Helen McEntee: My maternity leave as a minister ‘started an important conversation’

The Minister for Justice spoke to Jennifer Bray at the Irish Times Winter Nights Festival

Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee TD in 2021. Photograph: Tom Honan

Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee TD in 2021. Photograph: Tom Honan

 

When Helen McEntee told Tánaiste Leo Varadkar about her pregnancy, he said “I assume you’re taking your six months”, according to the Minister for Justice, who last year became the first cabinet minister to take maternity leave.

Varadkar’s response “didn’t leave any question or doubt in terms of what I would do”, the politician told political correspondent Jennifer Bray on the opening night of the Irish Times 2022 Winter Nights Festival on Monday.

McEntee said she didn’t set out to be the first cabinet minister to take maternity leave, but, she said, “I knew myself that that’s what I wanted to do”.

“Unfortunately, we did have to go through a process because there weren’t any formal mechanisms in place. I think it hopefully started an important conversation, not just in politics, but in general, that women have the time to have families, to spend it with their children, but also to progress in their careers.

“It’s been a really positive experience,” she said, but was it also intrusive? “The view I took was that if this was going to change things for other people, if this was going to create a conversation then I really didn’t mind [the attention].”

The Dáil is “nowhere near” a 50 per cent gender split, she said, adding that it was “very urgent” to increase female participation in politics, and issues such as the provision of maternity leave is one such way to do that.

McEntee also spoke about the issue of sexual, domestic and gender-based violence, which has come to the fore of public discussions following the recent death of Ashling Murphy.

Speaking generally about the issue, the Minister for Justice said the number of prosecutions for domestic or sexual violence is “just too low at the moment”, stating that the Government is working on a new strategy to tackle this issue.

“One of the big problems is we don’t have enough victims coming forward. And they don’t come forward in a lot of instances because they’re afraid, they don’t think they’ll be listened to, they don’t think the criminal justice system is there to support them and it’s really difficult to go through all of that process.

She added: “It’s about making it [the justice system] more accessible to victims, making sure they know they’re going to be listened to and be supported throughout the whole process from the very beginning until the end.”

McEntee added that the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in some people being “trapped in a nightmare” due to domestic or gender-based violence.

On the pandemic in general, the minister supported the idea of an inquiry into the handling of the emergency. “We’ve made mistakes throughout Covid, there’s no point saying we haven’t. But we’ve got a lot of things right as well,” she added.

The politician stated that she wants to be “ambitious” and intends to bring about reforms of the country’s licensing laws for pubs and nightclubs by the end of the year.

“The hospitality sector has been impacted probably more than any industry during Covid-19. We’re operating under laws that are dating back to the 1800s – 1933,” she said.

“If you’re a late bar or a night club, you essentially have to pretend you’re having a special event. This doesn’t make sense. It’s about modernising the laws and making it easier.”

The 2022 Irish Times Winter Nights online festival, supported by Peugeot, takes place from Monday, January 24th to Thursday, January 27th.

Still to come are paralympic medallist swimmer Ellen Keane, rugby legend Brian O’Driscoll, author and comedian David Baddiel, and writer and feminist Caitlin Moran, and Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole. For tickets, go to irishtimes.com/winternights.