However, speaking to the Irish Examiner, Mr Varadkar said Mr Halligan has his confidence. The support for the Taoiseach is significant and should see him keep his job.
“Minister Halligan has expressed regret for what he said. This incident should not have happened. Minister Halligan has accepted that,” a source close to the Taoiseach said last night.
Mr Halligan said of the incident that it was “an innocent mistake”.
“I have always strived to be a family-friendly employer. The people I have working for me have kids and I try to be as flexible as possible. The question was asked in that context. I regret the incident but certainly I meant no offence,” he told the Irish Examiner from Thailand where he is on a trade mission.
Last night in a statement, the Independent Alliance members said they have full confidence in Mr Halligan. “He made a mistake and he has apologised for it.”
However, the Labour Party condemned his actions saying he “broke the law” and said he should consider resigning from office.
“This is a very serious matter. The minister broke the law. The minister discriminated against a civil servant. He should do the decent thing now and consider his position,” said Labour TD Sean Sherlock.
The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, where Mr Halligan is based, has been told to pay €7,500 in compensation to a senior official who was deemed to have been discriminated against after Mr Halligan asked her in a job interview ‘are you a married woman?’.
He said his staff members had offered to write character references and the Workplace Relations Commission accepted his bone fides as a “good employer”.
The union representing the civil servant yesterday described the questions as ‘shameful’.
General secretary of the Public Service Executive Union, Tom Geraghty said “it beggars belief that 40 years after the enactment of the first Employment Equality Act 1977 anybody, let alone a government minister, would think that it is acceptable to ask questions based on an outmoded view of the role of a mother”.
“We hope that that the publicity around this case makes it clear that it is never okay to ask discriminatory questions or to make discriminatory assumptions regarding candidates simply because of their family circumstances.”
The executive officer has been employed by the Civil Service since 1993. She had applied for one of two posts of private secretary in May 2016 to two junior government ministers in the same government department.
At the interview, Mr Halligan said to her “I shouldn’t be asking you this, but ... ‘Are you a married woman?’ Do you have children? How old are your children?’.
Taken off guard, she confirmed that she was married and that she was the mother of two children and she indicated their ages. In reply, the minister observed, “you must be very busy”.
At a Workplace Relations Commission hearing into the official’s claim of discrimination under the Employment Equality Acts, the junior minister’s words at the interview were neither challenged or denied.
In her ruling which found that the woman was discriminated against, adjudication officer, Penelope McGrath found the comments to be “so outmoded”.
“It was ill-advised of the minister of state to have so pointedly obtained information that had nothing to do with this candidate’s suitability for a position, and a position for which she had determined she was eligible to compete.”