A special Cabinet meeting was held recently to mark the Government collecting the last few tokens it required to claim a new kettle for the ministerial kitchenette.
The celebratory gathering last Friday may have been a short one, but it was “special”, requiring a special off-campus venue and special photographs to record the occasion.
The meeting also marked International Women’s Day. There was a particular focus on gender equality as it comes with extra tokens, which is wonderful because the Taoiseach has his eye on a four-slice toaster.
The Cabinet, of course, meets every week to discuss issues of national importance which are deemed relevant enough to make the agenda as a matter of course and don’t need to be designated as special.
This is where the real decisions are made.
Just 21 per cent of women were elected at local level in 2014, a figure well below the European average
Nonetheless, despite the token song and dance made about an International Women's Day Cabinet meeting, it came with the good news announcement that Ireland has ratified the Istanbul Convention.
The convention is a significant international agreement obliging governments to fully address the issue of violence against women, to protect women against all forms of violence and to prosecute perpetrators.
Ireland signed the convention three years ago and is now the 34th out of 47 Council of Europe member states to ratify it.
There were many announcements in the wake of this special Cabinet meeting, including one which was so good it had to be made twice.
On Monday, Minister for State John Paul Phelan issued a press release announcing how he and senior Minister Eoghan Murphy "secured Cabinet agreement on a range of new measures to promote increased participation by women in the upcoming local elections and greater gender equality on local councils".
Good idea. Just 21 per cent of women were elected at local level in 2014, a figure well below the European average. Following “consultations with key stakeholders” the Government agreed a series of measures designed to redress the balance.
These include an information campaign, special training and network events, the introduction of family-friendly policies in local councils and continuing financial support for the Women for Election organisation.
One measure has gone down well with the political parties. A new funding scheme is being rolled out in time for the elections in May “to incentivise political parties to increase the proportion of female candidates”.
The money will be paid over after the election and is “ring-fenced for political party activities to promote the participation of women in local elections”.
Good news for the parties, but not much help to the many women intending to stand as Independents. Samantha Long, who is running in Dublin's Kimmage-Rathmines ward, immediately rattled off a letter to The Irish Times complaining that the proposal is unfair to Independent candidates who will receive nothing.
She pointed out that political parties received almost €6 million in State funding in 2017. This latest injection would allocate a further €500,000 to “already generously funded party machines”.
She wrote that if the Government really wanted to see more women elected to public office it wouldn’t bring in a scheme “where some candidates are more equal than others, namely the women who hold a political party membership card, particularly given the strong swing towards non-aligned Independents recorded in last week’s Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll”.
Long tweeted the letter, drawing it to the particular attention of all the female Independent TDs.
‘Open to all’
John Paul Phelan swiftly tweeted a reply: “I’ve instructed officials to make sure the scheme is open to all.”
“What does that mean?” asked a Twitter user called Steve, not unreasonably.
John Paul, missing the point, responded: “Basically that we need to drastically increase upon the 21 per cent of councillors who are women.”
Samantha Long came back to explain that Steve was asking “what it now means for Independents like me, not the generalities” while complimenting him on his “great Richard Bruton-style” response which is “to answer what you want, not the actual question”.
Independent Senator Gerard Craughwell took up the cudgels a few hours later in the Seanad.
Before he stressed he couldn't interfere in the planning process, the Tánaiste thanked Healy-Rae for the compliment
“When will the Government recognise there is more to Irish politics than political parties?” he asked. It seems Phelan is offering €100 per female candidate to political parties but “what about the fine Independent women who represent their local communities throughout the country?”
While Craughwell was happy to see the Government provide funding to boost the election of more women, “the notion that it applies only to political parties is repugnant in every way”.
All the Independent women are now waiting to find out whether John Paul’s declaration “to make sure the scheme is open to all” will work in practice.
Perhaps he will give them tokens which can be redeemed at a later date.
Motherly wisdom of Healy-Raes
The Dáil is well familiar with the names of Jackie Healy-Rae, Micheal Healy-Rae and Danny Healy-Rae. And with a plethora of little Healy-Raes flying around on various levels of the political nursery slopes in Kerry, a few more Healy-Raes may land up in Leinster House in the future.
But another one made it into the Dáil record on Wednesday – Mammy Healy-Rae.
Her son, Micheal, in the course of a very passionate contribution about An Bord Pleanála overturning the granting of planning permission for a hotel in Ballinskelligs following an objection, resorted to his mother's wisdom.
