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McEntee’s good news shows up political system



Justice Minister Helen McEntee is expecting her second child

Justice Minister Helen McEntee is expecting her second child

Justice Minister Helen McEntee is expecting her second child

A woman having a baby shouldn’t spark a constitutional crisis. Those days are supposed to be behind us. Neither should it raise questions about whether she will have to give up her job. Those days are supposed to be behind us too.

It’s 100 years since the foundation of the State, and yet Helen McEntee became the first Cabinet minister to have a baby while in office only last year. But there was no official method in place for a minister to be away on maternity leave.

Given the constitutional considerations around the collective Cabinet decision-making, a formula had to be found to avoid her having to resign. A colleague, Heather Humphreys, covered her responsibilities in her absence, leaving Ms McEntee in place as the Justice Minister. An Irish solution to an Irish problem, as such. Now it can be argued that a ­Cabinet minister taking any sort of leave presents profound political, legal and ethical questions.

However, the political system was so ill-prepared that the Dáil also had to put an ad hoc arrangement in place. Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns agreed to abstain on votes while the minister was on maternity leave, to ensure there was no pressure brought to bear.

Now Ms McEntee is set to have a second baby.

Best wishes to her and her family for the remainder of her pregnancy. She announced her impending arrival through a cute social media post featuring a photograph of her son Michael wearing a T-shirt saying: “I’m gonna be a big brother.”

Her baby is due in December, around about the time as the rotation of the Taoiseach’s office from Fianna Fáil to Fine Gael. Presumably, the same arrangements will kick in this time around, with another minister covering her ministerial brief, while she rightly takes time out.

Ms McEntee is a loyalist to and protegee of Leo Varadkar so is in no danger of being dropped from Cabinet. She has been solid, if unspectacular, in her role as Justice Minister – promising much when issues of public concern emerge, but it is too early to say if she has actually achieved much.

The new Taoiseach may decide to leave the ­minister where she is or move her to another department.

Whatever happens will have to be handled sensitively.  

After all, any other pregnant woman has the right to return to their existing job, by law.

Ms McEntee’s second maternity leave has highlighted the lack of progress in creating family- friendly structures in politics.

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The urgency that surrounded finding an appropriate solution when she first took maternity leave has been replaced by complacency. Equality is a long way off when there are no proper arrangements in place for a politician to take leave after having a baby.

There is little point in decrying the lack of female participation in politics and seeking to encourage more women to run when such basic necessities are overlooked. If this requires legislation, so be it. If it requires constitutional change, then have it examined. The status quo is unacceptable. 

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