Miriam Lord’s Week: A win for the invisible women of Leinster House

The lack of recognition for the cleaners of this (very big) building is about to be rectified

Leinster House is a big old building, and big old buildings are a devil to keep clean.

The cleaners – almost all women – are on the go from the crack of dawn to the end of the day. They do a hard job and a good job and are unfailingly pleasant when you meet them around the place.

These women appear to have been subject to an Upstairs, Downstairs regime in Leinster House, left without basic facilities available to other workers in the building. A more probable explanation is that they were simply overlooked by the powers-that-be on Kildare Street.

Now representations have been made on their behalf to the all-powerful Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. Most of the cleaners are employed by an outside contractor, ISS.

The chairwoman of the Irish Women’s Parliamentary Caucus, Fiona O’Loughlin, wrote to the Ceann Comhairle last month after a concerned female member of the permanent staff drew her attention to the cleaners’ circumstances and how they did not enjoy facilities open to the rest of the workers on the Leinster House campus.

This included use of the self-service restaurant and the coffee dock frequented by politicians, staff, media and visitors. They had no lockers, no place to change, no dedicated rest or meeting area, no way of making a cup of tea or access to the wifi.

Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl, who heads the commission, quickly responded to Senator Fiona O’Loughlin’s email. He indicated steps were already under way to improve the situation.

“At the outset, I should state that the cleaning staff, who are mainly employed by ISS, are a very important part of our parliamentary community. They perform a function that is very much appreciated and indeed they have made, and continue to make, a major contribution to the Houses of the Oireachtas during the Covid-19 pandemic,” he wrote, before giving a rundown on the current situation.

He has been advised that all the cleaning staff may use kitchenettes around the complex, the self-service restaurant and the coffee dock. A Portacabin has been set up for use in a service yard to the side of the building. This is a temporary measure, and once Covid-19 restrictions have eased, the commission will be in a much better place to consider a dedicated space for the cleaning staff.

“A kettle, fridge and microwave will be provided shortly (these appliances are ordered).”

The facilities unit is examining the installation of lockers, while there is no difficulty in providing access to wifi.

“As similar correspondence was considered by the Oireachtas Commission at its meeting on November 30th, 2020, there may be some misunderstanding regarding the provision of the above facilities. I have therefore requested that ISS be informed in writing of same.”

Well done to the TDs and Senators of the Women’s caucus for standing up for all women in the Oireachtas – including the contract cleaners, all too often the invisible women.

One big Leinster House family

The Irish Women's Parliamentary Caucus has been very busy of late, announcing this week that the Oireachtas Commission and the Finance Committee are supporting its request for the provision of a family room in the Leinster House complex to support the needs of members with young children.

Chairwoman Fiona O’Loughlin will also sit on a special group that has been set up to examine and establish family-friendly policies in Leinster House.

This throws some light on a cryptic remark by the Ceann Comhairle at the end of the annual debate to mark International Women’s Day.

“I hope to be in a position, on behalf of members, to announce an initiative in the next week or two that would demonstrate practical moves this Dáil can take to ensure that in the future we have far more women present in the Dáil and Seanad and a more family-friendly and inclusive – and I mean inclusive in all its manifestations – parliament,” Seán Ó Fearghaíl told the House, without going into more detail.

We understand he has set up the forum on a family-friendly and inclusive parliament, “a hugely important initiative for the Houses of the Oireachtas which will herald the beginning of significant and positive changes for all working in our parliamentary community”.

The forum has 16 members, drawn from inside and outside the world of politics. Its remit is to propose “practical and achievable recommendations which will lead to a more diverse representation in our national parliament, an improved general working environment for all who work in our parliamentary community and for our parliament to be an attractive and rewarding career option for both men and women of all ages”.

The group, chaired by former Labour TD Mary Upton, includes Uruemu Adejinmi, a Fine Gael councillor in Longford; Alison Cowzer, chairwoman of Women for Election; businesswoman Norah Casey; Jim Clarken, chief executive of Oxfam Ireland and member of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission; barrister Tom Mallon; academic Fiona Buckley of UCC; TDs Holly Cairns and Neale Richmond; and Senators O'Loughlin, Fintan Warfield and Lisa Chambers.

