A Green Party councillor who has resigned from her local authority seat has criticised the lack of maternity leave for women politicians.
New mother Clare O'Byrne, who will attend her last meeting of South Dublin County Council today (Monday), has said the lack of maternity leave is a "huge barrier" for women in politics.
She said maternity leave was in every other sector of society, and introducing it for politicians “isn’t rocket science”, adding “where there’s a will there’s a way”.
The issue has gained prominence after Minister for Justice Helen McEntee announced she is pregnant.
While Ms McEntee has said she intends to take time to spend with her child the details of how this will work have yet to be determined.
Ms O'Byrne was co-opted on to South Dublin County Council last year after the election to the Dáil of Green Party TD Francis Noel Duffy.
Her daughter Holly was born in December.
Ms O’Byrne works in the public sector and has maternity leave from her full-time job.
She said she thought she would have more time to work as a councillor as a result but said “I was quite naive in that regard”.
“Shortly after Holly was born, as we started to get more familiar with life with a small baby, I thought ‘this isn’t working’. I felt incredible pressure to get back to work as soon as possible.”
She said her Green Party colleagues on the council supported her by offering to help with constituents’ queries, but said “they have their own lives and families so that was never going to be even a short term solution”.
She said a baby’s schedule does not necessarily fit in with council meetings, and she believes being a councillor is more than a part-time job.
“If you want to do it right, do right by your constituents, you want to put the time and effort into research and policy work...You need time and you just don’t have that as a new mother.
“I was being pulled in too many ways, and I wasn’t giving everything the time it deserved.”
Ms O’Byrne said that if there was maternity leave for councillors – perhaps with someone to respond to constituents’ queries – she would not have felt the same pressure and guilt, and she would have “very much” considered staying on as a councillor.
She said the lack of maternity leave was a “huge barrier” for women in politics.
“The job is very demanding and requires a lot from you. There’s no fixed hours. It’s 24/7 in many cases. And if you want to do a good job – which I believe everyone does as they don’t get into it unless they’re passionate – you need to remove the structural barriers, you need to support women and families.”
Green Party Minister of State for Local Government Malcolm Noonan said Ms O'Byrne was a "huge loss" but he can appreciate the challenges of combining a career in politics with family life.
Mr Noonan said he hoped the planned Electoral Commission would be able to carry out work aimed at improving access to politics for women.
He said its role would be largely advisory but suggested it would carry out research and advocacy work, and would give direction to the political system on having sufficient supports in place to boost the participation of women.
Mr Noonan said one area he would like the commission to consider was the possibility of introducing gender quotas for local elections.
Another Minister of State in the department, Peter Burke, has announced funding of €126,000 for the Women for Election organisation. The Fine Gael TD said its work had supported dozens of successful female candidates.
Mr Burke said it was a priority of his to see more female candidates being encouraged to enter local government. He also said he was concerned about retention of female councillors, and the department was currently reviewing supports, including maternity provisions.
He said he hoped there would be progress to report on this “in the near future”.