As Irish readers of this blog will perhaps know, over the past 24 hours or so there has been a lot of comment on the internet, particularly on Twitter, about the performance of the Labour Party’s spokesperson on Finance, Joan Burton, on a late night television programme. The programme was maybe 10 minutes into its allotted time when tweets began to appear suggesting that she was not handling herself well, was being too aggressive, was showing hostility towards a fellow panelist, was shrill, wasn’t listening, and so forth. I was working on something else at the time and wasn’t watching the programme, but as the initial trickle of tweets began to turn into a flood I became transfixed by it. Here, apparently, a well known member of the Irish parliament had spun out of control and was in meltdown. By the end of the programme, on the basis of the tweets, it appeared her career was over.
The next morning I decided to watch a recording of the programme on the TV station’s website. As far as I could see, Ms Burton was indeed highly assertive, she did focus strongly on the particular panelist mentioned, and she rather doggedly pursued a few issues, perhaps beyond the point where it made sense to do so. But the impression given by the tweets that she had become hysterical and had lost it seemed to me to be very wide of the mark. Furthermore, she didn’t show any greater aggression than had been shown a couple of weeks earlier by party colleague Pat Rabitte on another TV programme, and he had on the whole been praised for this approach.
I cannot help wondering about all this. In the course of this week’s programme Ms Burton had herself at one point voiced the suspicion that an assertive woman is still not always respected in politics. She may be right. In fact, the atmosphere of our parliamentary proceedings, both in Ireland and in Britain, has still not shaken off the male-only atmosphere of the Victorian era. Proceedings are quite unruly and often seem childish and puerile to the casual spectator, with insults and taunts thrown across the floor as a matter of routine. Working hours are bizarre and, for practical purposes, make it impossible for a member to exercise family responsibilities. Some reforms have been attempted, but not enough. Women still leave politics because they cannot adapt their lives to the male bachelor traditions.
Experience in other countries should enlighten us a little. Finland, with a century old tradition of female parliamentarians, seems to have got it about right. Even in the United States Sarah Palin’s ‘Mama Grizzlies’ can enter Congress without much bother (though for other reasons one might wonder about them). It is time to stop instinctively thinking of women politicians as intruders in a man’s world. It is time to show that we are not all like Sky television football reporters.