Wednesday 13 December 2017

Women TDs finding it tough going in the company of men

Back Chat

Man’s game: Kathleen Lynch (front left), Joan Burton and Anne Phelan (back) and the new cabinet. Photo: Damien Eagers
Man’s game: Kathleen Lynch (front left), Joan Burton and Anne Phelan (back) and the new cabinet. Photo: Damien Eagers
Paschal Donohoe and Michael Ring.
Listen to the people: Alex White. Photo: Tony Gavin.

Liam Fay

Enda Kenny is sometimes called 'Edna' but, unlike his name, his political stewardship could never be seen as gender-neutral. By declining to appoint any women from Fine Gael to his panel of junior ministers, the Taoiseach has incensed the party's female backbenchers. Hot fury from those who have been cold-shouldered is a time-honoured reaction to ministerial reshuffles. However, Kenny has succeeded in kindling a deeper form of resentment: the ire of female TDs who are angry for themselves but also enraged on behalf of their entire gender.

You can see their point. The all-male line-up is a dismal spectacle, not least because maleness appears to be the only undisputed accomplishment to which some of the new junior ministers can lay claim.

If this dreary assemblage of wannabes, has-beens and no-hit wonders really is evidence of the patriarchy at work, it's time the old boys' club called an extraordinary general meeting and reappraised the operation of our masculinist supremacy.

Mind you, the melodramatic sobbing we have been hearing from some corners of the sisterhood is almost equally absurd: given the enormity of the economic hardship imposed on the populace by this Government and the frequency with which it has broken its promises, the disappointment of a few coalition politicians barely amounts to a hill of beans.

There is, however, one facet of this controversy which merits closer attention. Disgruntlement among Fine Gael's female deputies is reportedly most intense among those who pride themselves on their readiness to "go out and bat" for the Government in times of trouble, taking to the air with gusto to defuse controversies caused by the coalition's crasser cruelties and spectacular screw-ups.

Bad decision-makers abound at the top of this administration so there is a constant, pressing need for plausible excuse-makers. Several of Fine Gael's female TDs – especially among the cohort first elected in 2011 – have proven to be skilled media performers, and their smiling apologias for the folly and incompetence of senior ministers are repeatedly called upon.

Defending the indefensible isn't easy but, in politics, it is rarely seen as a thankless task. The working assumption has long been that ostentatious displays of blind loyalty by backbenchers will eventually be rewarded with promotion. The female deputies who are crying foul are effectively arguing that Kenny has not honoured his side of the bargain. In truth, however, the "bargain" is a bum deal from the citizenry's perspective, and the willingness of so many self-styled harbingers of political reform to collude in the shabby arrangement is nothing to boast about.

Almost everybody agrees that the under-representation of women in the Dail is a ridiculous anomaly which needs remedying. The only debate is whether gender-quotas provide the most effective solution (Kenny believes they do). In addition to the obvious demands of equity and fairness, many of us are convinced by the argument that a more representative parliament could be a better parliament; smarter, livelier, more egalitarian. It is disheartening, therefore, to see so many new female TDs resort to the pitiful complaint that their connivance in the old system isn't paying off quickly enough. Maybe the problem is they're not adept at playing a game they purport to scorn.

If these women are the good soldiers they evidently believe themselves to be, why don't they continue their faithful service? How come they haven't been delivering spirited defences of the Taoiseach's right to discriminate against women? Isn't Fine Gael always on the side of the angels?

The answer is that some outrages are more outrageous than others. Too many of our public representatives – male and female – blithely support the imposition of silly laws and punitive cuts but become "independent thinkers" when faced with the single issue that seems to really matter to them: personal advancement.

The campaign for equal opportunities in politics is hopelessly enmeshed with the careerism of individual politicians. Despite the whinging of female Fine Gaelers, few in the wider world share the view that their missing out on junior ministries is a tragedy for women. In fact, Kenny's apparent ingratitude could be a blessing in disguise, an opportunity for female backbenchers to examine the ways in which they and their male counterparts are being used by their party political masters. Patsy, after all, is a gender-neutral name.

Step away from the hay-bales

There is an old joke that suggests if you play a country song backwards, the singer gets his job back, his wife calls off the divorce and his dog emerges from the grave.

Paschal Donohoe must dearly wish there was some truth to the gag. If only the launch of the Dublin Goes Country festival could be rewound, the new Travel and Tourism Minister might lose the cowboy hat, step away from the hay-bales and regain his political dignity.

Gleefully abetted by junior minister Michael Ring, a veteran of PR rodeos, Donohoe bore an unfortunate resemblance to Sheriff Woody from Toy Story as he attempted to whip up interest in the government-sponsored "hoedown" devised to fill the commercial void created by the Garth Brooks blunder-ama.

The festival reeks of desperation, and the clodhopping tone of its promotional campaign will not be lost on the target audience. Country music devotees may like twangy instrumentation but they are not banjo-brains.

The ill-considered hype that surrounds Dublin Goes Country is based on twin misconceptions: the notion that country music is an exclusively rural phenomenon and the idea that country-dwellers can be patronised into visiting the capital with hokey gimmickry. "Garth may not be coming but Dublin is still here," yee-hawed Donohoe.

Contrary to what he and others evidently believe, however, the Irish passion for country music extends deep into The Pale. Many of the fans disappointed by the cancellation of the Brooks concerts actually live in the city where they are now being addressed as cultural outsiders.

Travel and tourism are supposed to broaden the mind. Donohoe should be careful with the publicity stunts lest he become the exception that proves the rule.


Politicians are supposed to campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Unfortunately, defeated Labour leadership candidate Alex White seems determined to conduct both pursuits in drowsy bureaucratese.

Taking Dáil questions for the first time in his new position as Communications Minister, White demonstrated that the Government's "strategy" for the provision of high-speed broadband will continue to move at a pace that makes snail mail look dizzyingly hi-tech.

After years of delay and stop-start developments, we have finally reached that exciting stage in the process when... a public consultation is planned for next year.

By common consent, White's campaign to become Labour leader was lacklustre.

Assuming he was even half-awake as he canvassed throughout the provinces, however, he cannot have been left in any doubt about the dire state of broadband in many small towns, villages and rural areas.

He must know that the provision of a functioning service is essential for job retention and creation, and that no single issue is rousing greater anger in many parts of the country.

Political candidates always tell us they are "listening"; White now has a golden opportunity to prove that he actually heard at least some of what he was told.

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