We can achieve an equal, feminist republic – Speech by Brendan Howlin to 2018 Labour Women Conference

13 October 2018

I am always delighted to speak at events hosted by Labour Women.

Labour Women is one of the dynamic core sections of the Party.

It plays an important role in connecting Party members across the country and providing Party women with ways to advance issues of shared concern.

Issues like: pay inequality,

Reproductive health and the treatment of women by health services in general,

And how we can bring about a gender equal society.

I’d like to pay tribute to Sinéad Ahern as chair of the Section, and to thank all of the members of Labour Women for contributing to its vibrant activities.

One of the central themes at Conference in November will be the future of women’s health.

On that note, I would like to pause to remember Emma Mhic Mhathúna.

She should not be remembered as a victim of health screening errors, but as a champion of patients’ rights.

And as a proud citizen of Ireland, who did her utmost to protect her family and children’s interests

And to fight for the interests of all of the women who have been let down by our health services.

She was 37.

We have picked the theme of the future of women’s health because we need to provide a compelling vision of an improved health service.

We have to ensure services are changed so that it becomes simply impossible to repeat the mistakes of the past.

We need to set out a pathway for improvement.

As you know, Dr Gabriel Scally’s final report into the CervicalCheck Screening Programme listed fifty recommendations.

Three recommendations scream out from Scally’s report:

·Women’s health issues should be given more consistent, expert and committed attention within the health system and the Department of Health;

· Patients should have access to their hospital medical records in a timely and respectful way; and

· The HSE’s open disclosure policy and guidelines should be revised as a matter of urgency.


The Scally report is damning.

The fact that Scally felt the need to make these three recommendations implies that the current situation does not live up to those standards.

It implies, that at present, in our health services, there is:

A lack of committed attention to women’s health issues,

A lack of timely and respectful access for patients to their own records,

And a situation where the rights of patients to have full knowledge about their healthcare is not given primacy!

Why did Scally have to recommend that patients should be treated with respect?

It can only imply that women have routinely been treated with a lack of respect.

And that is appalling.

When it comes to the future of women’s healthcare, one part of what we must envisage is, quite obviously, the implementation of the recommendations of the Scally Report.

But that’s not just about re-building public confidence in our screening programme.

It is about ensuring that respect, for women and for all patients, becomes the daily reality of their experience across the whole health care system.

And there are other important developments to be achieved in the health system.

The Constitution of Ireland now states that “Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy.”

And that’s thanks to many of the people in this room!

After a 32-year struggle to repeal the 8th Amendment, and a longer struggle to promote reproductive rights, the next step on this journey is to ensure that the legislation is introduced without delay,

And that access to safe medical termination becomes a reality for those women who have need of it.

But health outcomes are not just about health care services.

Many factors impact on health outcomes and wellbeing.

Life expectancy at birth in 1911 was 54 years for women

A century later, it was 83.

29 extra years of life, on average.

Clearly, better health services helped achieve this outcome.

But equally important, if not more important, were the social and economic changes.

Hygiene standards, and farm and food safety standards.

Health and safety at work.

Limits on daily and weekly working time, and the provision of paid holidays.

Better house build quality and home heating.

Great improvements in families’ real incomes, with all that implies for improved diet and other comforts.

Much of what Labour fought for during the 20th century was not just an improvement to people’s economic conditions, but a holistic improvement to their material wellbeing which is reflected in greatly improved health outcomes.

So when we look to the future of women’s health, we also have to consider the social and economic factors that affect health outcomes:


Working conditions,

Income poverty and material deprivation.

These and many other factors affect men as well as women, but what I want to focus on today is women’s different experience of these factors.

For example, we know that almost all of the lone parent families currently experiencing homelessness are led by women.

We know from time-use surveys that women – regardless of whether they are in paid work or not – typically carry out a much larger share of domestic work in the home,

Which is wrong.

We need a culture change.

And we see that culture change in younger generations,

where men and women do share domestic work and parenting on the basis of equality.

But more is needed to normalise gender equality in the home.

We know that women are much more often the lead parent rearing children.

And while the primary question is about the duty of fathers to play their part,

there is also a question for all of society about ensuring childcare is affordable, so that all parents, all women, have the option of working full-time and pursuing a professional career, if they so choose.

While doing this, we also need to move forward the discussion from childcare to pre-school education,

which we know is essential to give all children the best start in life.

And that has implications in terms of investing sufficient resources to provide good quality jobs that will attract educators,

Not the current situation where many jobs in childcare are low paid.

We know that women are more often than men in low paid work, and part-time work… in childcare, and in retail, as examples.

We also know that women are paid 14% less than men, up from 12% in 2014, according to CSO figures.

This is the ‘gender pay gap’.

Labour’s Senator Ivana Bacik has brought legislation through all stages in the Seanad, to require reporting on the gender pay gap in companies.

Frustratingly, the Government has ruled out progressing our Bill in favour of starting from scratch.

The gender pay gap is also accompanied by a gender-bias in the social welfare system.

Welfare was designed decades ago on the basis of a ‘breadwinner’ model.

Spouses – usually women – are considered ‘dependent adults’, even if they have worked and made social insurance payments in their own right.

This system often gives men control of the entire income from social welfare.

We know that control over the household finances is sometimes used as leverage and control in situations of domestic abuse.

Sexual violence is another gendered issue.

There are hundreds of cases of rape and sexual assault every years.

And most of them are cases of women assaulted by men.

This points to a deep inequality of power that the forces of law and order must counter-balance.

I want to address my final remarks to the theme of today’s conference: A Feminist Republic.

There is one thing that is surely necessary for the achievement of a Feminist Republic.

And that is more women in positions of power,

in positions of decision-making in politics, in the public sector and in the private sector.

Labour has a proud record of not only putting forward women candidates and championing gender quotas,

but Labour has done proportionately more than any other party to advance women as ministers of government.

And voluntary quota of 40% of women candidates for the local elections is another example of our commitment to equality.


Politics is a hard profession for many people, women and men alike.

But can we do more to remove specific barriers to women’s participation?

I think we can, and of course we should.

So I ask the question of all of you here.

Tell me.

What do we need to do to make politics equally open as a profession to women?

Let’s identify all of the barriers,

And let’s work to remove those barriers,

So that we can achieve an equal, feminist republic.

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