Parts of Constitution ‘sexist and backward’, Varadkar says

‘Insulting’ reference to women’s place in home must be removed, Taoiseach tells women’s caucuses

Historian Mary Beard (L) with Leo Varadkar and Marcella Corcoran Kennedy at the International Congress of Parliamentary Women’s Caucuses at Dublin castle today. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Historian Mary Beard (L) with Leo Varadkar and Marcella Corcoran Kennedy at the International Congress of Parliamentary Women’s Caucuses at Dublin castle today. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

Irish politicians could be facilitated to take a year off work when they have children in a practice similar to other counties, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.

“To do so in Ireland would require a modification of the electoral system but is perhaps something I think we could consider; something that I think would be of benefit to women and to men and to broader society,” he said.

There should also be future consideration of job-sharing roles in government, he said, an increasingly common practice in private and public employment.

Mr Varadkar was giving the opening address at the inaugural International Congress of Parliamentary Women’s Caucuses, held at Dublin Castle on Monday.

The event gathered female members of parliament from around the world to discuss various issues regarding women in politics. It will culminate in a “Dublin Castle declaration” outlining key objectives and seeking the creation of female caucuses in every country by 2020.

Delegates attended from over 44 caucuses - there are currently 86 in total - addressing everything from gender quotas in elections to pay inequality, domestic violence, education, and how best to encourage female electoral participation.

Mr Varadkar’s comments focused strongly on Ireland’s historical record and pondered how different the past might have been had there been more female members of cabinet.

In his address, Mr Varadkar said that 19 women have held ministerial roles in the Irish government.

“But it’s still far too few and something has to change,” he added.

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“Barriers that women face when it comes to full and equal participation in political process are many.

“A lack of encouragement can sometimes lead to a lack of confidence.

“We need a change in our culture as well as a change in our policies.”

‘Sexist and backward’

He described parts of the Constitution as “sexist and backward” and said a controversial clause prioritising a woman’s domestic role was “insulting and outdated” and should be removed.

Speaking at Dublin Castle about the clause which refers to a woman’s place in the home, Mr Varadkar said: “Despite some of the changes we have made to the Irish constitution in recent months, many aspects of the Irish constitution are still sexist and still backward.

“I know there are some people who are opposed to changing this, to taking this language out of our constitution, saying it’s only symbolic.

“But I think symbols and gestures matter.

“A women’s place is where she wants it to be and our constitution should say no different.

“So as a Government we support a referendum on the role of women at home, (to) remove this outdated and insulting language from our constitution, without diminishing the good work that carers do in our society.”

The inaugural event hosted a list of well known speakers including Harriet Harmen, the UK’s longest serving female member of parliament (MP), retired Irish Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness and the English classics professor and television presenter Mary Beard.

Ms Harman said much progress had been made in female participation since she first joined parliament in 1982 when the House of Commons was 97 per cent male. Today, about one quarter of MPs are women.

“Still a minority but now a critical mass,” she said. “I believe that we should be gratified by our progress but never grateful. Nobody handed this to us, we fought hard for it.

“And all we are demanding is the rights that we should always have been entitled to. All we are demanding is equality and we don’t have equality yet.”

There were the expected references to Donald Trump given the nature of the conference. However organiser Catherine Martin TD, chairwoman of the Irish women’s caucus, said his record had only served to focus minds.

“In an ironic sort of way Trump’s misogyny and Trump’s anti-climate change has nearly corralled us all together as women and as environmentalists to say, no that’s not good enough and we are stepping up to the plate,” she said.

Today, the Dáil is 22 per cent female, although this has risen from 15 per cent. As of July 2018, women make up 40.6 per cent of State boards although that dwarfs the 18.1 per cent among top private sector companies.

- Additional reporting PA