, and adding: "It's not really something that I'm focusing on at the moment.

"You know, obviously anybody that's in politics is ambitious. You're not here to sit around and to do nothing."

She said her priority was "to do the best that I can do and wherever that leads me, it leads me."

Ms McEntee entered politics following the tragic death of her father Shane by suicide in 2012. She said she was immensely proud to have been appointed Mental Health and Older People Minister last year.

"I think that was something very personal to me and something that I was passionate about. To be able to take that on was very special and I suppose at the same time it was a poignant moment as well."

Successive administrations have struggled to deliver adequate services for people with mental health issues and Fianna Fáil has criticised the level of funding provided in the last Budget.

Of this, Ms McEntee says she has never disagreed with the need for continued investment in mental health and points out that the former Fine Gael-Labour government increased funding in the area even as other services were cut.

But she pointed out it's "not just about money. It's about actually delivering a service that's fit for purpose and that's right for the individual's needs". That includes services tailored for people with eating disorders, drug and alcohol problems, and for older people.

She adds: "It's an area we all agree on and I have to say I found that there was a lot of co-operation with all parties... I don't think people want to play political football with it and I don't think we should".

In Ms McEntee's new focus is Brexit, the future of Europe, and keeping Ireland at the heart of the EU.

She is under no illusions as to the Brexit challenges facing Ireland, particularly people in rural constituencies like hers. She points to the €1.2bn in trade between Ireland and the UK every week and how agriculture accounts for a large chunk of that. Along with Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney, she will soon begin holding monthly meetings with stakeholders like the IFA and Ibec to help them make sure their sectors are "Brexit-proofed".

"We have to make sure that Ireland is impacted in the least possible way. I think myself and Simon and the Taoiseach - and all of the departments - have a very difficult job ahead of us."

Phase one of the Brexit negotiations is focused on citizens' rights, the so-called 'divorce bill' Britain will have to pay, and Irish issues including the peace process.

Ms McEntee says Ireland needs to ensure now that it is also ready for the next phase which will involve trade talks.

But does she believe that Brexit can be reversed?

"That option is always there," she says, adding that while she believes there's regret among the British people, ultimately it will be a decision for them to make.

"I'm not sitting here thinking 'well, we'll just wait and see if it doesn't happen'. Brexit is happening... we can't be complacent in making sure we get the best possible outcome for Ireland and for Europe".

Ms McEntee's fiancé Paul popped the question in January 2016 and since then the 31-year-old has been working on wedding preparations like dress fittings amidst her hectic political schedule.

Mr Hickey, a former parliamentary adviser to Fine Gael TD Joe McHugh, now works in health economics. Ms McEntee says the 18-months since the proposal meant planning has been relaxed. "I didn't stress then so hopefully I won't be stressed on the day. I'm really looking forward to it now."

Irish Independent

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