Early Thursday morning, as the Irish Parliament debated making abortion legal in cases when the patient’s life is in danger, one lawmaker demonstrated why many say Irish politics is still not a friendly environment for women. As the debate, which was televised live, entered the pre-dawn hours, a male lawmaker grabbed a female colleague and pulled her onto his lap.
In the video, the incident looks more like a scene from a fraternity party than a historic parliamentary debate about reproductive rights. Member of Parliament Tom Barry grabbed Áine Collins around her waist from behind and pulled her down so she was sitting on his lap. Collins, a member of Parliament from Barry’s own political party, did not appear in the video to be expecting the move, nor did she appear to enjoy it. She got up quickly and walked away.
When first asked about the incident, Barry said it was “horseplay involving two individuals,” but soon after he issued an apology in which he called his actions “disrespectful and inappropriate.”
The Fine Gael Party, which Barry and Collins belong to, also issued a statement. Party secretary, Tom Curran, said, “One deputy’s actions were unwelcome to another deputy. If it happened in any other workplace, it would be unacceptable. That it happened on the floor of Leinster House makes it more so.”
Many in the country said that this incident points to the unequal footing of women in Irish politics. Labour Senator Ivana Bacik tweeted that the vote represented progress for women, but that the incident shows a “deep problem with political culture” and a “need for more women in politics.” A spokesperson for the National Women’s Council of Ireland noted, “Any sexist incident sends a message to women that unprofessional behaviour is acceptable in politics. This discourages women from getting involved.”
At the time of the incident, the lawmakers were considering the “Protection of Life During Pregnancy” bill, which will codify situations in which women can have abortions that are deemed medically necessary. The bill was passed Thursday, with most members of the Fine Gael Party supporting it.
Abortion is outlawed in Ireland under all circumstances, but in 1992 the country’s Supreme Court ruled that abortion should be legal in cases when a doctor agrees that continuing the pregnancy would put the woman’s life in danger. This included cases in which it was deemed likely that the pregnant woman would commit suicide. The six governments that have been in power since this ruling, however, have refused to enforce this rule.
The debate over abortion in the predominantly Catholic country heated up in October of 2012 when Savita Halappanavar died in a Catholic Hospital in Ireland after being denied an abortion that doctors felt could have saved her life.