ALISON O'CONNOR: Man, how politics has changed for better, as women lead the way

Unions are male dominated but Leinster House sure gives them a run for their money, writes Alison O’Connor

THIS week was a truly historic one in terms of the political advancement of one half of the human race with the nomination of Hillary Clinton, as the Democratic candidate for the US Presidential race.

This comes hot on the heels of Theresa May becoming the Prime Minister of Britain. If Hillary is successful — and I certainly hope she is — we will be surrounded geographically on almost all sides by female leaders.

As already mentioned we have Theresa May in Downing Street. In the North there is First Minister Arlene Foster, in Scotland the office is held by Nicola Sturgeon. We may well have a new Taoiseach here before too long, and there is a possibility it could be Frances Fitzgerald.

Maybe it is because we have been waiting so long for general female advancement in the political world but as these things are happening we almost have to remind ourselves of their historic nature.

I should note that we did previously have Margaret Thatcher as UK Prime Minister but, while female, she may as well as have been a bloke, given her apparent disdain for the advancement of other women.

As Hillary Clinton told the Democratic Convention they had put the “biggest crack yet” in the glass ceiling for women.

It may not be quite in the same league but we made our own bit of history in this year’s general election with the election of 35 female TDs, the highest number ever.

Just as their male counterparts did the first time, TDs faced an odd introduction to Leinster House with the tortuous Government negotiations, and everyone getting to grips with “new politics”.

It was hardly a typical first term.

Theresa May

Although there has been much made of the lack of legislative progress in the first term, there have been some notable debates, not least on abortion and fatal foetal abnormalities.

It was then we saw the value of the extra female TDs with the Dáil Chamber at least feeling in some way representative of the gender balance in the wider population.

New Independent TD, Catherine Connolly, put it well at the time when the UN ruled that Ireland subjected a woman to carrying a foetus with a fatal abnormality to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment which violated her human rights: “It is important the voices of women are heard in this chamber,” said the Galway West TD.

Irish women can rely on being represented by the likes of Clare Daly; AAA/PbP’s Ruth Coppinger and Bríd Smith; Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald and Louise O’Reilly; Fine Gael’s Kate O’Connell. New Fianna Fáil TD Margaret Murphy O’Mahony stands on the other side of this particular argument and has described herself as “very, very pro life”. She believes our abortion laws should be maintained.

I wondered what some of these first time female TDs thought of their new workplace and how it measured up to expectations.

I spoke to Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell, Fianna Fáil’s Margaret Murphy O’Mahony and Sinn Féin’s Louise O’Reilly.

Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell

Kate O’Connell laughed as she remembered what she described as a “wonderful Fr Ted” moment after she arrived in Leinster House.

She was walking through the corridors of power with another female deputy when a few older male TDs walked towards them and clearly got confused as to how they should address them: “They said to us ‘How’re ye girls’ and then changed it to ‘How’re ye deputies’ and then girls and then deputies. It was funny.”

The Dublin Bay South TD had never worked in such a male dominated environment, especially given that her previous profession, pharmacy, is so female dominated. She doesn’t find it bothers her.

Prior to becoming a TD Margaret Murphy O’Mahony worked in the post office; as a special needs assistant; and a full-time county councillor.

“The County Council was all politics but it was like playing Junior B hurling compared to being a TD which is senior hurling.”

TD Margaret Murphy O’Mahony

The first woman to get elected in Cork South West, she doesn’t find Leinster House too male dominated.

“But that’s maybe got to do with my own outlook. I was personally against gender quotas. I never see a difference or look for one. I’m there by my own merits. But I do think that a mixture is important. I think the six new female deputies in the Fianna Fáil party are all very different and I do think they have added to the party because of the varied experiences.”

As well as getting elected last February and getting used to life as a TD, Sinn Féin’s Louise O’Reilly has moved house.

She now lives in her constituency of Dublin Fingal, having moved from Crumlin to Skerries. Previously she was a full time trade union organiser and feels that her new career isn’t all that different.

It’s already clear that she has no problem representing herself in the Dáil chamber, having had an altercation with Fianna Fáil’s Niall Collins where she told him: “I did not come in here to do what your mother should have done and put manners on you. Will you please allow me to speak?”

Sinn Féin’s Louise O’Reilly

The party’s health spokeswoman does notice that Leinster house is “quite” male dominated, particularly when you walk into the Dáil Chamber.

“I can’t imagine what it was like before, given that there is more women now than ever before. Unions are male dominated but Leinster House sure gives them a run for their money.”

There is a big change in going from being a private citizen to a public representative at national level. Kate O’Connell really notices it if she is out socialising.

“It is difficult going for a drink anywhere, especially in the constituency — not that I go for a drink much anyway. A constituent will always approach you, but they do say nice things and congratulate you on getting elected.

When Louise O’Reilly is out walking in the evening with her husband lots of people say Hello and tell her they saw her on television or You Tube, or heard her on radio. “It takes getting used to, but people are very nice.”

Traditionally it was seen that Dublin TDs have it easier than their rural counterparts when it comes to constituency work, not least that they don’t have far to travel, and that the job is less intrusive on their family life.

Kate O’Connell does a constituency clinic on a Monday morning, but since the Dáil is in her constituency she will often get someone who wishes to speak to her to come in there for a cup of coffee and a chat.

In contrast Margaret Murphy O’Connor describes how she has “100 miles of a constituency, a lot of it rural based”.

She holds three clinics a week outside her Bandon- based office, and sees constituents in the office on a Monday and a Friday.

On the day we spoke there had been a queue of people wanting to see her. Louise O’Reilly had problems sorting a constituency office but now has that sorted intends holding three clinics a week. She also sits in on local clinics held by Sinn Féin councillors.

It’s all just normal politics really. Imagine how it could be if having a female President of the US was just normal politics.


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