There’s No Maternity Arrangement for TDs, and It’s Blocking Women From Politics

Text: Izzy Copestake

Image: Moya Nolan

Fifteen years ago, a Joint Oireachtas Committee identified the lack of childcare as a key factor preventing women from entering politics. Today, little has changed. While women in Ireland have the right to take 26 weeks of maternity leave, there is no law enabling TDs to take this time off. This disproportionately impacts women and is breeding inequality at the heart of Irish politics.

The issue was brought to light this week after Social Democrats Leader Holly Cairns announced over the weekend that she is expecting her first child. Speaking on RTÉ Radio One’s “Sunday with Miriam” show, Cairns highlighted the repeated broken promises that maternity leave for TDs would be introduced, stating that it is “truly incredible” there is still no formal arrangement allowing TDs to take maternity leave. “For as long as maternity leave is unavailable, the State is preventing women who may wish to have children from entering politics,” she said.

In a statement to The Journal, Cairns elaborated: “Politics in Ireland has long been male-dominated. If we ever want to see that change and attract more women into politics, then things like maternity leave must be addressed. This should be the bare minimum.”

The policy discourages women who want to have children from entering politics, and it shows. Last year, The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission released a report criticising the “negligible” improvement in the representation of women in Irish politics over the last six years. The report highlighted that just a quarter of members of local authorities are women and pointed to childcare, cash, confidence, culture, and candidate selection procedures as key factors blocking women from politics in Ireland.

Chief commissioner of the 2023 report Sinéad Gibney said, “the exceptionally slow pace of change in ending discrimination against women in all areas of Irish life is extremely frustrating.”

In 2022, statutory maternity leave for councillors was introduced, offering hope that the same might be applied for the Dáil, but three years later, there has been no change.

While there is currently no option for maternity leave, an ad-hoc agreement can be put in place to allow TDs to take time off. However, this is not guaranteed. In 2021, a Forum on a Family Friendly and Inclusive Parliament was published. The report recommended implementing a proxy voting system, similar to those used in other parliaments worldwide, where a politician on maternity leave can designate another MP to vote on their behalf. Additionally, the report suggested establishing a panel of pairs to replace individual arrangements.

As part of a review of the Equality Acts, the government is expected to bring forward legislation, which is due to come to Cabinet in the coming weeks. However, women have waited long enough for a vital shift to maternity leave in the Dáil. Promises of change now feel empty, and it’s deterring women from politics.