An Bord Pleanála “is an out of control monster in the decisions it is making” he thundered. The same can be said for An Taisce. The people in those organisations “need to be reined in”.
“The late Julie Healy-Rae, my mother, always said that if An Taisce in its present format were there in the 1940s and 1950s, we would have no rural electrification quite simply because they would have objected to the poles going up to run the wires into people’s homes in the countryside. And that is a fact, and if you think seriously about it, she was right. There would be no light in rural Ireland if the people that are around today were around then, well, we wouldn’t have light now.”
‘Hunted out of Athenry’
Objectors to planning permission had robbed a community in south Kerry of a social focal point and a source of employment in the same way that Apple was “hunted out of Athenry” by objectors, he fumed.
"Tánaiste, what in the name of God is going to be done in Ireland to deal with the planning process?" he asked Simon Coveney. "How are we going to root out these serial objectors, these do-gooders for nothing?
“They never did anything, they never created anything in their lives only writing out a stupid piece of paper giving €20 to a local authority or €200 to Bord Pleanála and then we have people inside An Bord Pleanála who will go against everything.
“They go against Government policy, they go against local authority policy, our elected members, members of our county councils who are democratically elected. And them people then will throw all that out the window and rob us.”
Michael felt he would get a decent hearing from the Tánaiste, unlike You Know Who, who is normally in the chair for Leaders' Questions. The Rural Independents Group and the Healy-Raes in particularly have little time for Leo Varadkar.
“Tánaiste, you know these things in your heart and soul and it’s good to be asking a person of substance and ability and able to answer a question. And you know my feelings on that and I’m very glad to see you sitting there and the longer you actually sit there the better it might be” he said, buttering up Coveney.
Before he stressed he couldn’t interfere in the planning process, the Tánaiste thanked Healy-Rae for the compliment.
“I sense a bit of a honey trap here,” he giggled.
There was silence in the chamber before Micheál Martin hastily interjected: “We’ll spare you that.”
There were warm tributes from all sides of the House on Tuesday for Patricia Doran, who retired from the Civil Service this week after 28 years' toil in Leinster House.
“Patricia typifies all that is good, decent and honourable about the Civil Service,” said the Ceann Comhairle, who also referred to her “encyclopaedic knowledge of standing orders, salient rulings of the chair and general procedural matters”.
The Tánaiste said he knew Patricia wouldn’t be comfortable with all the attention she was receiving in the chamber. “Normally, she is facilitating the other egos in this House to be the centre of attention,” he remarked. “Without people like Patricia Doran, democracy as we know it today would not function.”
Claire Daly spoke on behalf of Independents 4 Change and as a member of the Business Committee, which came under Patricia's remit. "It has been my privilege to work alongside her. She embodies a quintessential lady with the heart of a tiger which I think is what we need. She is firm and effective. The world's gain is our loss in here. I wish her all the very best."
There was a period poverty box in the public concourse of Leinster House all week. After three days in situ, it was full to the brim with donated sanitary products, and bags containing more were piled up on the floor at the base of it.
The exercise was part of an initiative by the Oireachtas Women's Caucus to highlight the issue of period poverty, a term describing how girls and women sometimes can't afford to buy necessary sanitary products.
The Caucus held an information meeting on the issue on Tuesday in the lead-up to its Dáil motion on Wednesday calling for the provision of free sanitary products and menstrual information in all public buildings.
Catherine Martin of the Greens, who chairs the Women's Caucus, said she was delighted their cross-party motion received the full support of the Dáil.
But she was disappointed by the lack of engagement from male TDs. The large AV room was packed for their information meeting, but just two male deputies turned up – her party leader, Eamon Ryan, and the Independent TD for Clare, Dr Michael Harty. A few more managed to make it into the Dáil.
‘Mention of menstruation’
“Mention of menstruation appears only 27 times in the Oireachtas record,” said Martin, and this was usually to do with issues around fertility and childbearing. “Now that figure is nearer to 70.”
Fine Gael’s Marcella Corcoran-Kennedy, vice-chair of the caucus, mentioned their press conference on the plinth earlier in the day.
“Four female journalists were in attendance. Disappointingly, not one male journalist saw fit to attend, not one television station, including our State broadcaster, saw fit to cover this item. So we certainly have an uphill battle ahead to have this important issue discussed more widely when those responsible covering the news stories don’t consider this issue important enough to turn up.”
We hope she noticed our own Harry McGee above on the press gallery during the debate. He was making amends for entering an Ethiopian monastery on a trip with the Taoiseach last year when female journalists and female members of the Taoiseach’s party were told to wait.