Tánaiste and Labour Party Leader Joan Burton visited Athlone on Monday evening speaking at the Women for Election event at the Hodson Bay Hotel.
Speaking about women in public life, Burton reflected on a time not very long ago when she found herself one of only three women in governmental capacity. “When I think back to the very first cabinet meeting of this Government in 2011, there were just three women around that long, polished table: me, Frances Fitzgerald, and the Attorney General, Máire Whelan. We were certainly a very small minority, but significant nonetheless.”
Burton said one of her chief pleasures at becoming Tánaiste is that she was in a position to appoint more women to government: “In my own case, I was able to appoint Jan O’Sullivan as Minister for Education. And, following various nudges from me to the Taoiseach, I was delighted he chose to appoint a woman minister for Arts, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht, in Heather Humphreys.”
Burton says the increase in female members of government has made a change for the better: “It does make a difference. Because in this second half of the Government, whether it’s talking about childcare, talking about issues like adoption and marriage equality, with five women there, there has been quite a change in the tone of the cabinet conversation.”
The Tánaiste spoke about what got her into politics and what she believes is required to get more women involved today. She referenced the Kerry baby case and the defeat of the 1986 divorce referendum as events which inspired her to enter the political arena: “To me, what was happening at home was irreconcilable with the 1916 proclamation, which envisaged a Republic guaranteeing religious and civil liberty, equal rights, and equal opportunities for all.”
Encouraged by Dick Spring, Burton joined Labour and was elected to the Dáil in 1992. That year’s election saw the number of women TDs break 20 for the first time, coming on the back of the ground-breaking election of Mary Robinson as Ireland’s first woman president. Progress has been slow since then according to Burton.
“We need to have more women active and involved at every level of our public life,” she says. “In this country, just 21 per cent or so of private sector leaders are women, and women make up only about 20 per cent of secretaries-general of Government Departments.
“The figures for the Dáil are worse, with just 16 per cent of TDs being women, and that is the highest it has ever been. That is why, in the Programme for Government, we committed to increasing the number of women in politics. We have introduced new laws to ensure at least 30 per cent of political parties’ candidates at the next General Election must be women.”
Ms Burton had some words of wisdom to share with women contemplating entering public life: “Politics is fascinating. It can be fun, and one of the key things you’re going to need is resilience. If at first you don’t succeed, you get up and you try again. Enjoy every moment of your involvement in politics.”
EQUIP 2015 is being run by Women for Election and is a three-day non-partisan campaign school, to train, support, and mentor women for the upcoming General Election.