Note to women: you owe the EU more than you think


It's frustrating that many women do not know the source of legislation which benefits them so much

AT A friend's house for dinner the other night there was much hilarity as we entertained her foreign-born husband with stories of long ago. Ireland's Fertility Tales - from sins of sex without procreation to condoms on prescription - gave us lots of fodder. Pity our poor mothers, enslaved by Church and State, now reduced to providing amusing material for dinner parties.

The husband's credulity reached breaking point when we told him about the marriage bar. As he protested the truth of our claims that women were required by law to leave most jobs upon marrying, my friend conceded that this all happened a long time ago and went out in the 1960s. Not so, I countered. The marriage bar was only abolished in 1973 when we joined the EEC. We were still toddlers, actively driving our mothers to insanity. For them there were no careers, no creches and no spa breaks. There was general astonishment that a law so medieval existed such a relatively short time ago.

What astonishes me is not only that women have forgotten how recently they were liberated from these draconian laws, but also that they've blotted out the identity of their liberators. When I read in the recent Irish Times/TNS mrbi poll that 40 per cent of "decided" women would vote No at another Lisbon Treaty referendum, I think it's time for more storytelling.

Though Ireland possessed a small band of vocal feminists, deliverance did not come from domestic forces but from the so-called bureaucrats in Brussels. Yet here we are, celebrating Nell McCafferty's nakedness in the RHA, but treacherously turning on the political institution to whom we owe much of our freedom. Nell's consciousness-raising was always important - but it was European law that gave us equal pay for equal work. Indulging Nell with a chuckle while giving Europe the two fingers does our sex no service.

Don't assume the Irish State would have given women their entitlements. Ireland was dragged kicking and screaming to the land of equal pay. When we joined the EEC, Labour's Michael O'Leary was minister for labour, and Patrick Hillery was Ireland's first European commissioner and in charge of social affairs. Far from welcoming a bit of wimmin's lib, Ireland asked for a derogation from those bits of EEC legislation we found troublesome. The marriage bar was abolished on joining, but O'Leary asked for a derogation on the issue of equal pay for equal work.

Even though Hillery was Ireland's commissioner, he did what commissioners are supposed to do, and despite the protests of his own government, insisted that European law was implemented. There aren't many now who would believe a Fianna Fáil European commissioner forced a Labour Party minister to introduce equal pay for women.

O'Leary argued on behalf of the State that "women's rights" was all very well, but Ireland simply couldn't afford to pay women the same price as men for the same work. You'll generally find that attempts to deny equality to any minority - women, homosexuals, the disabled, refugees or foreign workers - depend upon economics. The argument goes, as it did in 1973, that fundamental rights are a luxury we cannot afford. Fortunately, "Brussels" told the Irish state to sod off and equal pay for equal work became law.

Thirty-five years later, my peers belong to a generation who simper that they don't like to be labelled feminists for fear that someone might think they have an aversion to waxing. It's deeply frustrating that those women not only take for granted every right that was hard won, but don't appear to know the source of the legislation which benefits them so greatly.

If you think 1973 is ancient history, peruse the list of other European laws that lifted women out of their dependency status: maternity leave, maternity pay, parental leave, anti-sexual discrimination laws and health and safety directives for pregnant and breastfeeding workers. Do you think one item on that list would have been offered up graciously by our penny-pinching, socially conservative governments? Even today, other issues that women fret about, like food safety, consumer rights or the rights of part-time workers - of whom women constitute a considerable number - are driven by the EU.

It's particularly grating listening to Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald complain about the EU when, as a young working mother, she owes so much to their maligned directives. Number two on Sinn Féin's list of 10 Reasons to Vote Against Lisbon says that the "treaty gives the EU too much power and reduces our ability to stop decisions that are not in Ireland's interest".

Funny, but reducing our ability to stop EU decisions sounds like a plus to me. What if O'Leary had had the power to stop equal pay? Slagging off Brussels is a cheap shot, especially when that's exactly where everyone from women to environmentalists to homosexuals rush when they want to stop Irish decisions which are not in their interest. The ability of Brussels to override our laws is exactly what Irish people, particularly women, gain most from membership of the EU.

Does gratitude to Europe for victories on equality issues create an obligation for future loyalty? I say the past is a good guide to the future. Who do you trust to vindicate your rights: the Irish State or the Brussels bureaucrats? Based on the track record, Brussels is the sound winner.

Some say we have voted No and shouldn't have to vote again. But sure you know what they say: it's a woman's prerogative to change her mind.