ALISON O'CONNOR: Youthful Leo has old-fashioned attitude to women in politics

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with his junior ministers, who are predominately male. Picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

You cannot purport to be a modern leader, like Macron, and not prioritise women at cabinet, writes Alison O’Connor

LEO Varadkar did an incredible thing in his first week as Taoiseach — he made me feel sorry for Fianna Fail. He also gave me a pain in my uterus: His attitude to women smacked more of the François Mitterrand era than of the Emmanuel Macron one.

The best we can hope is that he has not started as he means to go on. Perhaps he believed there was nothing like a good row with the auld enemy to get the party grassroots — who voted 65% for Simon Coveney in the Fine Gael leadership race — onto his side. But his behaviour around the appointment to the Court of Appeal of former attorney general, Máire Whelan, reeks of old-fashioned political boorishness.

Fianna Fail, admittedly not disinterested observers, proceeded to call him out on the appointment. They’ve promptly been accused of doing a grand old Duke of York on it, because they didn’t go all the way and call a general election.

The new Taoiseach gave the party that facilitated his election, and which allows him to remain in office, the middle finger as one of his first political acts.

The elevation of Máire Whelan to judge was the last move of former Taoiseach Enda Kenny, but agreed to by his successor, and it is true that no laws or rules were broken. Still, it was politically unwise, and of highly questionable judgement. You wouldn’t need to be a political sage to see that this development was going to leave the Government, and especially the new Taoiseach, open to all sorts of trouble.

Fianna Fáil justice spokesman, Jim O’Callaghan, was correct to call it for what it was, last weekend, when he said that the Whelan appointment was a breach of the confidence-and-supply arrangement between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, which stipulates no surprises.

But it’s difficult to see the logic, as argued by some, of Fianna Fáil automatically then having to go to the country. The voters would, no doubt, punish the party at the ballot box for its stupidity. FF are an opposition party in a minority arrangement. There is a difference between what it can and should reasonably do, when it is unhappy.

Now, since this is Fianna Fáil we’re discussing, we needn’t worry too much about teaching our granny to suck eggs, but we do need to get to grips with the realities of the political landscape, as opposed to the “oh my God, this has to mean a general election”, all-or-nothing approach.

Taoiseach Varadkar does find himself in a new situation. However, he has previously been in a prime position to observe how this all works; how Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin got to grips with confidence and supply, quite successfully, over the past year. Is this a newbie insecurity at work here, resulting in a need to win every battle, rather than having a strategy that would ultimately win the war? It is early days, but the signs are a little ominous.

Perhaps getting Fianna Fáil all riled-up and bulling for an election is what Varadkar wanted. Perhaps, despite his protests to the contrary, he does want his own mandate. But just now it’s difficult to judge exactly how that might go, just how much of a Varadkar bounce there might be out there from the voters. Would the party’s ratings climb any higher than they did during Fine Gael’s extended period in the spotlight, during its leadership campaign?

If an early election is not his intention, he has used much-needed political capital over something that wasn’t even his own proposal. Added to the potent mix is a very wounded Transport Minister Shane Ross.

Whatever protests he might make, the independent minister got caught rotten with the confluence of events, with the announcement of the reopening of Stepaside Garda Station, and his acquiescence to Máire Whelan’s elevation.

They might not want much by way of constituency clinics or glad-handing in the leafy suburbs of the Dublin Rathdown constituency, but they expect a little more sophistication from their Dáil deputies than the most basic of political strokes.

Varadkar managed not just to anger Fianna Fáil, but also to got many women’s dander up. You cannot purport to be a modern leader, modelled on Macron, the French president, or on Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, and not prioritise women at cabinet level.

It became a cliché how symbolic Varadkar’s own election was for Ireland, for all the reasons (his age, his sexuality, his ethnicity) that were outlined so frequently in the run-up to his appointment as Taoiseach.

Yet they were all true, and important, and exciting, and hugely symbolic.

He knows how much that matters. It was doubly painful that not only did he refrain from doing anything noteworthy on the gender front, he seemed to carelessly toss it aside as an issue.

Out of 33 minister and minister-of-state appointments within his gift, just seven are women.

That photograph of him standing in front of the Department of the Taoiseach, surrounded by his newly appointed ministers of state, was of the dinosaur era of politics. There were 14 men in suits and two women. Varadkar has told us he does not wish to be viewed on either the left or the right of the political spectrum. Looking at that photo, you can only conclude that he lies in the dark ages of the gender-balance spectrum.

On Wednesday morning, a statement was released to address the gender-balance controversy. Interestingly, it was not issued on behalf of the Taoiseach, the man responsible for this mess, but corporately, on behalf of the Fine Gael party.

Anyone seeking a tone of repentance would have been disappointed upon reading it.

In facetious summary, the party, and Taoiseach Varadakar, “could not do more for the wimmin’ and there was no cause for all the whingin’.”

FG realises that “there is no room for complacency” and will continue to work to encourage more women into politics.

They’re beating my drum here. I’m all for more women coming into politics.

Let’s use this opportunity to give a plug to the Women for Election crowdfunding campaign, which aims to raise €50,000 to subsidise training for 300 Irish women to stand for election.

Since 1918, more men named Seán and John have been elected to the Dáil than females. That’s 99 Johns and 31 Seáns, compared with just 114 women.

I wish the campaign every success, but acknowledge the uphill battle the organisation faces, while Leo is in charge and sending out signals that being in power is the business of men.


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