By Sean O’Riordan
The Government has been accused of double standards after calling for more gender equality in politics while discriminating against young female politicians by refusing to provide them with maternity leave.
A young Cork county councillor has discovered that if she took more than six months off work to look after her baby, she would be barred from serving on the local authority.
However, if she was off work due to illness, she could keep her public representative job.
Cllr Danielle Twomey (SF) won total support from her male and female colleagues when she called on the county council to write to Housing and Local Government Minister Eoghan Murphy demanding that he conduct a legal review of article 37 of the Local Government Act, 2001.
The Act states that a public representative absent from their post for more than six months will be deemed to have resigned.
Ms Twomey is an elected representative and, as she is not technically an employee of the council, she is not entitled to maternity leave from the local authority.
Ms Twomey, a 31-year-old mother of three and a full-time Sinn Féin public representative, had her youngest child five months ago. Her partner also works full time.
“I returned to work four weeks after birth, which meant I had to cut short time for breastfeeding,” she said.
“I took eight weeks off altogether. If I was ill, I would be covered under the legislation, but unfortunately there is no mention of maternity leave. The Maternity Protection Acts, 1994-2004, states as a woman, whether self-employed or employed, I am entitled to maternity leave. Therefore the legislation is conflicting and discriminatory.
“Every political party is required by legislation to have a gender balance. With a gender balance of 30% needed, it is paramount we level the playing field. The way it stands now, it’s like saying to potential young female politicians, ‘we want you to join, we want you to run for election, just don’t have any children.”
Ms Twomey said female politicians should be eligible to take maternity leave without risk of losing their seat.
“There are also other issues here like not being able to take the proper time out of work after having a baby, and the links with postnatal depression; not being given the opportunity to bond sufficiently with your baby after birth,” she said.
“There is a whole load of issues that can appear after having a baby and not giving a woman the opportunity to recover from the birth.”
Ms Twomey said that if a young public representative has to take more than six months off, they should be allowed to appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf.
“I feel that it would be wrong of me, following my own experiences, not to highlight this for any future young women who would like to enter politics. We need to set a fair playing pitch on this issue and by rectifying this it might help entice more young women to enter politics,” she said.
The council is also asking Mr Murphy to revisit a maternity bill proposed by Fianna Fáil in 2013 which failed to get passed in the Dáil.
Ms Twomey said some of the provisions contained in it would address the discrimination.
This story first appeared in today's Irish Examiner.