ALISON O'CONNOR: Our Taoiseach really needs a lesson in checking his privilege

Surely there was someone somewhere, a man even, willing to point out to the Taoiseach that he’s big time storing up trouble with Irish women the way that he’s going on.

Take one woman, me for instance, sitting for hour after hour watching the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendment, where eminent medics, with decades of experience at the frontline of obstetrics, make clear the absolute disservice that has been done, and continues to be done, to Irish women.

In the background bubbling away is another box in the teeth for women — the controversy over pensions impacting an estimated 35,000 females who took time out from the workforce before 1994, or worked part-time.

Then yesterday, just as we’re decompressing from the committee on the Eighth, comes another body blow — the decision not to fund a much needed study into the scale of sexual violence in Ireland.

To borrow a phrase from the world of social media, our Leo really needs a lesson in checking his privilege. It’s either that, or risk alienating a considerable percentage of half of his electorate.

He may have bristled at the beginning of his tenure over criticism of the number of women in his Cabinet, and indeed the lack of women in his kitchen cabinet, his inner circle.

But at this point it’s beginning to look as if he definitely has a woman issue. It may not be deliberate, or maybe it is something that is operating at a subconscious level — either way it’s harmful — and he needs to address it.

The fact is that it’s easy to preside over something like the decision to not fund a second
Savi (Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland) study when you’re as safe as houses from the prospect of sexual violence yourself, and don’t appear to feel an empathy with those who are at risk.

This is a position of privilege when you consider that at least one in five women in Ireland experience domestic or sexual abuse during their lifetime. While we know certain facts about these issues, there are huge gaps in our knowledge and at an official level these are being exacerbated rather than tackled.

With the controversies surrounding so many other areas of their statistics, unsurprisingly An Garda Síochána are not up to scratch on domestic violence, or to put it another way, seriously unreliable. But they are not the only ones.

We actually do not know how many women report sexual and physical violence in Ireland on an annual basis because of issues across the system.

Our information, such as it is, comes from EU level.

The National Women’s Council has pointed out how Ireland has signed up to the Istanbul Convention.

This is the international benchmark for tackling violence against women. However in order to ratify the Convention we need a gold standard in data collection, surveys and research.

The decision not to fund a new Savi report essentially means that victims of rape and domestic abuse are not counted unless they officially report their crime or are recorded by a charity.

Yesterday, hardly coincidentally, the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland announced it would not be publishing statistics on the experiences of survivors of sexual abuse for 2016 because of huge cuts to its funding.

The network had been producing annual national statistics since 2005, but after a massive skelp of 70% was taken out of its budget in 2015 this is no longer possible.


So a key part of the existing domestic information we did have has now also been shut down.

It is 15 years since the first Savi study was carried out. The previous justice minister, Frances Fitzgerald, had given a commitment to fund a new one but the current minister, Charlie Flanagan, has just reneged on that.

You might well wonder what is the whopping cost of carrying out such a study? It’s just too easy, but irresistible, to whip out the estimated €5m cost of Leo’s pet project the new strategic communications unit and compare that to the relatively miserly €1m the study would cost.

Bizarrely the decision was made known to The Times by the Department of Justice on Wednesday just shortly after the Taoiseach had told the Dáil he would not rule out a second study.

Of course, by not funding Savi the Government has the added bonus of being able to underestimate the investment needed to help and counsel those who have been victims of sexual violence, overwhelmingly women.

As we know many women never come forward to report such a crime so do not appear on official figures.

There appears to have been a pass the parcel element to this situation, with various members of Cabinet being asked to give funds towards the study.

Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty, in a letter, did ask Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone, then justice minister Frances Fitzgerald, and Health Minister Simon Harris to contribute towards the research. Her pleas fell on deaf ears.

The timing of this decision starkly shows how tone deaf the Government is on female-related issues.

The Harvey Weinstein affair has been gripping the Western world, showing that even the world’s richest and seemingly most powerful women, can fall prey to the most horrendous sexual violence.

If you’d a lick of political sense you wouldn’t need a brand new communications unit to realise this is a particularly sensitive topic at present; that it’s not the best optics to be getting all the best boy toys when it comes to showing yourself in the best light, but leaving the manner in which we best tackle sexual violence back in the day of the abacus and chalkboard. This is a patriarchal decision.

At the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendment on Wednesday, Dr Peter Boylan, chair of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Ireland, warned TDs and senators not to underestimate the anger of Irish women. He agreed that Ireland is indeed a “very safe place to have a baby”.

But added a second half to that sentence that many, Taoiseach Varadkar included, would rather ignore. That is the fact that if not for the availability of abortion to Irish women in Britain, the maternal mortality rate here “would shoot up” because of women accessing illegal abortions.

It was clear from his contributions that Professor Sabaratnam Arulkumaran, who chaired the HSE inquiry into the death of Savita Halappanavar, and is a former president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in the UK, has little time for the
official Irish approach to abortion.

He pointed out that making abortion illegal serves only to promote illegal abortions. He referred to the outrageous 14-year prison sentence for any woman or girl who accesses an illegal abortion here, as provided for in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, asking:

“Can you imagine putting those 4,800 women in prison?” One cannot imagine that but one doesn’t have to imagine too hard to see how a few women could end up being imprisoned for just such a thing, why else have it as a reality on the statute books?

Just as you don’t need to stretch your imagination to see women officially targeted in the area of pensions or sexual violence.

It is not a joke on my part to suggest that Taoiseach Varadkar enrol himself for some serious gender sensitivity training.

He may not be at all keen on it, but when he runs the numbers he may well realise there are votes in it, or at least the opportunity not to lose those female votes by the bucketload.


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