Monica Barnes
MONICA BARNES

Political Development

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Profession/ Current priorities

Political Aims/ Priorities/ Assessments




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[ European Commission, DG V ]

© Jan 2001

European Database: Women in Decision-Making

Monica Barnes

Political Development

Deputy Monica Barnes TD has been with the Fine Gael party since the late 1970's when she contested the European elections in 1979. In 1973 she became politically active at that stage as co-founder of the then Council for the Status of Women, which played a role in monitoring Ireland's response to the recommendations in the Commission for the Status of Women. She became involved in this area of work while teaching as a substitute teacher and believing in equality and women's rights. In the 1970's she saw people marching for issues such as Human Rights, Apartheid, CND etc. Campaigns such as the CHANGE OR CHAINS, spearheaded by Mairin de Burca, focusing on equal pay, family planning and housing for all, demonstrated the power of lobbying and the collective voice. She was elected to the Dail November 1982.
There was no direct family link with political life however her father as she described was a very active and strong trade union representative. While she would say this did him no favors in his career Deputy Barnes attributes her sense of the need to right things and her activism to his Trade Union background. She would describe Dr Garret Fitzgerald a past leader of Fine Gael as someone she strongly admires and someone who was a strong supporter of her when she tried to break into politics. Other role models were women activists such as Betty de Van and Bella Abzug.
It was through her direct knowledge of women's needs, in particular through the informal gathering of a women's group during her time running a playgroup from her home when her first child was 2 years old, that Deputy Barnes became politically active. She would attribute her time on CSW - Council for the Status of Women (since 1995 National Women's Council of Ireland) as a turning point in her career path where she had to decided between doing a Teacher Training course or become more active in the CSW.
There have been no disruptions in the Deputy's career aside from initial difficulties in getting on the ticket and passing at convention and then being elected in a constituency where FG already had very strong candidates. Her perseverance, she says, simply paid off. She is now 64 years of age and describes this as her final season in politics.

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Party Affiliation

Deputy Barnes joined Fine Gael in the early 1980's. At this time the referendum on introducing divorce was being debated in Ireland and there were huge fears and lack of understanding. Loss of the pension was crucial for women as this was not covered in the legislation. At this time women were not allowed to work and had no economic independence so this was an essential ingredient in why divorce was not introduced . The Separation Bill introduced by Fine Gael recognised women in the home, the family home, pension rights and the payment of the lump sum. Divorce was introduced with a narrow margin in 1995. Deputy Barnes believes that strident work and lobbying to address peoples fears, respect their culture and beliefs, openly debate the issue of ownership and "the name on the land" and to have an understanding of issues relating to confidence was crucial.
When she first became active in the party Deputy Barnes was strongly supported by the then leader Dr Fitzgerald. He felt it was essential to have diversity in your representation. Fine Gael would see female candidates as crucial in political life.
While mentoring is not a formal process within Fine Gael supports are in place for new candidates etc. Deputy Barnes also points out to the supports extended by other women politicians, from other parties. Women do it differently and sometimes this can threaten the male approach. "What scheme or plan are you women hatching there" etc.

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Profession/ Current priorities

In the 1950's Deputy Barnes was strongly encouraged by her supportive parents and inspiring teachers throughout her education. She was strongly encouraged to have ambition and more than that of marrying and working for "pin money".
A scholarship student Deputy Barnes had first hand experience of exam stress and the pressure on young people to achieve. The examination for Mathematics was her direct experience of "going blank" however she believes that all happens for a reason and obviously third level academic career was not for her. She pursued a course in journalism, business studies which also provided for secretarial skills and moved to London where she was working in in-company training. She appreciated the money and attitudes of London and following a brief time back in Ireland she returned to London to work on the Stock Exchange - a time when women were not allowed on its floor. Deputy Barnes briefly worked in publishing and when offered a post as reader she decided to return to Ireland at a point of Now or never.
Back in Dublin Deputy Barnes worked in a Fish Merchants where her language and secretarial skills were fully used. During this time she was one of the co-founders of the National development Trust that ran a lottery to raise money for Cottage Industries. She also worked with a printers that to this day publishes the Dail Reports. While unusual for the time, she was allowed to stay on even after getting married however she had to leave this position when she was 5 months pregnant.
As a mother working in the home she became involved in women's discussion groups and ran an at home playgroup. Having direct experience of post-natal depression and being told by her doctor to "pull yourself together woman" she believes support groups and the opportunity to speak and swap stories is crucial. She launched the Support Group for women with Post Natal Depression.
Her career path then led to the Council for the Status of Women (now the National Women's Council of Ireland) which offered an opportunity to influence change on women's issues such as childcare, education, health, access and violence.

