Labour will continue to stand up for women

06 January 2016

Speaking at Labour Women Nollaig na mBan Event

It’s a real privilege to be here with you this evening and I want to wish you all a very happy Nollaig na mBan.

Last week, as you know, President Higgins convened the Council of State to advise on the International Protection Bill. There’s a large oil painting in the Aras of the first Council of State – which comprised entirely of men. Thankfully, things have changed.

Eight women are now on the Council, including a clutch of our most formidable legal minds – former Presidents Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, Attorney General Maire Whelan, Chief Justice Susan Denham, Mrs Justice Catherine McGuinness and Prof Deirdre Heenan.

Myself and ne of the other woman on the Council, Sally Mulready, have something in common too, having both been in Temple Hill, from which babies were adopted. Sally and many courageous women like her helped lift the lid on the adoption scandals, the Mother and Baby Homes, the Laundries, and similar institutions.

They helped blow away the doors to the Hidden Ireland. Now, they are helping to shape the Modern Ireland, which is apt and fitting. So don’t think that Ireland can’t change for the better.

Traditionally, January 6th marks the end of the Christmas season.In Ireland it has also been regarded as Nollaig na mBan, which is why we are having this event this evening to highlight the involvement of women in public life and to look forward to a significant breakthrough this year in achieving a record number of women TDs in the next Dail.

When 20 women, myself included, got elected in 1992, it seemed such a triumph that it merited a book on the “Women Who Won”. That particular election took place just two years after Mary Robinson’s election as President of Ireland, the moment when – as Mary Robinson so memorably put it – the hand that normally rocked the cradle rocked the system instead.

Unfortunately the 1992 leap forward did not herald all that much of a new era in women’s representation in our political life. The last election returned a mere 25 women, hardly a dramatic increase from 20 over no less than four subsequent general elections.

Two more women TDs have arrived due to by-elections in the current Dail, but it is still a truly shocking fact that one major party has not got a single women in its Dail ranks. To say that progress is at a snail’s pace is to be unfair to the unfortunate snail.

That can change this spring. The new gender quota rule has caused a lot of tensions in some parties, though I am glad that all the party leaders have not wilted under local pressure. The new rule was agreed quite some time ago so that every party and group has had the opportunity to adjust to the new reality.

It does mean that there will be a greatly increased number of women on the ballot papers and logically it ought to result in a dramatic increase in numbers.

There is a lot of talk that half of the next Cabinet will be women as indeed should happen, but cannot unless a sufficient number of women get elected.

It has truly been a long march for women through the machinery of politics in Ireland since the State was founded and still we have a long way to go.

The new independent Policing Authority is chaired by Josephine Feehily, a former chair of the Revenue, and contains a majority of women members and a woman CEO.

So there is progress on many fronts. Perhaps the political system needs a louder wake-up call to keep pace with civil society.

As we celebrate the centenary of the Rising this year, I think it’s pertinent to note that the Proclamation begins with the words “Irishmen and Irishwomen”. This was written in an age before women even had the vote in Ireland.

One hundred years later, it is this spirit of equality which I want to see brought to fruition in Ireland. I am determined to ensure that equality is up, front and centre as an issue in the election, so that voters have the chance to ensure they elect a government that will blaze a trail for equality.

With Labour at the heart of government, that is precisely what will happen. We will stand up for women, and stand up for equality. There is no doubt that the lives of Irishwomen have changed dramatically over the last century.

It’s hard to believe that just 40 years ago, women could not sit on a jury. They could not collect in their own name what was then the children’s allowance. They had to give up their public service jobs after marriage.

Rape in marriage was not illegal, divorce was illegal and women did not have access to adequate contraception or family planning.

As we leave the past behind us, we must never forget that every right we now have was fought for and won.

It was because of campaigning – ofen deeply unpopular campaigning – that Irish women won access to contraception, the right to serve on juries, the right to remain employed after marriage.

Today the quest for gender equality is far from over. We have a wide range of issues to tackle, starting with work and pay.

As Tanaiste and Labour leader, I have always believed that fairly paid and secure work is the single best protection against poverty.

Two-thirds of low-paid workers in Ireland are women. That is a key reason why we have twice increased the National Minimum Wage.

Under Labour in Government, it has risen by more than €3,000 a year – money that makes a real difference to a low-paid worker and their family. The Minimum Wage was designed, of course, as a basic rate, a floor beneath which pay should not fall.

If returned to government, we intend to steadily increase the Minimum Wage so that it becomes a Living Wage. And we will work hard to close the pay gap between men and women. We will also deliver more measures to help families. 

In the most recent Budget, we introduced two weeks’ paid paternity leave, which will commence from September next. It’s a modest first step, but designed to acknowledge that men are parents too.

In a second term, we will extend this paid paternity leave and also introduce three months’ paid parental leave to be shared by both parents by 2020. Raising living standards for workers and families is absolutely essential.

But we will also focus on important constitutional change. I know that many of you here tonight feel strongly about the 8th Amendment, and it would be remiss of me not to mention it on such an occasion. 

Let me be clear: to attempt to deal with women’s reproductive rights in the Constitution was a bad idea in 1983 and it remains a bad idea today. We want the 8th amendment completely removed from our Constitution.

But we are also pragmatic – we know that in order to win a referendum we need to bring people with us step by step. I welcome the contribution of Labour Women who have published draft legislative proposals to deal with this complex issue. 

We in the Labour Party have always stood up for women when it comes to their reproductive rights. And we are the only party that will ensure that a referendum on the 8th Amendment takes place.

The Labour Party will continue to stand up for the rights of women. We will fight to ensure that the Hidden Ireland truly is behind us, and that we build a modern, progressive – and equal – Ireland.

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