Kerry Cathaoirleach apologises to councillor over blond remark

Local Authority Members’ Association seeks change in impact of maternity leave on pay

Cllr John Sheahan, Cathaoirleach of Kerry County Council, apologised ‘on reflection’ after telling Cllr Aoife Thornton she should dye her hair blond  to get noticed. Photograph: Domnick Walsh

Cllr John Sheahan, Cathaoirleach of Kerry County Council, apologised ‘on reflection’ after telling Cllr Aoife Thornton she should dye her hair blond to get noticed. Photograph: Domnick Walsh

 

Kerry County Council chairman John Sheahan has apologised to a Fine Gael colleague for telling her to” dye the hair blond” if she wanted to be noticed and get speaking time at meetings.

He issued the apology “on reflection” after Cllr Aoife Thornton said, while she accepted it was made during a busy meeting, the comment was inappropriate.

Ms Thornton, the only female Fine Gael councillor and one of only five women on the 33- member Kerry County Council, had objected twice, getting to her feet on one occasion, to not being allowed an opportunity to speak at Monday’s monthly meeting of the full council in Tralee.

Earlier, Ms Thornton told Mr Sheahan she had worn a yellow jacket in the hope he might notice her when she attempted to contribute during a debate on the bad roads of north Kerry. When another attempt to speak failed later, Ms Thornton said she would wear a different colour next time as clearly “yellow jackets” were not working.

The chairman responded saying he had not seen her indicate to speak the only thing was “to dye the hair blond”.

On Radio Kerry on Tuesday Mr Sheahan first insisted he had done “nothing wrong” and had nothing to apologise for as it was simply a humorous comment to defuse the situation and move on what was a very busy meeting.

“I didn’t see Cllr Thornton when she indicated. Obviously she was annoyed. I have been in the same situation myself. It was a humorous comment, nothing else . . . It was a way to defuse the situation and move on with the meeting,” he said.

‘Humorous comment’

Pressed if he would have said the same about a male councillor, Mr Sheahan said he did not usually go around commenting on men’s hair – but again insisted it was “a humorous comment, nothing else”.

“On reflection”, however, he apologised after Ms Thornton said she was not hurt by the joke as she had developed a tough skin in politics, and it was a busy meeting, but it was not an appropriate place or time to make such a comment.

“I do think an apology would be appropriate,” Ms Thornton said.

Accepting the apology, she said : “I do think lessons need to be learned from instances like this.”

For females or other persons coming into politics, there were standards that needed to be kept in public office and females needed to be given balanced opportunity.

“It is difficult for women in politics,” Ms Thornton said.

In that context remarks such as Mr Sheahan’s were unhelpful.

Meanwhile, Bobby O’Connell, the general secretary of the Local Authority Members Association, the representative body for councillors said while sexism had not been raised by female councillors, there were issues about inequality of treatment for female councillors

“Being allowed maternity leave without it impacting on basic payments is an issue Lama is trying to address,” said Mr O’Connell, a Fine Gael councillor in Kerry.

Maternity leave

In order to get their full representative payments, councillors had to attend 80 per cent of meetings. However, female councillors were not allowed maternity leave and this was unfair to them, he said.

Niamh Gallagher, co-founder of Women For Election, which aims to inspire and equip women to enter politics, said local authorities were “critical pipelines” for women going on to the Dáil and more women were needed to be encouraged to enter local politics.

Nationally, just 21 per cent of councillors were women.

Not only was the lack of maternity leave for women councillors wrong , it sent a very clear signal to women of child-bearing age they were not welcome in local councils, she said.

“Anyone running for elected office should have the same entitlements as in other employments,” Ms Gallagher said.

Women for Election will launch a training programme shortly for women for the 2019 local elections, she said.