Anna Marley talks about the challenges that led to her resignation this week
Anna Marley was pushing a pram down Galway’s Shop Street four months ago when a constituent approached her about an issue.
As a councillor and former Sinn Féin constituency worker, she says she always enjoyed talking to locals.
This time, though, she was with three children, including a six-week-old, who required her full attention. She felt distracted, unable to focus.
"When you’ve just had a baby," as she puts it, "you’re under that bit more stress."
Marley describes the encounter as one of a number of everyday complications that proved pivotal in her decision to step down from Galway City Council.
Her resignation leaves just three female councillors in the local authority, with men filling the 14 other seats.
The challenges she’s faced trying to balance work with family life are familiar to many parents with young children.
The nature of her duties as an elected representative, however, began to feel impossible to reconcile with her more private responsibilities.
Under current rules, councillors who take maternity leave have to attend 80% of meetings to receive their full package of allowances.
While some new parents do take time off, the day-to-day reality of the job means phone calls can continue to come in at any hour.
Late-night meetings, sometimes running until midnight, also make childcare difficult to arrange.
Marley says she gradually came to realise that she couldn’t fulfill her commitment to constituents.
"When I do a job, I want to give it my all."
Councillors, Marley points out, can’t be covered for a period of maternity or paternity leave.
"There are parents in councils who do excellent work and can balance the different roles,” she adds.
For her, though, having an eight-year-old, two-year-old and newborn baby at home made the role just too challenging.
"I felt bad leaving my baby at home. It’d been weighing on my mind for months.
"There is an acceptance that you might need to take some time out, but you can’t really be absent.
"If you suddenly go missing, people won’t understand why. They mightn’t be aware that you’ve just had a child."
Optional maternity leave
So what can be done to support new parents?
Marley first wants to see optional parental leave made available to all elected representatives.
She suggests, as a possible solution, that parties could appoint someone to officially take over councillors’ work on a temporary, paid basis.
Childcare supports are also crucial to encouraging female participation in politics, in her view.
This, she says, could involve councils setting aside funding to provide childcare for councillors and staff who need it.
Such an arrangement would support those without the financial means to access childcare, as well as address the obvious challenges presented by late meetings.
"These are significant issues that have be tackled if we want to a more representative democracy," she says.
"It’s quite clear that the current makeup doesn’t reflect modern society, whether it be in terms of gender or class. This is a discussion we need to have at a national level."
What next? Marley plans to stay active in Sinn Féin and work closely with her successor, once he or she selected.
"I’m in a unique position," she says. "If I were an independent, it’d be different, but I’ve a party mandate, so I’m happy to know the person coming in after me will continue on with our programme of work."
Her platform as a councillor allowed her to promote workers’ rights and challenge austerity, and these issues will continue to be to the forefront of her activism, Marley adds.
"I’m not walking away. Being a TD, councillor or activist requires different skills, but they’re all ultimately as important as each other.
"I stand for a political party, not just myself."
Women for Election, which promotes gender equality in public life, said it was sorry to hear of Marley's decision.
"It is indicative of the challenges facing women, with young families, who wish to be politically active," the organisation said.
"The issue of childcare has been seen to disproportionately affect women entering politics, as they tend to take on more of these duties.
"Work has been done to provide greater childcare facilities to TDs. However, in contrast to TDs the role of a councillor is part-time.
"It is clear that a discussion must be raised about the structures that are in place for part-time representatives on councils.
"Avenues, such as co-option for the period of maternity leave, should be explored as options to assist new parents on council.”
A spokesperson for Galway City Council said they were aware of the issues raised in Marley’s resignation letter.
"Our standing orders, which govern the arrangements for council meetings, are currently being revised and the issue of the absence of councillors from meetings is addressed so that there will be no loss of their attendance allowance due to maternity,” they said.
"Galway City Council does not operate childcare for its staff (in this instance one could also include elected members although not strictly staff) but does try, in as much as possible, to operate in a family-friendly manner.
"It is possible that under the revised standing orders, amended monthly council meeting times (eg starting at 2.00pm rather than, as currently, at 4.00pm) will allow both elected members and staff to avail of more readily accessible childcare in daytime than might currently be available in the early evening and at nighttime.”