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Political Aims/ Priorities/ Assessments

Playing an active part in the Women's Rights Committee and the potential that offers to lobby and inform change has been crucial over the Deputy's political career. The groups that she has met inform her of change that needs to happen. Deputies need to be in touch with what's happening on the ground and lobbying which is becoming more sophisticated by the day is one central form of doing this. A collective approach on childcare, women's rights, rural women's issues, health, violence is essential from the outside in.
In addition on the inside to ensure visibility and the critical mass Deputy Barnes believes that Positive Action is crucial. While she has seen many changes over the years with women making great strides in other areas of life she describes politics as almost the "Cinderella". She would attribute this to the model of political life of the past where male politicians have had "wives" as a crucial support system not just for home and family but central in the local constituency and political work. In addition women find this a hostile environment which is still male dominated - examples such as the members bar and the adversarial approach with partisan attitudes. Deputy Barnes says that while this is improving in Irish politics she likens the past approach to "bold boys in a school yard". There certainly is much more order now. This approach of scoring points is not acceptable and women are totally alienated from that. Women are not hecklers or insult traders.
If the critical mass of 1/3 is achieved change will follow. While we are seeing improvement Ireland is as yet a far cry from this critical mass. Visibility in the parliament is key.
There has been an attempt to mainstream gender equality and women's rights across all political decision-making. This is a positive move but only alongside positive or affirmative action. For example Women's Rights is only a sub-committee in Ireland. Deputy Barnes feels that we still need the gender focus. An initiative in the European Parliament spearheaded by Belgium and Germany promotes Women's Rights committees to be committees in their own right and have established an EU wide Network to promote this strategy. She is hopeful that this will be the case in Ireland following the election of the next Government.
The pressure needs to be maintained by National Organisations and those organisations supported under EU or other projects - need positive action alongside mainstreaming approach. NOW was one major mechanism, the National Development Plan Equality proofing strategy has enormous potential. The Employment Action plans and the Fourth Pillar are magic words. However words are not enough and it is the weakest pillar at present. There is a need to keep pressing to strengthen it.
Gender proofing of Structural funds with each Government Department will be crucial. UN and Beijing +5 are also critical. This Beijing Platform for Action has been a sharp learning curve for Ireland but the value of like-minded countries networking cannot be underestimated. Deputy Barnes says that the Women's Rights sub-committee plan to go to Beijing +5 in New York in June 2000, funding pending and following approval.
In an ideal world - one of the biggest blocks are the hours and how we do the business. She would remove the late night sittings. She respects the fact that rural politicians prefer to sit late and have 3 days but there must be an alternative approach.
Deputy Barnes says that the Committee system is improving this gradually. However to attract young people into politics Ireland needs to explore other models. For Example in South Africa there is one week committees/one week in assembly/ on week local/one week for briefings etc. Time each week in National chamber is seen as essential. A possible approach could be specified segments of time, or where delegates from each party are represented at crucial times. There is a need to study Scandinavian and the new Scottish model which has glowing reports about its success. They seem to be getting it right.
Deputy Barnes is very optimistic about the future. Change is happening at a greater speed that she ever imagined when she started in the 70's and 80's. Women will be the architects of this future. We have pushed flexi-time which was rejected initially until the benefits were noticed. Then Job-sharing the same. Such changes in a working world where a value is now placed on quality of life and where family friendly partnerships are crucial are all being pushed by the next generation. Models are being created that have never been created before. The Quality of life and focus on priorities are far different now. The power share between men and women in relationships is becoming much more balanced. 2010 will be a very different world - for the better.

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