Saturday 20 July 2019

Leinster House, it's more like 'Animal House'

A 'boy's club' bias against women is engrained in our political system, writes Lise Hand

Michael Lowry TD. Picture: Damien Eagers
Michael Lowry TD. Picture: Damien Eagers
Valerie O'Reilly

Lise Hand

Just inside the entrance to Leinster House, two imposing portraits of Michael Collins and Dev glare down from their lofty perches high on the wall of the foyer.

Around to the right, the main corridor is lined with large framed pictures of various male political luminaries.

At the top of the staircase leading to the Dáil chamber is the gallery of Taoisigh portraits, arrayed in a semi-circle, from a doe-eyed Bertie Ahern on the left, to a stern-faced John A Costello on the right, and in the middle of the nine paintings is Charlie Haughey, whose eyes disconcertingly follow one's progress. Nine gilt-framed portraits of the Republic's leaders (an image of Brian Cowen has yet to be added to the collection). But not a woman among them.

In Irish politics, Taoisigh (13 of them to date) may come and go, but the boys' club of Leinster House remains just the same.

And although no proof of this is needed, it was supplied in spades last week when Michael Lowry's scribbled note to the Taoiseach hit the headlines. According to the Tipp TD, one of the arguments for re-appointing his former PR advisor Valerie O'Reilly to a State board is not only is she "bright" and "intelligent", but "she's not bad-looking either!"

Afterwards, Michael was unrepentant. It had only been "a light-hearted comment". And sure all women like being complimented on their dress or their shoes or hairstyle, he reckoned.

So, did the cheesed-off female politicians of Leinster House remove their nice shoes and fling them at his unevolved head? Of course not. Firstly, there aren't enough of them to get a decent fusillade of footwear flying and, secondly, this wasn't a one-off outbreak of laddish carry on by a male member of parliament, not by a long shot. It's something which is ingrained in the system.

Some years back, Mary O'Rourke recalled when she was the only female member of Charlie Haughey's Cabinet in the late '80s, and that sometimes the Taoiseach would make small talk with her at the end of meetings, enquiring, "Well, how are things with you, Mary? Have you been shopping lately? Have you bought any new dresses?"

Then there were a few famous Leinster House Laddisms, such as in 1990 when Fianna Fáil minister Padraig Flynn scuppered Brian Lenihan's run for the Park by taking a wojus boot to Labour's Presidential candidate Mary Robinson, remarking in a radio interview on her "newfound emphasis on her family".

Or there was the incident in the Dáil in 1992 when Taoiseach Albert Reynolds attempted to deflect a heckling Nora Owen by declaring, "That's women for you."

Ah but that was then. Surely things are different in these more enlightened times? Well, not really. It's less than five years since Taoiseach Brian Cowen, irritated by being at the receiving end of a haranguing by Labour's Joan Burton, shouted across to her party leader Eamon Gilmore that he "try and rein her in every now and again".

And even this government has had its share of laddish outbreaks. The new Dáil was barely out of the blocks, when a microphone in the Dáil chamber nabbed Ming Flanagan and Mick Wallace making sniggering comments about Fine Gael's Mary Mitchell O'Connor. Then there was the 'Lapgate' incident during the all-night sitting of the House in July 2013 to pass the Protection of Life during Pregnancy bill, when Fine Gael's Tom Barry was caught on camera pulling colleague Aine Collins onto his lap as she passed by him in the chamber. This was initially dismissed as mere "horseplay" by a breezy Fine Gael party, until the subsequence outrage obliged them to treat the matter more seriously.

There are, of course, plenty of reasons why Leinster House lurches occasionally into Animal House territory. And one of them is simply numbers - the parliament is, and always has been, predominantly populated by men. The numbers are often-quoted and always dispiriting: 15pc of the TDs are women - out of 166 TDs, 25 women were elected in 2011, and this figure was an all-time high.

Fianna Fáil has a total of two female senators and no female TDs.

One of the two, Senator Averil Power, points out that "the only way the culture in Leinster House will change, is when you have greater female representation. You'll see a difference in the atmosphere and in the decisions that are made," she said, adding that many of the cuts made to education, childcare and health by this Government during the recession hit women particularly hard.

"I think those decisions are made for the most part by men who aren't affected by them."

Averil described the latest Lad outbreak - the Lowry letter as "cringe-worthy - I felt sorry for the woman. None of us wanted to be judged by our looks".

It's a view echoed by Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness. "I'm a long time in politics - when I was young, we were talking about this and we're still talking about it," she said. Mairead said that when it came to dealing with sexism in politics, "You either fight it, or face it. The problem is, if you raise it, you're regarded as being too politically correct. If you ignore it, you are perhaps avoiding something which needs to be tackled. It's a dilemma."

It's a dilemma that this Government is attempting to tackle, by introducing gender quotas for the next election.

Moreover, Enda Kenny has declared that if re-elected Taoiseach, his next Cabinet would be a 50-50 gender balance - he's clearly learned his lesson after failing to put a single woman on his junior ministerial team during last summer's reshuffle.

But whether enough women will be elected to effect change on an antiquated patriarchal system is anyone's guess. Until then, the women politicians continue to grit their teeth and rail quietly against the status quo.

Or perhaps not all of them. Averil hasn't had trouble with the Leinster Lads.

"They know I can box," she (half) joked.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss