ConCon takes steps to kick out sexist wording

Mon, Feb 18, 2013, 00:00

Article 41.2, on a woman’s place in the home, was clearly set for the boot

Off to Malahide again to do the ConCon with those intrepid Constitutioneers and their Bunreacht boffins.

Is it really a month since the first meeting of the constitutional convention voted in favour of lowering the voting age to 16 but opposed reducing the presidential term? Don’t know about you, but we’ve talked of nothing else.

Onward ho! A new set of brainteasers awaited the legislators and citizens closeted upstairs in the comfortable confines of the Grand Hotel.

Thirty-three delegates are politicians – self-selected and unrepresentative of the gender balance in Leinster House. The remaining 66 comprise a randomly selected group of people who are “broadly representative” of Irish society.

The chairman, Tom Arnold, makes it a round 100.

And running the show, like children in a sweet shop, are the Bunreacht boffins – happy academics revelling in the whole exercise. Methadone for the MacGill Summer School set.

On the menu this weekend was article 41.2 of the Constitution, the one that places special emphasis on a woman’s place in the home, followed by a rerun of the old question of how to get more women into politics.

Also on the menu, a toothsome selection of Bunreacht biscuits and buns and a sinful assortment of Constitutional cakes and confectionary.

Perkier pace

Compared to the dull opening meeting, the pace had picked up considerably, even if some newcomers found this impossible to believe. This was probably because the topics were more interesting – or it might have been something to do with the sugar overload.

With the empty teacups and plates of French fancies, the large portrait of a bewigged old lawyer in the top corner and numerous dog-eared copies of Bunreacht na hÉireann strewn around the tables, the scene resembled the morning after a Supreme Court night on the batter.

Raised eyebrows

Mary Lou McDonald mustered for Team Sinn Féin this time out. The party appointed a dreamteam trio of delegates – they looked wonderful in the photos at the high-profile opening in Dublin Castle, but eyebrows were raised when Mary Lou, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness sent stand-ins to the first meeting.

As gender equality and the role of women in Irish society was central to the weekend’s discussions, it’s interesting to note the male/female breakdown between the politicians.

Delegates heard that the percentage of women in parliament in Ireland is very low by European standards – they make up 15 per cent of the Dáil. But it’s nearly 50-50 at the ConCon.

A case of positive optics, or that the men couldn’t be bothered? On the business front, it became clear early on that article 41.2 in its current form was set for the boot. “I think everyone agrees that the wording is sexist alright,” remarked one of the legal experts, agreeing that the article doesn’t reflect today’s Ireland.

But change it to what? Or maybe do away with it altogether? This is where things get complicated and the academics get excited.

Meanwhile, the discussion on increasing the involvement of women in politics was lively but not exactly new.

“I’ve been listening to this for 20 years,” a female politician told us afterwards.

One sensed she wouldn’t be holding her breath for change any time soon.

Yesterday morning Fine Gael Senator Catherine Noone spoke of the sexism that is inherent in Leinster House. “I’ve been accused of flirting my way into certain things – it’s completely inappropriate and it would never be said to a man.”

The drill for delegates involved background presentations from experts and earnest question-and-answer sessions. Then, with the help of a “trained facilitator” at each table, groups explored the constitutional options available and changes they might, or might not, like to see. After their discussions, spokespeople from the groups reported their findings and views to the meeting.

Feedback

Overnight, the academic crew put together draft questions based on the feedback.

Yesterday, they were presented and tweaked by the delegates. As expected, yet again, the lion’s share of microphone time was taken up by the politicians. However, the “ordinary citizens” look more than able to hold their own among the more practised politicians, particularly during the roundtable discussions.

The convention voted before midday and, as had been expected, an 88 per cent majority voted in favour of amending article 41.2. A whooping 98 per cent supported a proposal to make it gender-neutral and to acknowledge the important role of other carers in the home.

Ninety-seven per cent wanted more Government action to encourage women into politics, but a proposal to have this backed by the Constitution was rejected by a whisker. And 89 per cent said they would like to see the Constitution amended to include more gender-inclusive language.

At one point, the delegates took a fascinating detour around the difference between “gender-neutral” and “gender-inclusive”. The former, apparently, can facilitate male bias whereas the latter doesn’t.

The ConCon will now submit the results to Government, along with a detailed report of what delegates recommended.

“Clearly, the convention’s delegates have issued a decisive statement regarding the way women are represented in our Constitution,” said the chairman, whose crowning achievement thus far has been to keep the meetings running bang on schedule.

That’s no mean feat, given that a third of his charges are professional gasbags.

The ConCon turns its attention to same-sex marriage next month. Could be interesting.