The group meets for the first time later this month, and though it can prepare reports on an interim basis, the deadline for its final report is October 31st.

The Ceann Comhairle has pledged his full support to seeing the forum’s recommendations implemented in the lifetime of the current Dáil and Seanad.

Shameless MacSharry

Last week we told you about Fianna Fáil politicians jumping the gun and announcing grants from the Urban Regeneration and Development Fund before they were officially announced by the Minister on Friday.

This week, Fine Gaelers were trying to steal a march by trumpeting the good news to local media the night before Minister for Housing Darragh O'Brien released details of money for projects in the west. Mayo TDs Alan Dillon and Michael Ring blasted out of the traps with welcome confirmation of an €11 million injection of funds for Castlebar.

“This is something I have been working on for the past two years,” Ring told the Connaught Telegraph.

"I have been working with Ministers Darragh O'Brien and Peter Burke at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to secure this funding," Dillon told the same publication.

It’s doubtful they got the news in advance from Fianna Fáil’s O’Brien so they must have done a number on Burke, a Fine Gael junior minister, to get the goods.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil's Marc MacSharry got an early steer from the other side and welcomed a "€47,840,000 game-changer for Sligo". He was cock-a-hoop on Facebook on Thursday night. MacSharry, never one to hide his light under a bushel, declared: "I am delighted to have been able to secure 100 per cent of the funding necessary to secure the future of critical improvements to the Sligo metropolitan area." He managed this by "working with Minister O'Brien since last summer and in particular in the course of the last six months".

The money is part of the latest round of grants under the Project 2040 national development plan, launched by Fine Gael with huge fanfare in 2018.

Back then, MacSharry caused ructions in the Dáil when he accused Fine Gael of holding “a €45,000 Goebbels-style launch” in Sligo while giving little funding to the town. The party was “stealing taxpayers’ money” with “candidate promotion events” in regional newspapers featuring politicians claiming the credit for securing Project 2040 grants for their area.

Marc would never do that.

Where’s the housing, like?

If Darragh O’Brien has been looking a bit shook of late it’s not surprising.

He has been persecuted for months by legions of TDs who claim to be working very closely with him while they heroically browbeat grant money out of him for the constituency – at least that’s what they tell the locals.

How the Minister managed to get a minute to himself since assuming office is a mystery.

And then there is the pasting his affordable homes scheme has been given by the Opposition – along with some backbenchers closer to home.

Darragh’s plans to tour the country in triumph, announcing the latest round of Urban Regeneration and Development Fund spending, was scuppered this week following charges that the Malahide-based Minister for Housing was breaking the 5km Covid travel limit for non-essential PR purposes.

He is confined to barracks and forced to break the good news in online bulletins and radio interviews while the likes of Simon Coveney are allowed to jet off to Tehran to help resuscitate the Iranian nuclear deal with world powers.

And now the Taoiseach, anxious for progress in the provision of affordable homes, is on his case and keeping a very close eye. We hear Micheál Martin keeps repeating the same simple mantra at Darragh during meetings. It’s best imagined in a frustrated Cork accent, with rising inflection:

“Where’s the Housing? Where’s the housing, like?”

And speaking of Coveney, Cabinet colleagues are to be commended for keeping a straight face during his lengthy report on his UN Security Council trip to Iran last week.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs met President Hassan Rouhani and Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif. It seems to have been a worthwhile engagement.

Coveney informed the Cabinet he had a 20-minute slot with the Iranians but he ended up talking for three hours.

Funnily enough, this snippet of information did not come as a surprise to the rest of the Cabinet, and it soon made its way back to highly amused Fine Gael backbenchers.

“It’s the first time I ever felt sympathy for the ayatollahs,” chuckled one.

A moment of levity would have been welcome in what must have been a very glum week at Cabinet, with the Government not being able to go abroad for the usual St Patrick’s week jollifications.

Stephen Donnelly, to be fair to him, tried to crack a joke in an attempt to lighten the mood.

At least the St Patrick’s Day celebrations are still going ahead in Auckland, he remarked, “if anyone wants to send me there!”

It went down like a lead balloon. But full marks for trying.