Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

Why #LapGate matters

Embarrassing, inappropriate and reprehensible. Just another night in Dail Eireann.

Fri, Jul 12, 2013, 14:09


Tom Barry being a boor and pulling Aine Collins on to his lap like some idiot in Copper Face Jacks is beyond embarrassing. It’s also extremely familiar. I don’t know one woman who hasn’t been assaulted in such a matter, be it by a bunch of yobs shouting something sexually explicit on the street, having your ass grabbed walking through a club, being felt up by some drunk at a gig, or something far more serious. Women are groped, shouted at, assaulted and raped every day in this country. That’s not horseplay. All harassment is on the same spectrum, some serious, some less so, but it’s all a consequence of the same attitude.

While Barry has since been reprimanded by Fine Gael’s general secretary, Enda Kenny’s lily-livered response to the matter confirms that such behaviour is generally acceptable. While willing to expel people from the party for voting against legislation, he’s happy to let this kind of offensive behaviour pass by. Sure it’ll blow over. Sure they were only having a laugh. At work. With the country watching. The inappropriateness of Barry’s actions is magnified considering what was actually happening in the chamber – a vote on something that is hugely significant for women’s rights, and a step in the direction of Irish women finally having control over our own bodies. Barry’s actions were humiliating not just to Collins, but to women everywhere. Is that how male politicians view women? As playthings they can grope anytime they want? Is the sexism and sense of permission that ends in such behaviour something we should put up with? Something without consequences? Hell no. Barry should be ashamed of himself, because we are. He says he’s “mortified”, but would he be so mortified if he wasn’t caught?

Gender balance within our political system has always been a topic of discussion, but recent moves to exert it in some kind of real way have gathered momentum. I don’t think Barry’s disgusting actions are the consequence of a lack of women in the Dail, they’re the actions of someone who thinks it’s ok to act like a sloppy eejit at Race Week in our parliament. Why? Presumably because that kind of behaviour is de rigeur. Presumably if there were more women who deemed that sort of behaviour unacceptable, Barry would think twice to act like such a creep. Presumably if there were more women in the room from the get go, Barry wouldn’t be so enthusiastic about getting handsy. Presumably if he did the same thing to a male TD, it would be viewed as an act of aggression or assault. It’s not just ‘silly’, it’s far more serious than that. How dare he act in such a manner.

When I was attending the launch of Democracy Matters, recently, a male attendee made a disparaging comment about women being late. I barely caught the remark, but a woman involved in the launch tutted a jaded rebuttal. I can only imagine the amount of times women working in Leinster House have to roll their eyes at the thick giggling remarks of their sexist male colleagues. And when behaviour like Barry’s goes largely unpunished aside from public humiliation, then what motivation is there to not treat the Dail like a frat house?

But it’s not enough to roll one’s eyes, even if doing so is the only response one can reach for given the presumed frequency of such behaviour. If a male TD thinks it’s ok to grope a female TD in front of cameras during one of the most serious and important legislative votes in recent history, then what on earth is going on at less pressing times when no one’s watching?

The culture of boozing within Leinster House makes a mockery of the job we elected these politicians to do. I’m not casting any sort of assumption on what state of mind Barry was in. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever to suggest he wasn’t of sound, sober mind when he grabbed Collins and pushed her on to his lap like some sort of degenerate Santa. Yet Barry has admitted he was drinking before the incident occurred. So in what profession is it acceptable while working late to have a bar open until 5am when people working there – and not just working, but working on issues of national importance – are free to imbibe? Are they out of their minds in thinking that’s in any way appropriate or professional? How is it acceptable? Why do we accept it? Gerry Adams (who I don’t have much time for at all, as it happens) was shouted down when he suggested the Dail bar be closed when late sittings were in session and politicians should be breathalysed upon leaving. That seems like a pretty reasonable request to me, but he was shouted down presumably because his fellow TDs thought he was suggesting something ludicrous. Meanwhile, Irish clubs and pubs are constrained by stringent licensing laws that encourage binge drinking and increase street violence. One rule for the lads on Kildare Street, one rule for us.

There is a reluctance to criticise the consumption of alcohol in Ireland because “we all do it”. Am I going to go out tonight and have a few drinks? Absolutely. But in between bottles of beer, I’m not going to pass legislation. So, politicians: get a grip (preferably not on a female colleague), leave the drinking to when you’re not actually working – if at all, have some respect for your female colleagues and the women of Ireland in general because that’s who you’re representing, have some respect for the men of Ireland who deem your behaviour to be disgusting because they’re who you’re representing too, stop embarrassing yourselves, and stop embarrassing us.