THE fuss about Fine Gael TD Olwyn Enright’s announcement of her planned departure from politics has been justified because of how it illustrates the difficulties of time management faced by women who want an active political career, especially those with pre-school and schoolgoing children.
But much of it has missed another important point: if politics is a relatively unattractive occupation for a woman of child-rearing age, it is also potentially a very poor use of time for a father as well, particularly those who have to overnight in Dublin for sittings of the Dáil and its various committees.
Joe McHugh, the relatively low-profile Fine Gael TD for Donegal North East, was quiet this week as his 36-year-old wife, pregnant with their second child, announced her decision to retire from politics at the next general election.
It may have been a wise move because there’s one question that would have been put to him that he might have struggled to answer. It was this: “why didn’t you give up your seat and stay at home with the kids, instead of leaving your wife to sacrifice her career?”
Had he been available, I would also have asked others of him too: “why didn’t both of you give up? How much time are you going to be able to give to your wife and your young family given the demands of politics?” These are fair questions to ask of people in public life, even if the second and third in particular may seem rather personal and pointed.
To the first: his wife has the higher national profile, after all, even though her star within Fine Gael was on the wane after her decision to vote against Enda Kenny’s continued leadership of the party. Given the small number of women TDs – and the desire to try to use as many as possible in ministerial positions – Enright might have been in contention for a junior ministry after the next election.
Geographical considerations might give McHugh a similar shot, but it certainly won’t be his national profile that’ll do it. All other things being equal, it could be argued that Enright should have stayed and McHugh should have opted out because her career prospects may have been brighter.
So why didn’t McHugh say he would resign come the next election, move to Laois/Offaly to stay at home and mind the kids while Enright continued her political career?
Clearly that is a decision for them to make, but it has wider significance in the example it shows to other women who choose to enter politics. It has all the appearances of having been made on traditional gender grounds. Not that there would be anything wrong with that if it is what genuinely suits both parties best. The obvious answer is that the maternal desire to stay with the kids is often stronger.
That is a worthy decision. A woman should not be blamed if she decides she is more interested in staying home with the children or – something that’s often missed in these debates – she thinks it would be a better use of her time than going to the Dáil regularly. It may also be the case that Enright’s dedication to politics was less than full: after all, she came into Dáil Eireann at a very early age “inheriting” the vote delivered in many elections to her father, Tom.
This couple’s domestic circumstances – as explained by Enright – were clearly not sustainable: alternate weekends in each other’s constituency, weekdays in Dublin when both might have to stay late in the Dáil because of votes and debates. Anyone with young children, or who can remember the demands, must look upon such a situation with horror and wonder how the couple even managed to get this far.
But here’s the rub. How much better will it be now? McHugh will be away from his wife during the week when, presumably based on what she has said, she has moved to Donegal and will be left at home with the children.
She faces the loss of the intellectual challenge that being an active politician poses (don’t laugh, please). She now becomes an unpaid assistant to her husband’s local constituency career (albeit with the compensation of a sizeable automatic redundancy payment on giving up her seat).
All of that is obvious and commented upon. Less so is the fact that McHugh, in common with dozens of male TDs (and a few women TDs whose children have not grown up), faces regular and lengthy absences from his young family because of the nature of his job.
Many before him have done the same but at what price to their own personal happiness and the upbringing of their children? Just as many women don’t want to be absent from their children for lengthy periods – or even overnight – many men feel the same.
I guess there’ll be some cynics who’ll argue that many men may like the idea of drinking each night in the Dáil bar instead of going home, but are these people really worth voting for?
Much has been made in recent times of the pay and conditions of TDs, and particularly of their expenses, but being a TD doesn’t strike me as a particularly attractive career for a man who wants quality time with his family just as much as it mightn’t suit many women.
- I’M not going to give the shop about which I’m writing added publicity by giving its name, but the idea that shoppers want dedicated Christmas sections at this time of year is extraordinary.
‘Shop X’ issued a press release on Wednesday, September 1 (not April 1) announcing that it was opening Christmas shops. The first is being opened in its Dublin store today and Cork and Limerick “will be heralding the arrival of beautiful baubles and twinkling lights” tomorrow.
The press release even got in a pun about “out-sleighing” the rest of the retail opposition by doing so. Some achievement that.
With the type of flowery prose that bedevils many press releases, Shop X said the opening of the outlets was a chance “for those of us who each year vow to be super-organised and get the very best and most beautiful decorations when they first arrive to the stores, only to frantically root out the dregs last minute”.
It went on to offer to “take the panic out of the eleventh-hour rush this year by checking out the extensive assortment of exquisite decorations and bountiful trees”.
And there was more such guff: “From experience we know this opening date is very popular with our customers, especially those who wish to get first option on the very best Christmas product available”.
As it happens there are some organised people who will be giving thoughts to Christmas. These are the people who will struggle to meet the high cost of presents for family and friends and of the food and drink they feel has to be purchased. These people, if they can, will put away money each week in the hope of having a pot to spend in December.
If they don’t they face the prospect of trying to borrow and repay in January, adding dramatically to the new year strain. They won’t be shopping in Shop X either because it doesn’t have a reputation of reduced prices for those who shop early. That wasn’t in the press release.
The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.
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