Paid paternity leave: Will it spell good news for Irish fathers?
The Labour Party has pledged to introduce paid paternity leave of two weeks. This spells good news for babies, and better news for Irish fathers.
The family may have a special place in our Constitution but, in reality, we've been slow to actively facilitate Irish people in this most important of tasks. While maternity leave is reasonably good, and comparable with most similar nations, statutory paid leave for fathers is poor.
In fact, it's non-existent, a situation acknowledged by Minister of State for Equality, New Communities & Culture Aodhán Ó Ríordáin as "something we are well behind on".
That unsatisfactory state of affairs may be on the cusp of improving, if the Dublin TD and his Labour colleagues follow through on promises made last weekend.
Ireland is in a minority of Western countries in not having mandatory paid paternity leave (the United States doesn't either, though the women don't fare much better there).
In stark contrast, Iceland offers a maximum of 91 paid leave days for dads, Norway 70, Sweden 60.
That's probably to be expected, what with the famous Scandinavian attitude to social services and gender parity. But move a little further down the list, and countries such as Spain (28), Slovenia (15), Azerbaijan (14) and Kenya (14) also put us in the ha'penny place.
Our nearest neighbours currently allow for 14 days too, which Labour leader Ed Milliband has pledged to double if his party wins the upcoming British general election.
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Even Saudi Arabia, that bastion of old-fashioned machismo, outdoes Ireland - just about - with its solitary one paid day of paternity leave. (Surprisingly, the Netherlands only allows two.)
According to the Citizens Information resource website, paternity leave is not recognised in Irish employment law. This means that employers are not obliged to grant male employees any related leave, paid or unpaid, following the birth of their child.
Some employers, including the Civil Service, provide a period of paid leave for men following the birth or adoption
of a child - but this is a choice, not a legal requirement.
Male employees are, incidentally, entitled to unpaid parental leave. Both parents may take up to 18 weeks off from their job, to care for a child up to eight-years-old.
At the just-ended Labour conference in Killarney, the party pledged to introduce two weeks of paid paternity leave, in a Family Leave Bill scheduled to be passed by the end of this year.
A month ago the Junior Minister Ó Ríordáin had told Prime Time, "I am as confident as I can be at this stage that there will be two weeks' paid paternity leave in that legislation, but there is no definite in Irish politics."
He said that "most European countries have statutory paternity leave" and added, "Things can change and priorities can change, but I know that I'm committed to it and I know that Minister [Frances] Fitzgerald is committed to it.
"It's an important start to the conversation about what we want from Irish society for parents, for families."
That commitment seemed to move a step closer to becoming a concrete reality at the weekend, when Labour outlined plans for a €250m bonanza in family measures to woo the electorate ahead of next year's ballot.
During a two-hour debate on equality issues, Mr Ó Ríordáin said the new policy was "something we can do this year and people want us to do this year," and that Ireland can only be seen as "a real Republic" if people know they will be supported during important times such as the birth of a child.
In her keynote speech on the Saturday night, Labour leader Joan Burton enthusiastically backed these proposals, declaring: "By the end of this year, we'll set out the steps that will enable us to introduce two weeks' paid paternity leave, so that new mums and dads can both afford to spend precious time with their new baby."
So what are the benefits to all of this, should it come to pass? June Tinsley, policy officer with Barnardos, is in no doubt: "Paid paternity leave in Ireland would be brilliant.
"Barnardos has long campaigned for a move towards the 'Scandinavian' childcare model, where parents are supported for the first year of the child's birth through a combination of paid maternity leave, paid paternity leave and parental leave.
"Ireland is very far away from achieving that at the moment, but this proposal for two weeks' statutory paternity leave would certainly be a step in the right direction.
"We're really behind the curve on this one and need to step up to the mark - so many other countries have statutory paternity leave in place. At the moment it's purely up to the discretion of employers, whether they sanction it or not.
"Paid paternity leave certainly benefits men, as well as the mother and the young baby. Being at home really helps both parents to bond with their infant.
"That very young age is when children form deep, positive attachments with their caregiver. They have the space and time to form that bond, and it's so crucial in the infant's life.
"It also helps the mother; certainly with a newborn, they need time to rest, if nothing else. And from the man's perspective, it's important for the dads to be available, to take that time to connect with their child and get to know them.
"You'll never get the chance to experience something like that again. They should cherish that time."
The International Labour Organisation (a United Nations agency) also extols the virtues and benefits of mandatory paternity leave.
These include: helping employees achieve a healthy work-life balance; more successful child development through heavier paternal involvement in domestic life; and a greater recognition of men's parenting rights, and their responsibility to share unpaid caring and household work, which helps to break down traditional social attitudes and improve gender equality.
Interestingly, June points out that "internationally, it seems to be the case that where paid paternity leave is available, there's an issue with take-up - to the extent that some countries are actually obliging fathers to do so.
In Ireland, people would need to be encouraged to take that leave if it's introduced here.
"And it's only two weeks - which by comparative standards is very little - so we would like to see that expanded.
"The ideal situation would be for at least one parent to be with the child for the first year of their life, through that combination of maternity, paternity and parental leave.
"This gives parents the flexibility to pass it between each other.
"We're seeing a lot of pressure on mothers to come back to work quickly, and it'd be great if that could be alleviated.
"We've been hearing about this Family Leave Bill for a long time, and certainly, I'd love to see it, and hope it comes to fruition."