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27 November 2008 Edition

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Interview : Michelle Gildernew, the first minister in Ireland to give birth while in office

HAPPY FAMILY: Michelle with husband Jimmy and baby Aoise

HAPPY FAMILY: Michelle with husband Jimmy and baby Aoise

The need for women in decision-making

THE North’s Agriculture Minister and Sinn Féin MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, MICHELLE GILDERNEW, gave birth to a baby girl on 17 October, making her the first minister in Ireland to give birth while in office. Michelle spoke to EMMA CLANCY this week about the latest addition to her family, the experience of women in politics and Sinn Féin’s commitment to removing barriers to women’s participation in public life.

MICHELLE GILDERNEW said she was “absolutely delighted” at the birth of her daughter, who was born by water birth at Enniskillen’s Erne Hospital. Gildernew and her husband, Jimmy Taggart, named the baby Aoise Gerladine; Aoise is an ancient name for Ireland. The arrival adds to the Fermanagh/South Tyrone MP’s family of two young sons, six-year-old Emmet and three-year-old Eunan.
Michelle told An Phoblacht she was delighted to have a daughter so she could name her after her mother Geraldine Gildernew, whose actions in taking over a council house in Caledon in 1967 in protest at sectarian discrimination in housing allocation contributed to the upsurge in the Civil Rights movement.
“Aoise has a great role model in her grandmother,” she says.
Gildernew also pays tribute to her husband, Jimmy, who she says has been “brilliant” in providing her with support in balancing her family and political life. “It’s very much been a team effort,” she says.
The minister will be on maternity leave until after Christmas. While the majority of her ministerial work is being shared among other Sinn Féin ministers, she remains engaged and up to date with her department and will also be bringing Aoise with her to Brussels in December so  Michelle can represent the North in EU fisheries negotiations.
On having the distinction of being the first serving minister in Ireland to give birth, Gildernew says:
“The support of my colleagues in Sinn Féin and the party’s leadership has been crucial and my experience of bringing up a young family as an elected representative for Sinn Féin has been an entirely positive one.”

REMOVING BARRIERS
Gildernew says that while the fact that she is the first minister in office to give birth was a step forward, the fact that this hasn’t happened until now shows that the struggle to advance women’s rights and participation in politics has a long way to go.
“We are still pioneering the way forward to involving more women in political and public life. So we have to try to identify the problems we run into along the way and put forward solutions to remove these barriers for women.
“The lack of free or affordable childcare is a serious structural problem that throws up a wall for women moving into leadership positions – not just in politics but in all forms of employment – that must be addressed if we want to move forward to a society where women truly have equal opportunities.
“There are also practical issues that need to be dealt with in our political institutions and culture in Ireland. One of the main barriers that I’ve seen is the failure to make local government family-friendly.
“While I was not a local councillor myself, I’ve seen it time and again, where the fact that the majority of the council’s business is carried out in the evening prevents women with families from participating.
“Children will be at school during the day and in the evenings families want to spend time together. For many women, even if they were granted a large childcare grant, serving on the council would not be an option because they would never see their children. It automatically excludes them.
“If we look at the small proportion of women MLAs we have, we can see that the majority entered politics through local government. We need to try to shift the time that the council’s work is carried out to nine-to-five hours which is more suitable for most women and this is something I think needs to be raised in the Review of Public Administration that is currently being carried out of the North’s local government.”
Gildernew has also helped ensure practical changes at Stormont to provide breast-feeding and baby-changing facilities for parents before the birth of her first child in 2002. She says:
“Small, practical changes like this are important for women, not just practically but also in challenging the pervasive male-dominated culture.” 

PARTY SUPPORT
Gildernew tells An Phoblacht that the feminist ethos of Sinn Féin, as well as the friendship and support of her party colleagues, has been vital in giving her the opportunity to demonstrate her capabilities and provide leadership.
“When Gerry Adams asked me about becoming a minister, I felt very comfortable in telling him that I hadn’t completed my family,” she says.
“The Sinn Féin leadership is committed to actively advancing women’s position in society and we start in our own party by building a culture of understanding and awareness of the issues women face.
“I was elected as an MP in 2001 and my first child was born in 2002, so for virtually the entire time I’ve been an elected representative I’ve also been a mother. I have had no negative experiences in the party but received enormous support and encouragement. This culture is unfortunately just not evident in other political parties in Ireland.
“Sinn Féin has long been a leader in Irish society in advancing women’s rights and today, more than ever, we understand the vital need for women to be involved in public life and the decision-making process.
“Women have a huge wealth of skill, talent and energy to contribute to the republican struggle and we need to make sure that we remove the barriers to women making this contribution. We also need to make sure that this struggle for a democratic, united Ireland addresses the needs of women and the various different problems that women experience every day.”

  1968: Michelle’s mother, Geraldine (right), amongst Civil Rights  protesters outside Dungannon Courthouse – the family was at the centre of the infamous eviction in Caledon which prompted widespread protests about discrimination in housing allocation

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