Seanad debates

Monday, 22 February 2021

10:30 am

Pauline O'Reilly (Green Party)

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach, the Minister of State and the Independent Senators for bringing this matter forward.

At the outset, it is not correct to say that any of us - in any party or non-party - have been silent on this issue. As Senator Moynihan has outlined, having been on local authorities most of us are deeply aware of this issue and understand the amount of work that goes into being a councillor. I have also brought this up on the floor of the Chamber and the Leader has brought forward a letter to the Minister of State based on my representation there. I am also aware that the Labour Party has put forward Commencement matters on this issue. It is not correct to say that those two parties have been silent but we should not politicise this. This is something that we all want to work on and to see resolved.

It is a great honour to be elected as a councillor. As I have said, almost all of us here have been elected to local authorities. This usually comes after years of voluntary work with our communities. It can be really hard to put one’s hands up and say that life can be really difficult as a councillor. Councillors want to be there, but they are saying that they are underpaid and need to be paid a decent living. I was elected in 2019, after some of the other Senators here, but I did it full-time and did not get paid anything else other than the €17,700 a year. Many other councillors have served for much longer but the key point is that it was hard to make ends meet. I had no childcare for my children and it was not paid for. What happens is that women drop out of local government. How many years can such people actually stay in local authorities? When I became a councillor in Galway City Council, no mothers had been elected on to the previous council. There were women but none who had children. In fact somebody who was elected in the previous election in 2014 had to let go of her seat when she became pregnant and a man took it. I am not saying that we should not make way for other councillors if things change. I would hate to think that someone would stop being a councillor because of a lack of childcare or maternity leave. Councillors in rural constituencies, in particular, find that the amount of time they spend travelling on the road is just too much to bear. Even if one does not have a full-time job, one has other responsibilities.

I believe that the Minister of State is willing to make the necessary changes. As many others have said - it was particularly eloquently put by Senator Craughwell - these changes have taken years to come. Some €17,700 is not enough, even if things had not changed in 2014, since when a great deal more has been expected of councillors.

One of the councillors within my own party was a full-time nurse with five children, and as a councillor had to give up being a nurse because it was just not possible. Councils are supposed to be microcosms of society. We have councils across this country where we do not have people from diverse backgrounds. Women account for just 6% of the members of some councils.

I wish to give a shout-out to some of the caucuses and women’s committees. I know that Councillor Lonergan has written to the Minister of State on this issue and he responded last week.There are a lot more women on some councils than on others so, while there can be a caucus and a committee on some councils, if someone is on a council like Laois County Council, where there is only one woman, that person is a committee of one. How are they going to really advocate for themselves on that committee?

I would like to give a shout out to Councillor Mary Hoade, the first woman elected as president of the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG. One of her first acts was to call for maternity leave for women in local government because it is outrageous that they do not have maternity leave. However, this goes beyond maternity leave. I have a copy of the letter from the Department in regard to maternity leave. This issue is beyond leave. It is about the fact people cannot engage in proxy voting, so if a person does not turn up, their party cannot be confident they will be able to carry a vote, and that needs to be sorted out. There is no administrative facility to do all of the kind of work that Senator Moynihan has laid out. We need administrative support, at the very least, if we are going to be juggling work with having a very small baby. There are many things that need to be looked at apart from the increase in salary.

I know the Minister of State has set up the task force, which is a very good move. However, we have a commitment in the programme for Government for this to be addressed within 12 months. As I am sick of saying, 40% of the membership of this House are women and that is why these things really matter to us. I am sure that is why Fine Gael put forward a proposal on maternity leave. I want to see that happen. I do not want us to have to keep standing up and using our time in the Seanad to address this issue of councillors’ pay, which actually stands on its own two feet.

I have huge problems with the Moorhead report, as many people do. It shows a complete lack of respect for councillors in the kind of language it uses. As a councillor in the Green Party said to me, it is all very well telling us we should not engage in representations, but what are we going to do - not answer our emails, not answer the phone? What kind of a public representative would I be then?

I thank the Minister of State for his time and I look forward to hearing from him. I know that everybody in the House is going to keep on his back over this, so sorry about that, but that is what he gets paid the big bucks for.

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