WIP Class Intern, Wilmé Verwoerd talks Politics, Leadership and the Role of Women in Politics with Senator Ivana Bacik of the Labour Party.What were you doing when you were my age? (21)
Ha-ha oh 21, I was just going to ask. I never like to guess. I had just been elected as the president of the students union in Trinity College when I was 21 in 1989, which was a one year post on sabbatical and I graduated that year in Law, so I stood for election in my final year.
Oh so you were only 21 when you graduated, you were very young?
Yes, well I started college when I was 17. I was a year younger.
How did you get to where you are today?
Well it wasn’t a very steady progress or anything; there was a whole series of different steps. I emigrated to London after my year in the union. I did a Masters in law there, qualified as a barrister and started teaching part time and loved it, and then got the job back in Dublin teaching, because basically in Dublin it is easier to combine teaching law with practicing law. That’s what I wanted to do so I did that for some years. I ran for election for the Senate a couple of times and lost and then eventually got elected in 2007 and then got re-elected in 2011 so I did various things…so that’s really the short version.
Who was the most influential person in your life and why?
Oh my mother. My mom is a very staunch feminist. She had me when she was very young. She was only 23.
As was mine, she was only 23 when she had me.
Oh really, she is very young. I was wondering. I didn’t quite tally how she had a daughter that was already a student. I’m the other way round. My daughters are only 4 and 6. So we started a lot later…but so my mom was very young when I was growing up and I’m the oldest of four, two girls and two boys. She taught us all to be feminist including my brothers who are very strong feminists and she was/is also very political. She joined the Labour Party when she lived in London in her 20s when we were small because she was a very committed socialist also. She came from a Fine Gael family, so it was out of the ordinary, but still I followed her politics. My mother is still very passionate and idealistic about her politics, which is great. That’s where I get it.
My story is very similar – but my brother always winds my mom up with the feminist issue so he will wind her up and say things like get in the kitchen and do the cooking.
Oh tell him my brothers are very good cooks.
Yes my brother is ok now, he makes a good crepe, but that’s about it.
What advice would you give to a young university graduate from Ireland?
Well I suppose it is to cease every opportunity that you get but to do what you really want to. I see too many students and graduates particularly in law who think, particularly when times are bad that if they get a trainee ship in a big commercial law firm that that’s what they should get/do because its steady and so on, but its not what they like or are passionate about human rights, for example.
Yes, but there is no money in human rights? (Jokingly)
Yes there is no money in human rights. But at the same time, at my end, I’ve seen so many people burnt out and frustrated by working in an area of law that they really don’t like. Having said that, I have many friends who are satisfied and fulfilled by doing commercial law, but it wouldn’t have been for me. I was fortunate enough early on, I think when I was still a student, I did a couple of internships in solicitors firms where they did commercial law and very little litigation and then I knew it wasn’t for me then so … Do what you want to do … but also the other thing that I always tell my own law students is not to feel that decisions you are making now are going to dictate the rest of your life either because again, I know plenty of people who switched from law. And law is a great career to go into later in life. I mean one of the best barristers, in education law, I know was a principal in a school and took early retirement in her late 40’s. So you know there are other ways of getting where you want to go. Lots of people in law get there through other means.
What would you describe as being the 3 most important leadership qualities to have and develop when considering a career in politics?
I suppose it is to have a thick skin first of all. It is essential. You won’t get very far without that. Confidence, which is really very similar but also slightly different in having confidence in being able to speak publicly and being able to think on your feet. But then finally I think you need another life. You need a private life and some other interests to keep you sane.
Even if the media tries to find everything out about your private life?
Well yes that is a problem…and that’s the thick skin isn’t it? But it is still ,important to maintain your private life. I don’t mean necessarily just your family but also another passion that you can escape to that isn’t just politics.
To date, what do you feel has been your biggest accomplishment in your career in politics?
