Third of female TDs sexually harassed

Third of female TDs sexually harassed

In 2019, it was reported that Ireland had the highest level of claimed sexual harassment in Europe and among the worst in the world.  Photo: Sasko Lazarov/

At least 12 of the Dáil's 34 current serving female TDs have been sexually harassed at some point in their lifes, the Irish Examiner can reveal.

A survey carried out by this newspaper in the wake of Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin's revelations about the campaign of harassment she suffered while working at UCD, found 12 TDs had been sexually harassed while either at college, in their political activism or while at work.

A number of questions were sent to the 34 female TDs as part of the anonymous survey. 

Of the 25 who responded:

  •  12 had suffered sexual harassment at some point in their lives 
  •  17 have been on the receiving end of a sexist insult or remark from a man to their face while working in politics 
  •  17 said they had been "trolled" or received sexist insults or harassment on social media 


One TD who has worked in Leinster House for a number of years said that she was not surprised by the figures: "I have noticed a change around the Oireachtas in recent years but I don't know if it's because I'm stronger and don't put up with it, or the men around me are different.

"I'm often passed over for questions in committees or told what questions I should ask. I don't even notice it anymore.

"I don't think I'll ever tell my story about what happened to me because then you become a victim. It gets used against you and you're seen as weak."

It's understood that a number of female TDs in Leinster House have reported death threats to the Gardai in previous years but are not willing to disclose the reports to the press.

In 2019, it was reported that Ireland had the highest level of claimed sexual harassment in Europe - among the worst in the world.

A survey of almost 31,000 people across 40 countries by market research and polling giant WIN International, found that 32% of Irish women aged between 18 and 34 have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the last 12 months - the second highest out of all 40 countries surveyed and the worst in Europe. Mexico fared worse at 43%.

Ireland's rate of claimed sexual harassment among women in this age group was double that of the United Kingdom and more than twice the global average.

Orla O'Connor, Director of National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI), said the results show sexual harassment can happen to anyone.

"In the Women's Council we know sexual harassment is prevalent, it's there in every sector across the board in different workplaces," she said.

"The recent revelations from third-level institutions have highlighted it but it's in all sectors, it's about how we tackle it in a comprehensive way, one thing that's important is that the government have a strategy on gender violence that includes sexual harassment.

"Sexual harassment is rooted in power, gender inequality, and the overall treatment of women and it's not something that exists in isolation.

"The experience can have a huge effect on women's lives, it comes from a sense of male entitlement which goes across the board from sexual harassment to sexual violence, they come from the same place.

"The fact is we have so little Irish data to go off, it's a real issue, in order to tackle and target resources on big issues like sexual harassment, we need our understanding of it to be based on figures.

"The reason we don't have this data is it's not taken seriously."

Social Democrat TD for West Cork Holly Cairns says she was at "the end of her tether" with sexist remarks by the time February's general election campaign had ended.

Holly Cairns, Social Democrat TD for West Cork, says she was at 'the end of her tether' with sexist remarks by the time February’s general election campaign had ended and is not surprised at the figures. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Holly Cairns, Social Democrat TD for West Cork, says she was at 'the end of her tether' with sexist remarks by the time February’s general election campaign had ended and is not surprised at the figures. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

"I'm not at all surprised by the figures, it's awful regardless of it not being surprising," she said.

"The week after I was elected, I was talking to someone and she asked me my name before saying: 'Look being a politician's wife is no life for you.'

"I'm a politician. What would I have to do to be considered a politician? Get elected to the county council or the Oireachtas for instance? The way society views women in politics is problematic.

"I had been on the ticket in the general election since November and Christopher (O'Sullivan Fianna Fáil TD and Ms Cairns' partner) was added in February, at a council meeting after it, one councillor said; 'You better get used to being a housewife now, Holly'.

"The presumption is he's more serious about politics than me, to run as a Social Democrat in West Cork and the council was very hard and I had to work for every vote but I'm apparently not as invested in my career. It's constant."

Ms Cairns has called for more effective gender quotas in politics and maternity leave for TDs as a way of tackling the issue, noting the Oireachtas should be a model for all Irish workplaces.

"It's an ingrained cultural and societal problem, but we can work on this," she said.

"In every instance of abuse the victim feels responsible, it doesn't matter if it's domestic violence or sexual harrassment and that's what is so damaging.

"We have a legal system where rape victims are on trial, vilified and discredited by a misogynistic system, a woman's underwear has been passed around a courtroom.

"What does that say to someone who is worried they're responsible for being sexually harassed? If you're saying to yourself maybe it's because of how I look? Well, there's your answer about what society thinks.

"There's so much we can do to tackle this but we need unanimous support, "One thing that would obviously help is equal participation, gender quotas for female candidates on tickets, and putting a stop to bigger parties having women as transfer candidates. Female candidates are the sweeper, they're not expected to get in.

"People say women need to get in on merit and the presumption is that women haven't been good enough, despite huge obstacles to get there."

Tackling sexual assault and harassment in Irish society will be high on this government’s agenda, according to Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris.

“It is time to cop on," the minister said last week.

"It is time for us to confront this and it is time for us to do something about it. It is a conversation we must have in every household. On every campus.

“I promise you that I, alongside my colleague Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, are committed to being the voice for change in this area. To change the laws that must be changed. To advocate and educate.”

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