The Dail has a history of sordid sexism – and without more women, it’s not going to change


I wrote this piece for the Herald on Thursday as “lapgate” began spreading on social media. The reason I’m posting it here as well is this article by Stephen Collins in today’s Irish Times. Collins is right on Dail reform but he is utterly out of step on this issue; an incident of sexual harassment in the national parliament during a debate on women’s sexual health and reproductive freedom is not just a “silly distraction”.  I’m studying women in politics at the moment, and one of the main problems with increasing our proportion of women representatives is cultural and institutional norms.  Nodding and winking at sexual harassment in the workplace is one of those norms that is preventing women reaching their potential… here’s my original piece.

The Dail is the home of Irish democracy, the lower house of our national parliament, where laws are passed and history is made. It’s a place you’d expect to see just a little decorum, but the fact is you’d find more dignity and sense of propriety – far more – among the ushers than you do among the elected representatives.
An incident in the wee hours of Thursday morning involved backbench Fine Gael TD Tom Barry (last seen writing to the Pope to ask would he be excommunicated for voting yes to the abortion bill under discussion at the time) pull fellow Fine Gael TD Aine Collins onto his lap after she mentioned she was cold. In the Dail chamber. On camera.
Barry was swift to apologise yesterday morning after the clip went viral. Deputy Collins is said to have told party authorities it was nothing, and accepted his apology immediately.
A party spokesperson said it was 3am, a time when people don’t make their best decisions. Well, yes. But why were they still debating at 3am? With the Dail bar open? Surely the country would prefer them to be making “their best decisions”? Isn’t that what they’re there for?
But I digress. If this were an isolated bit of stupidity in an institution otherwise a bastion of equality, we could move on. But it’s not. It’s just another in a long line of incidents that betray just how out of step Leinster House is with the rest of the world.
A very similar incident in September 2010 saw a male TD sit on the lap of a female party colleague, as the Fianna Fail parliamentary party were posing for photographs. It didn’t hit the headlines, because that was the same meeting that produced “garglegate”, Brian Cowen’s infamously congested Morning Ireland interview.
Last year, Deputy Mick Wallace – pretty in pink, and sporting a lovely head of curly blonde hair – referred to Deputy Mary Mitchell O’Connor as “Miss Piggy”. He’s not big on irony.
But it gets worse.
In 1998, former Junior Minister Liam Aylward was the subject of a complaint for groping a Dail usher. That incident also took place late at night, and after Deputy Aylward had a few scoops in the Dail bar. It became the subject of a Dail ‘hearing’. One presumes fingers were wagged and he was told not to do it again. But, as a precaution, just to ensure nothing of the sort happened again, there were suggestions that female ushers be taken off late night shifts, for their own safety. The temptresses.
Delving further into the annals of Dail history, we find the equally unedifying tale of then Minister of State Ned O’Keeffe attempting to French kiss a female political journalist in 1995… again, in the Dail bar.
There aren’t many workplaces that sort of thing could go on, and not result in somebody losing their job. Then again, there aren’t too many workplaces with a bar. There aren’t that many with only 15% women, either.
Sexual assaults, sexist insults, groping and even “horseplay” are hardly par for the course in leading law firms or tech companies. And the incidents I’ve mentioned are only the ones we know about, which took place in front of other people.
There’s a lot at stake for a woman who dares to speak up if she’s groped or otherwise demeaned by a colleague in any workplace. Most of us have experienced it, and most of us don’t speak up.
But in the place where laws are made and women are such a minority, the pressure to be “one of the lads”, not to make a fuss, and to be complicit in brushing your own anger and embarrassment under the carpet, must be enormous.
Fine Gael has done good work introducing gender quotas for the next Dail elections. But even if those are 100% successful, that will still only be 30% women in a sexist institution, where boundaries are blurred and women’s bodily integrity is a notion only referred to by the pro-choice campaigners outside the gate.

This piece was written before the statement from Tom Curran of FG was issued, in which he was firm in his condemnation of what happened. That’s to be welcomed.

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4 comments

  1. Why would more women help? If there are neanderthals in the Dáil, more women won’t change that. There are enough women there that male TDs should know how to behave, though one would hope that they should know how to behave anyway. That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be more women – but gender balance is a different argument.

    Respect for the Dáil is another argument too. I watched much of the debate on Wednesday evening, and for a most serious topic, I thought people were dismissive, disengaged (when they were actually in the chamber) and disrespectful to the chair. The behaviour before Caoimhin O’Caomhlain made his contribution earlyish – around 1030 I think – was disgraceful. According to Vincent Browne, there were TDs in the Dáil bar out of their minds with drink that night. Peter Matthews – who you’d expect more from, given his position – didn’t even have the courtesy to the chamber to turn off his mobile phone, so that there was constant feedback on the audio because he put it down beside the mike. Meanwhile, his colleague behind him was tapping away on a blackberry.

    On the horseplay issue itself, it’s a bit much. Is there any amount of touching is appropriate in the Dáil? A handshake? With the other arm on the elbow? The shoulder? A kiss on the cheek? A hug? Who’s going to write down all these rules, because I’m not sure what they are any more. We can really over-do the outrage here. If he Aine Collins episode had happened in the Dáil bar, would that have been OK?

    So if the point is about disrespect for the Dáil, then I’m OK with that. But other than that, it’s a storm in a teacup.

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