I have a few things I suppose. I am really proud of having initiated a bill to prohibit female genital mutilation [in Ireland], which was passed into law this year. I am thrilled about that. The second thing is quotas. So more women in politics. A report I did, which I feel is instrumental in creating change was passed through the Seanad so at the next general election we will see 30% of candidates in every general party must be women. And that will be a massive step in politics. So that’s something I’m really proud of, of having been part of. And finally a little bill I’m doing at the moment which, again has passed in the Seanad and is getting to the Daíl in June, is to legalize humanist weddings. So I kind of feel this is the first little step in secularization of some aspects of our legal system. So little things carve the way, the bigger things are often hard to see as making a difference.
As a woman in politics, a field still highly dominated by men, especially in Ireland, what has been the biggest challenge you are facing or have had to face?
I think, well I suppose there are two huge challenges. Firstly one is a general frustration and slowness of the processes. But that is just something you have to come to terms with if you want to see change happen. It is going to take some time to achieve it. So you just have to work within the system to try and do things. Like working with ministers on things, you see change is slow. But then eventually when it comes it is very satisfying. And then the second thing is that there is a network, an old boys network still, well there are some old girls in there but mostly it is men, and it is very hard to break into it.
So do you think they actually treat you differently because you are a woman or is that not really an issue?
Well its partly being a woman, but I think it’s also a traditionalism or conservatism within the Irish political culture, which means voters as much as political parties operations which require people in politics to have served time locally. There is an awful lot of clientelism which is very hard to counter even when you think that you want to stand for a different kind of politics, that it is more about policy and principals …It is very hard to break through that tradition, of you know, if you don’t call to my door, asking for my vote, living in my area then I wont vote for you. That’s very endemic.
Do you think Ireland is ready to have a woman as Taoiseach?
Oh yes. Yes I do.
How long do you think that is going to take?
Well you know I wanted to see Joan Burton …I would like to see Joan Burton as the next woman Taoiseach. I think it could happen you know. How long would it take? I don’t know. Maybe two more elections. I don’t know.
Would you stand for the position of Taoiseach?
Hmm well I don’t know. I’d have to be elected as a TD first so I have a lot of hurdles to get over first.
More specifically. One of the themes we are dealing with this year on the Washington Ireland program is ‘dealing with difference’. Looking at Ireland’s track record with dealing with difference, specifically with racial and cultural divisions it is evident that Ireland is no stranger to racism and discrimination. What do you think Irish leaders and those in a position of power can do to tackle this culture of racism that has developed? And to encourage the Irish public to become more at ease with ‘difference’, to make Ireland a more inclusive place?
Well I think that we have been lucky here in that there is much less organized or formal racism. We haven’t seen a growth for example of a national front. When I lived in London there was a massive national front behind a MEP, who gained a lot of local ground, especially mobilizing amongst the white working labour class. We haven’t particularly seen that here, in Ireland so I think that’s one thing to say. It is very different in form here. I think the racism we see here is much more casual and it is much more ignorant. Its very much more scattered, at the local levels. It needs strong action from the government. The first big thing you need to do, which minister Shatter is committed too is, bring in the immigrant rights protection bill because without the proper legal framework …first of all we have problems with our legal framework – with CERD (Committee on Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination) with the elimination of racial discrimination because we don’t have a framework. It’s been promised a long time so we need to do that. That’s been promised for the autumn. And then we need to do other things. One of the other things I’m working on is trying to change the criminal law to bring in racial motivation as an aggravated factor for sentencing. So that’s one of the things CERD is taking us up on again. Treatment of travellers is a very difficult issue. We see a lot of policy commitments at central government and then at local areas there is not proper implementation. Village magazine, in the most recent issue actually has an article just about Claire county council and the attempts they have made in regards to travellers but that it had been stymied by local opposition and acts of arson and so on. So it’s very difficult. Central government needs to be sending clear signals of leadership but its still ultimately local leadership.