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Speech of An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar T.D., Congress of Women’s Caucuses 10 September 2018

Issued by the Government Information Service
10 September 2018

Ladies and gentlemen,

I welcome you to Ireland in a year when we mark the centenary of women winning the right to vote.

Democracy mattered to Irish suffragettes. Democracy still matters to us. It remains the most effective forum for choosing between competing interests. There is no better alternative to allow the power of a country to be exercised as fairly in the interests of its people.

The achievement one hundred years ago was by no means perfect – it only gave the vote to women over thirty, and they had to meet some property requirements, or be married to someone who met them. But it was progress, incremental change for the better.

I would like to congratulate Deputies Catherine Martin and Marcella Corcoran Kennedy for taking the initiative to organise this Congress of Women’s Caucuses. It is important that parliamentarians should have opportunities for dialogue together to share experiences and insights, learn from each other, and to develop friendships and collaborations.

I hope that this Congress will be the first of many such international gatherings.

One hundred years ago, Constance Markievicz became the first woman elected to the British House of Commons, and she became the first woman cabinet minister in the first Irish parliament in January 1919. We had to wait sixty years for the second. I think how much better the course of Irish history might have gone if has there had been women around the Cabinet table through the decades. We spend a lot of time in Ireland at the moment apologising and atoning for things that happened in the past. And I can’t help thinking that some of those things might have happened differently or perhaps not at all has there been women sitting around that table.

In the history of the Irish state only 19 women have been cabinet ministers; four of them are in the Government I lead. That must change and that will change.

You all know the barriers women face before they can have full and equal participation in the political process. Selection committees and money are two obstacles. Lack of encouragement leading to a lack of confidence is another.

We also know that women with childcare and other caring responsibilities have barriers in the way of a political career.

We need a change in our culture as well as a change in our policies.

In other countries, for example, it’s possible for women and men to take a year out to take care of their newborn children, with their substitute on their parliamentary list replacing them. To do so in Ireland would require modification of our electoral system, but is perhaps something we could consider, and which I think would be of benefit to women, to men and to society. I think we could perhaps give consideration to having job sharing roles in Government, which is something that is increasingly common in private industry and the public service.

Gender equality isn’t something for women; it benefits everyone. We get better results when there is a diversity of views around the table.

Part of the solution, is reducing the barriers faced by many mothers working outside the home.

It’s why the Irish Government introduced 2 years of free pre-school, childcare subsidies, longer maternity leave and paid paternity leave. We recognised that all these things made it easier for people to advance. They help women and men, and reflect our idea of what a 21st century society should look like.

This is only the start, but is a good start. The next step is to create a system of paid parental leave to allow both mothers and fathers to spend more time with their children in the first stages of their life. Of course, men must be more willing to take on more caring roles, more so than has been the case in the past.

Getting back to politics, we won’t have more women in government unless we have more women in parliament.

And we won’t have more women in parliament unless we have more women candidates. The vicious circle of gender inequality must be straightened out.

The last Government, of which I was a member, introduced an Electoral Amendment (Political Funding) Act which requires political parties to field at least 30% female candidates for national elections. As a result, 22% of the people elected in 2016 were women, up from 15% in 2011. A significant increase, but still one that puts us behind other countries, and we will need to see it increase again at the next election.

Women are still under-represented in decision-making structures at both national and regional levels, across all sectors.

I know that as Taoiseach I have a responsibility to lead here. There’s no reason why half the Government should not be women – or more. The answer lies in electing more women TDs, so that the Dáil and the Government reflects the reality of life in Ireland.

The party which I lead has more female members of parliament than any other party but still it is too few and we have set a target to increase the number to 30 at the next election.

Visibility really matters. How often do you see a public platform where all the speakers are men? What message does that send to the young women in the audience - that men can aspire to lead, and women should aspire to listen? What message does it send to young men? It’s something that needs to change.

It’s why we have a target for our State boards. At least 40% of the members of our boards must be women. Focused action achieves results.

As of July 2018, women make up 40.6% of members of our State boards in Ireland. And that trend is going upwards all the time.

In fact, 52% of appointees through the PAS system to State Boards in the last year were female – the first there was a female majority in appointments to State Board. And almost 40% of the most senior positions in our Civil Service, at the rank or Secretary General and Assistant Secretary General, were female in the last year.

However, the figures for the business sector are not so encouraging. Women constitute only 18.1% of members of the boards of leading Irish companies. I want this figure to increase significantly.

So the Government has established a business-led initiative entitled Better Balance for Better Business to promote greater gender balance in business leadership. It’s about changing the mindset and changing the culture.

In Ireland we have also the problem of a gender pay gap.

So the Government is bringing forward legislation that will require companies to set out their gender pay data. This will highlight sectors where the differential between male and female earnings is particularly high. It will also identify the companies with poor representation of women in leadership positions.

Despite some changes to our Constitution in recent months, many aspects of the Irish Constitution are still sexist and still backward. We have a provision dealing with women in the home. It says: ‘By her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.

The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.’

Some people are opposed to making a change, arguing it is only symbolic. I believe symbols matter.

A woman’s place is wherever she wants it to be, and our Constitution should say no different.

We support the holding of a referendum on the role of women in the home, removing something outdated and insulting from our Constitution without diminishing our recognition of the good work carers do in our society.

There is a counter argument that we should insert a new article dealing with carers in our Constitution. That is something we should consider, but something we should be cautious about because anything that we insert into the Constitution is open to interpretation by the courts and in some cases can tie the hands of Governments. And can even crate a hierarchy of rights. We have seen that on at least two occasions in Ireland.

First, when we amended our Constitution to protect the right to life, which was interpreted by the courts in a very extreme way. Also, we had an usual arrangement during the financial crisis when the Government at the time decided it had to make cut backs and reduce welfare and public sector pay. They took the decision to reduce welfare for people who are disabled, for careers, those that were unemployed. When it came to public sector pay however, it was possible to reduce the pay of nurses, teachers, doctors, but not for judges because judges have a special right in the Constitution, and that therefore created a hierarchy of rights.

I appreciate this is something that there is not yet consensus on in Ireland. As someone who has been involved in a number of referendums; 3 which we won, and 2 which we lost. It makes sense to take time to get these things right to build a political consensus across society.

We cannot escape our past, but we can work to make a better and more inclusive future. On Friday 25 May 2018 the Irish people voted overwhelmingly in favour of allowing women to make their own decisions when it comes to their healthcare, by removing a Constitutional ban on abortion. Our Supreme Court has decided not to hear an appeal against this. This will allow our Government and parliament to bring in the legislation over the next couple of months to ensure those services are available to women who need them.

Ireland’s journey of constitutional change has involved the active participation of citizens of all ages, beliefs, ethnic origin and family types.

We use citizens’ conventions to gather the opinion of people around the country, a bold exercise in direct democracy which has brought real results. The recent referendum is one example. Another was when Ireland became the first country in the world to decide in favour of equal marriage by a national referendum.

At a time when policy debate can become so easily polarised, it is an effective model for careful deliberation on issues. And I propose to establish a further Citizen’s Assembly to consider what else we can do to advance gender equality in Ireland.

This is an age when the fundamental principles underpinning democracy are being challenged and undermined. Our only hope is to come together to fight for what we value, and for that we need more women as politicians, as candidates, and as volunteers.
You are role models for women across the world. I hope that this Congress will act as a catalyst to encourage more women here in Ireland and abroad to become politicians.

In the battle for women’s rights in Ireland over one hundred years ago many windows were smashed. Women’s rights were won and the windows were replaced.

Now we have to decide on what kind of society we want to see through them.

Thank you very much.