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Tuesday 25 September 2018

Is Ireland ready for a female Taoiseach?

DO we need a tough woman leader to take on the old boys' club which is guilty of leaving our politics riddled with corruption?

Roisin Shortall. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Roisin Shortall. Photo: Niall Carson/PA

Every time a woman politician is mentioned as being a potential party leader or Taoiseach, their chances are usually dismissed, often for very similar reasons.

First comes the charge that they are not team players. Deep down, politicians believe that in general people are both venal and consumed by self-interest. In effect they are as cynical about us as we are about them. Play by the party rules and you are rewarded, try to do anything different and you will be thought of as a little unhinged.

Dispatched to cover the canvass with a male politician of the Fianna Fail persuasion some years ago, I found him trekking door-to-door in the middle of a sprawling housing estate. At a semi-detatched house, we chanced upon a lone woman who seemed nonplussed to find a TD, photographer and reporter anxious to hear her opinions on the issues of the day.

"I'm worried about the children," she nervously began before the beaming politician interrupted. "If I can do anything for you, you only have to ask," he told her.

This was no an idle boast. At previous doors, we had watched as he collected CVs, looked at broken pipes and promised medical cards, generally being a prototype of The Secret Millionaire. "What's wrong with the children?" he asked as the woman struggled to articulate her concerns. "I don't have kids yet," she replied, "but my friends and neighbours can't get school places, and when they do, the class sizes are too big."

WORRIED

Later, as we sped around the rest of the constituency in his roomy Mercedes, he referred back to the woman who was worried on behalf of other people's children. "Strange or what?" he remarked, "you get to meet some right tulips in this game."

When someone such as a Roisin Shortall or a Lucinda Creighton moves outside the herd, their colleagues, like the TD dealing with the aforementioned female constituent, have to look for a more rational explanation. They cannot believe that a matter of principle could get in the way of party loyalty. In Lucinda's case, it was "all about Lucinda", according to some of her fellow TDs. Similarly, Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore accused former Junior Minister Roisin Shortall of bringing a level of "bitterness and nastiness" into her resignation over health reform. He also accused her and other TDs, "who did not have the bottle for power" of damaging the party.

Women who try to go it alone are subject to opprobrium from party members. At the recent FG national meeting, Lucinda and the Reform Alliance were accused by TD Charlie Flanagan of "dancing through Rathgar, Rathmines and Ranelagh to the tune of Svengali McDowell".

That Lucinda might be a leader rather than a follower was never countenanced. This weekend she came under fire from activists in her constituency for abstaining on a budget vote. But she is adamant that she still has huge support within Fine Gael.

The second charge that ambitious political women will face is the "not popular with male colleagues" description. It's a tag that has at any one time been given to almost every woman politician in the country, from Maire Geoghegan Quinn to Mary O'Rourke and Mary Harney . When she went for the leadership of the PDs, Mary Harney apparently felt that she didn't have a hope against party favourite Pat Cox. A Sunday Independent opinion poll, however, showed that she had the support of the public, pushing her over the line.

Tasked with turning into Ms Congeniality, many women politicians accept that getting a Ministry is about as good as it gets. Mary O'Rourke has told how she did not react badly when Charlie Haughey asked "bought any new frocks, Mary?", as she "had an education budget", to get through and needed his support.

For women like the late Margaret Thatcher (inset below) and the current German Chancellor Angela Merkel (far left), the key to their success lay in being underestimated by their male counterparts, and gauging the public mood better than anyone else.

Looking at her Iron Chancellor-style countenance, it might be difficult to believe that Merkel was once perceived as Helmut Kohl's "little girl". Or that Margaret Thatcher was, as columnist Charles Moore explained, constantly underrated by her opponents: "They either thought she was too extreme or they thought she was too crude and unsophisticated and they didn't understand that she was tapping in to a wide appeal".

So is there an Irish Merkel lurking in the wings. And if there is, do we need her? Would a woman Taoiseach cut class sizes, prioritise the care of the vulnerable, want our children to have a future in Ireland?

Choosing a leader simply because of his or her sex might seem regressive. Yet looking at the current body politic, the reason that politicians such as Creighton and Shortall stand out is that they seem to be driven by something other than political ambition – they appear to have a sense of conviction.

It's an instinct that fellow party members will no doubt have tried to quickly disabuse them of. Like the woman on the doorstep with her concern for "the children" some of their behaviour goes against their own self-interests.

Colleagues of Creighton's pointed out that she had been treated incredibly well by Enda Kenny. Despite opposing him for the party leadership she had been given a prestigious ministry. Similarly, Eamon Gilmore complained that Roisin Shortall had been given more support than any other minister (the hidden coda there, of course, being that she needed it). It's the male political class equivalent of Albert Reynold's famous line, "that's women for you".

CORRUPTION

In the impasse over the US Government shutdown, female senators crossed the divide to find a solution. They were able to put their egos aside to broker a compromise. Such dedication, however, is not usually rewarded.

The problem is that while male politicians accept the laws of favours sought and favours given, political women usually plow a more independent furrow, appearing ungrateful in the process.

An American study of women in politics in democratic countries found that they were less likely to be corrupt and less likely to approve of corruption. If more women were involved in politics and public life in Ireland, would corruption be less endemic?

Merkel's modest lifestyle is said to be one of the key factors in making German voters trust her. Though her critics accuse her of being indecisive, her supporters like the fact that she is cautious, that she listens and tries to achieve consensus.

Her step-by-step approach is one that they identify as being part of the German character. Similarly, though we may be labelled as having a soft spot for cowboys and chancers, the recession has led to a certain hardening of political sentiment among the electorate.

The demand for better leadership has never been as high, and judging by the latest polls, trust in party leaders has never been so low.

Would a woman leader give us anything different? To start with she would have to be the kind of person who puts Ireland first, not in a jingoistic way, but in having a vision for the future.

Despite our Irish distrust of Merkel's European policies, she has made no secret of the fact that she puts her voters first. While the jokey "we're all in this together, lads" might have substituted for real political change in the past, there is a mood out there for something quite different.

Admiration for a politician such as Creighton is predicated on the fact that she was willing to give up a lucrative post because of her opposition to abortion.

This doesn't mean that those who respect her for that also share her views – some do and some don't – but they wonder if she could apply the same principled stance to other issues.

A woman who wants to be Taoiseach is never going to be one of the boys. In fact she shouldn't even try. She should also resist the option of trying to please by conforming to any stereotype of femininity. She needs to appeal to both men and women by symbolising what we would like to be when we are at our best, not our worst.

Above all, she needs to distance herself from the old cronyism. That's where women have a head start – all the deals done over pints and in clubs rarely include them.

With her personal life constantly under media scrutiny, Merkel's meagre contribution to projecting a softer image was to admit that her second husband liked more crumble on the pies that she made. Public interest in her meant that her pie became a topic of national interest. This all came after she had shown her steel in other political battles.

 

UNCOMPROMISING

Irish women aren't by nature wilting violets. They are tough, uncompromising and have fought hard for basic rights such as equal pay, access to contraception, and equality in the work-place. They are often the backbone of their communities, care for the elderly and the infirm, and every now and then when the chips are down they get stirred into serious political action. But they can no longer afford the luxury of staying out of both politics and leadership.

A succession of women Presidents was in some ways a sop to the unique role played by women in Irish society. But the real decisions, the ones that truly affect us are still being made by others.

If ever there was a time to have our first woman Taoiseach, perhaps it's right now. So which of our current crop of women in the Dail is willing or even able to step up to the plate?

And if they won't or can't, are there other women out there who will take up the challenge?

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