Page last updated at 10:42 GMT, Friday, 20 February 2009

Combining motherhood and ministry


Two Executive ministers Michelle Gildernew and Arlene Foster are young mothers, raising three children while juggling million pound departments. BBC NI political correspondent Martina Purdy has been examining how they manage - and how they are breaking new ground in political life.

There's a new face at the Executive table - someone who hasn't been elected, isn't old enough to vote, and isn't afraid to cry in front of the first minister.

At four months, Aoise Taggart comes to the Executive along with her mother, the agriculture minister, Michelle Gildernew.

Ms Gildernew has come back to work early from maternity leave - and has been taking the baby into the office, even breastfeeding her at departmental meetings and at the Executive table.

She said she has been delighted that fellow ministers have accepted the situation so readily: "Hats off to them. They were very easy going about it and didn't make me feel uncomfortable at all.

"I was feeding her and participating in the discussion around the table. We are women and we can multi-task."

Another minister, the DUP's Arlene Foster, who handles enterprise, said ministers were unfazed: "I've actually been quite surprised at how well it has fitted in. Obviously I have no difficulty with it at all."

Democratic Unionist Economy Minister Arlene Foster after winning the County Fermanagh lakeland area by-election at Enniskillen Town Hall. Pic Press Association
Mrs Foster has three children under the age of eight

With three children of her own under the age of eight, Mrs Foster is well aware of the challenges of balancing career and childcare.

So it seems are the male ministers at the table. Sir Reg Empey said it wasn't an issue that the agriculture minister was breastfeeding during Executive meetings.

"There's (been) no comment about it. I don't think anybody feels awkward or uncomfortable with it," he said.

"I certainly don't and if that enables her to do her job, then that's perfectly normal and I think we should accommodate it and I think we are accommodating it."

Not only did Michelle Gildernew give a BBC interview within hours of the birth last October, she was also back at work within weeks.

She had to deal with the crisis in the farming industry following the dioxin scare, but was determined to continue breastfeeding and to bond with her baby.

Conor Murphy, the minister for regional development, sits next to Ms Gildernew at the Executive.

Michelle Gildernew
Ms Gildernew returned to work just a few weeks after giving birth

"Quite often I get left holding the baby while she's making other arrangements," he said.

But he too welcomes the fact that she can do her job and nurture her baby: "These things are becoming the norm. Years ago it would have been some kind of shock."

Michelle Gildernew acknowledges, however, that as a minister she is in a unique and privileged position. Nurses, or teachers or factory workers would not be able to bring their baby into work.

"I've said publicly on plenty of occasions people should take their entitlements and their rights and they should take maternity leave and fathers should take paternity leave. And I will continue to fight for better arrangements," she said.

While Northern Ireland lags behind other European regions in childcare, there's also relatively few women in politics.

Former assembly member Jane Morrice who stood for the Women's Coalition said having two ministers who were also mothers will help change the culture.

Sir Reg said he hoped that Arlene Foster and Michelle Gildernew would serve as role models and attract more women politicians to Stormont.

The SDLP leader Mark Durkan, who has a four-year-old daughter, said he too tries to balance work and family life. He said the introduction of family friendly hours at Stormont should help.

In the meantime, until she is weaned, baby Aoise will continue to mix with politicians in Belfast, Brussels, London and Dublin.

Motherhood and Ministry is on BBC Radio Ulster on Saturday 21 February at 1130 GMT.

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