In November, Holly Cairns, South West Cork Social Democrats TD, tabled a motion in the Dáil calling for maternity leave for councillors, as well as paternity and adoption leave.
During a recent visit to Co. Tipperary, we raised the issue with Cllr Mary Hanna Hourigan (Fine Gael) and Councillor Máirín McGrath (Ind).
They represent a quarter of the female councillors on Tipperary County Council (8 of 40). As Cllr Hourigan pointed out, eight is the highest number of females ever elected there.
“Not one of them has young children. I don’t think you can do it,” she says. As a mother of three, she had to wait until her children were older before seeking election. “I would fully support Holly. It’s a huge barrier. We’re a modern society,” she said.
She talked about a councillor she knows from West Cork who had a baby recently and was taking calls from constituents the day after giving birth.
There is also the question of what happens when a councillor is sick.
Councillor Máirín McGrath, also supports the bill, but felt there were “grey areas” that had to be discussed. Máirín, elected in 2019, is the daughter of Mattie McGrath, TD, and as one of her colleagues put it – “she works as a 24/7 councillor”.
“It has to be done. It is surreal when I compare my role to my friends who are working in the public or private sector jobs,” she said.
“It definitely should be done. They must be some options in place for young women who need it. But how would it work practically? Who replaces me for that period of time?”
“There just needs to be a greater conversation about it. The public voted for me. Who can take up your job for you?”
For now, the message seems to be – don’t get sick or don’t get pregnant. When put to Máirín like that, she said, “You go into it and you know what’s involved.”
At present, leave can be granted to councillors for six months, but it has to be approved by a resolution of the local council and the person is deemed to have resigned from the council for that period.
Both councillors believe change is absolutely necessary – the nitty-gritty just needs to discussed. “How does the public get a good public service if I was out of work?… That needs to be addressed whether it is for maternity, or sick leave”, said Máirín.
The bill was debated in the Seanad in early December and a motion of support passed.
JUST 25% of councillors are female
As of May 2021, 25% of elected local authority councillors in the State were women, according to ‘See Her Elected’ a relatively new Irish gender equality initiative.
However, there is an urban/rural divide. The 2019 Local Elections saw women win 48% of the seats in Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown. In contrast, the proportion of women on Longford County Council fell to 5%, on Mayo County Council to 6%, and on Donegal County Council to 11%.
SHE’s main work is to increase the representation of women in local politics in the rural northwest and midlands. The project is supported by Longford Women’s Link and six women have so far decided to stand in the 2024 local authority elections, after attending online SHEschool classes.
SHE recently won the ‘Innovation in Politics Award 2021’ in the democracy category presented by the Vienna-based, Innovation in Politics Institute.