Tuesday 12 November 2019

More women in Dail will be a game-changer for politics

Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Taoiseach Enda Kenny

As deputies scatter to the bosom of their constituencies for their summer break, there is considerable relief all round. It has been a hectic few months of controversial politics and high drama. A heady mix of abortion legislation and the outcry over the Anglo Tapes disclosures have raised the temperature of the body politic and the nation like never before.

For those of us out of the fray and observing from the sidelines, there are occasions when a longing to be in the thick of it returns. However, it is a fleeting thing, like a nicotine hit, which soon passes.

While one might miss the substance of the work, the legislation, policy and party wrangles, only the masochist could miss the toxicity, which has become so prevalent of late. Public anger about institutional failures and economic penury means that politics has become much more challenging as a profession.

When is the last time you heard a good word about a politician? Probably in this column, where regardless of party, credit is given when due. Taoiseach Enda Kenny, for example, has had a great year and thanks to good health and stamina he shows no sign of burnout.

He has held a steady course in dealing with a litany of potentially disastrous issues, any one of which might have felled his Government. Abortion legislation, albeit minimalist in scope, has been passed in the teeth of considerable opposition by conservative Ireland and the Catholic hierarchy. The Irish presidency of the European Council has been an unqualified diplomatic success, which in turn has contributed to the restoration of our international reputation.

The renegotiation of the promissory note terms will give some wiggle room to the Government as it prepares for yet another tough Budget in the autumn – although achieving troika budgetary targets will sorely test Coalition relations. To date such tensions have been managed well considering the competing and conflicting constituencies of the respective parties.

Labour ministers in particular have demonstrated considerable skill in holding the line with sectors to which they normally have to defer. Who would have imagined it would be a Labour minister, Brendan Howlin, tasked to revisit the Croke Park deal and resolutely deliver more public service efficiencies from the public service unions. Similarly, Social Protection Minister Joan Burton has deftly overseen major reform and unpopular cuts in the social welfare budget. Not a task tailor made for an aspiring Labour Party leader.

On the abortion issue too, Labour played a clever game. Once the commitment to legislate was secured with Mr Kenny, they did not gild the lily. Mindful of the divided ranks in Fine Gael, aside from a few loose-talk mishaps they kept their more progressive thoughts on the subject under wraps until the legislation was over the line. It is noteworthy that Labour now promises if returned to government to extend abortion services to victims of rape and incest and cases of fatal foetal abnormality, which would require a referendum.

The party recognises pragmatically that the legislation was the most that could be achieved at this time. However, the party owes it to Labour voters to indicate deeper reform in the future on this important health policy area.

For too long abortion has been a no-go policy area, laden with dishonesty. Untold stories of female pain are only now being shared.

Senators have done themselves no favours of late by their self-serving approach to the proposed abolition of the Upper House. Contrary to lofty claims of intelligent debate, the carry-on of some in the abortion debate was a disgrace. Reading on to the record the minutiae of an abortion procedure was a new low. This is the Oireachtas equivalent of the ghoulish pro-life tactic of distributing pictures of a dead foetus. A female senator was so upset that she almost broke down in the chamber.

Ironic, too, that perhaps the first official complaint of sexism by a female TD is made against a gay senator, David Norris. Hot on the heels of the Lapgate affair in the Dail, it triggered renewed talk of misogyny in Leinster House.

Anyone who knows Mr Norris will vouch that he loves and admires women. His outburst was an intemperate hissy fit – the use of the "fanny" word more a case of his notorious linguistic flamboyance than misogyny.

However, the veteran's disparaging attitude to a newly elected female TD revealed misplaced entitlement and ascendancy – precisely the reasons proffered to abolish the Seanad. Many feel it is a disconnected forum, where senators pontificate in an ornate parlour.

After the next election I predict we will have more women and no senators. If a critical mass of women is elected thanks to the quotas, it will be a game-changer for Irish politics. Bring it on.

Irish Independent

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