Last night I toddled off to bed way too late after staying up to watch ‘Tonight with Vincent Browne’ followed by Primetime on RTE. Both programmes were on much later than usual to give us an insight into the workings of our Parliament as the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill was being voted upon. Twitter was as usual great craic particularly as the team on TV3 kept rolling out pairs of TDs to be interviewed outside Dail Eireann by Vincent who was in studio. There was Fidelma Healy Eames who faced sideways to camera and kept her finger in her ear the whole time and better still was Peter Matthews who kept his eyes fixed on the floor. All of this to the distant chants and prayers of protesters gathered at the gates of Leinster House. The subject being discussed in the chamber was serious but the theatrical element of this late night sitting was captured beautifully especially by TV3.
As I bid farewell to Twitter at about 2am, I did wonder about what kind of Banana Republic has a Parliament sitting until 5am. It’s not like war had just been declared and there was a fierce urgency to their deliberations. I wondered if the Dail Bar was still open – Gerry Adams had referred to the number of staff that were being kept late by this rather melodramatic approach to serious legislation. As I climbed under my very light sheet I wondered why a workplace has a bar anyway.
I woke this morning to another fabulously sunny, hot day; nothing like it to put a smile on your face and banish all negativity. But then I turned on my phone and found that my Twitter feed was a blaze of anger and indignation over what had, by about 8:30am, become known as #lapgate.
You all know the details. During a break in the early morning proceedings, TD Tom Barry (FG) grabbed his female colleague Aine Collins and pulled her onto his lap. Barry has since issued a sincere apology for the incident and apparently Ms Collins has accepted it.
So – should that be the end of it?
No I don’t think so. This kind of casual, sexist behaviour is an appalling abuse of male power and strength. To be a woman on the receiving end of such boorish attention is humiliating and intimidating. It is also against the law and has no place whatsoever in the workplace. The fact that this workplace was our national parliament – the seat of our democracy and cradle of our legislation makes it even more offensive. Dail Eireann by its very nature has to be a place where the laws of the country are upheld with transparency and vigour.
I was angry when I viewed the recording of the incident last night. I accept that there was no malice intended... but that is not the point. Tom Barry’s actions undermined the natural equality and dignity all women in the chamber. But also have a look at the men around at the time... no one looks shocked or perturbed.
As the firestorm on Twitter took flight this morning a Fine Gael spokesperson was quoted as saying that it was all a bit of horseplay and nothing more. It was the polished version of ‘calm down girls and get a grip’. This is far more worrying. At a time when our Government is committed, through the system of quotas, to recruiting more women into politics, the main Government party thinks grabbing a female colleague and forcing her onto a lap is just a bit of nothing.
Journalist Colette Browne wrote recently of her own experience of this kind of everyday sexism in The Examiner. As I read it I slowly became aware that I too had encountered just such ‘abuse’ in my past. I have a vivid memory of when I was about 14 walking home from school alone, in my school uniform in bright summer sunshine. I passed a workman involved in roadworks nearby and as I did he casually put his hand right up my skirt. He said nothing and walked on by. At the time I got a shock but, said nothing. Told no one. When I read Colette’s account of her own experiences I realised that for generations of young women being subjected to this kind of predatory behaviour and violation was commonplace. We accepted it. That’s the tragedy.
And it is that silence which is now deafening from the women TDs of Dail Eireann.
Individually some have posted comments on Twitter but I am very dismayed that there is not an organised statement from these women, across all parties calling for an assurance that no women (or man) will be subject to such humiliation in the future.
I have to admit I was late to this party. Having been out of the workforce for ten years, and having always worked in female dominated industries I can honestly say that I never experienced sexual discrimination or harassment in the workplace. I am also 6 feet tall which probably provides me with some protection from being grabbed and man- handled at the whim of a passing stranger or colleague.
I have always believed that the world is largely as we find it and if you want to look for problems you will find them. As women we are lucky that our rights as equal citizens are enshrined in law so we can be reasonably sure that we cannot be discriminated against in any overt way.
But I am now realising that sexism is alive and well and thriving just below the radar. It is just as wrong and possibly more damaging not only to women but to our society. It is time that we all call it out whenever we see it happening. And it starts at the top – in Dail Eireann.
Thank God the cameras were rolling.... cos to me it sure didn’t look like anyone who was present was much disturbed by what they saw.
Note: later in the day Fine Gael changed their tune and issued a statement which described the behaviour of their TD as unacceptable.