A year of firsts for Helen McEntee as she mulls leadership prospects

The first minister to have a baby while serving at Cabinet talks about expectations, gender norms, and her prospects in Fine Gael
A year of firsts for Helen McEntee as she mulls leadership prospects

Smiles all around as Justice Minister Helen McEntee brings her baby boy Michael to the opening of the Nobber Greenway in Co Meath. Picture: Seamus Farrelly

"Where has the year gone?" Justice Minister Helen McEntee posted under an Instagram clip of her son, marking his first birthday.

A year ago this week, the Fine Gael TD made history in becoming the first minister to have a baby while serving at Cabinet.

Since returning to the Department of Justice six months ago, her husband Paul Hickey has been breaking the traditional family mould in taking six months leave from his own job to care for their young son Michael.

"It's worked out really well, I have to say, it's been really wonderful," says Ms McEntee. 

"It's been hugely helpful to me leaving home and knowing that Michael's still at home and with his dad."

Helen Mc Entee with her husband Paul Hickey and their son Michael. Picture: Seamus Farrelly
Helen Mc Entee with her husband Paul Hickey and their son Michael. Picture: Seamus Farrelly

She's also aware of the scramble other parents have in trying to secure a creche place for their child, but equally knows that for partners, taking extended leave is "not always an option ... because of where they work and the options that are available there".

It's something that she wants to see change, but believes this will be as much about a "cultural shift" as any State supports or Government interventions.

Mr Hickey's decision to avail of paid parental leave from his employer, pharmaceutical company Novartis Ireland, made headlines at the time, demonstrating how unusual it still is for new fathers to take on the main parenting responsibilities.

"I think it's been hugely beneficial for Paul as well, just in terms of the time he's got to spend with Michael that he wouldn't ordinarily have," the Meath East TD says. 

"I'd like to see a greater number of men taking more time.

"I don't think we're at the stage yet where every man wants to, or thinks that they can, or feels that they can take the time. 

"In saying that I'm seeing a lot more companies providing, perhaps not six months, but three months, four months, giving those options to people, and I'm seeing a lot more people take it up. So I think that's really positive.

"That's a culture shift and that's the change that's needed. I think what was really positive in our own personal situation is that the company themselves came out, this was a very new policy in recent years, they encouraged the men to take this leave, stressing that this wasn't going to impact on your career, isn't going to impact on your progression.

I don't think men are fully there yet in feeling that people will look at them differently and think: 'Well sure, he went off and took some time off while we've been here working'. We're not there at the point where that feeling still isn't there.

"It's about getting into that culture and that mindset. Companies, and we ourselves in the public sector, have a role to play in that."

Even with the support of her husband at home (his six months of parental leave will come to an end next week), Ms McEntee is no different to other working mothers.

Today is Friday, so this interview takes place in the Cunningham Arms in Slane, as she is back in Meath getting constituency work done, but also hopes to bring Michael swimming later in the day.

Turning to her own return to work as a senior member of Government, McEntee says she is "very lucky as well, I've come straight back into a job".

However, she immediately corrects herself: "I shouldn't say lucky, you know — it's only right I can come back into my job and keep doing what I'm doing, and not feel as though I've been penalised."

But women are still being penalised in the jobs market and continue to be typecast as future mothers who will take time off work.

"I think if employers were honest, there is often a thought I'm sure, if you're hiring somebody of a particular age, that they might be having a family," she says.

"I don't think it prevents people from being hired in 99.9% of cases, but we need to eliminate that completely.

"Irrespective of whether you are a man or woman of a certain age likely to have family, it should make absolutely no difference to your work, to your prospects, your ability to hire someone, to your ability to do a job, to take that time and to come back and to still be able to do that job as effectively as possible. We're not quite there, but we're moving in the right direction."

Justice Minister Helen McEntee during an announcment of Government approval to draft legislation to make stalking and non-fatal strangulation standalone offences at Government Buildings, Dublin. Picture: Gareth Chaney/ Collins Photos
Justice Minister Helen McEntee during an announcment of Government approval to draft legislation to make stalking and non-fatal strangulation standalone offences at Government Buildings, Dublin. Picture: Gareth Chaney/ Collins Photos

And what about her own prospects?

McEntee is repeatedly named as a serious contender to lead Fine Gael whenever the position might next arise. Does she feel pressure to live up to the mounting expectations from within her own party?

"I think you have to do what's right for you," she said.

I think it's nice to be included in that. I think it's a very positive thing, but I think you have to do what you want to do. 

"If you feel you're being pressured into something because of other people, then it's not a reason to do anything. So, I think you really have to do what works for you and your family."

Putting her name into the hat to become the next leader of Fine Gael would be a family decision, but having met through politics — Mr Hickey previously worked as a parliamentary assistant to Fine Gael TD Joe McHugh — she undoubtedly has a partner who understands the workings of Leinster House.

"Being involved in politics, it's not just you," she says.

"It's different to other jobs — you don't just go to work and you are home and you kind of leave it outside the door.

Helen McEntee. Picture: Gareth Chaney/ Collins Photos
Helen McEntee. Picture: Gareth Chaney/ Collins Photos

"It's a seven-days-a-week job, and it can be from the minute you wake up to the minute you go to bed. So, it doesn't just impact you, it impacts on your family. 

"So, it's like any decision you take, it has to be one that's right for you and that applies to whether it's in a ministry or department or the work that you do in the constituency or anything else."

For now, McEntee gives the very political line that she is "very happy" in the Department of Justice.

More in this section

IE_logo_newsletters

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox

LOTTO RESULTS

Saturday, June 25, 2022

  • 2
  • 6
  • 27
  • 28
  • 41
  • 45
  • 39

Full Lotto draw results »