The ongoing debacle over religious control at the new National Maternity Hospital


  • The Sisters of Charity have not yet completed their full divestment from St. Vincent’s Healthcare Group – they remain as sole owners of SVHG, with religious ethos intact.
  • No religious control in day-to-day running of new National Maternity Hospital – clinical independence has been assured, but legal process to deliver this not yet completed.
  • Archbishop of Dublin still technically remains as ex-officio Chair of the Executive Committee (Board) of the National Maternity Hospital.
  • New National Maternity Hospital at Elm Park will not be in public ownership or control – the land will still be owned by SVHG and leased to State at peppercorn rent.
  • SVHG will own the hospital building, but with a lien on it so it can’t be sold or secure loans, the building will be fully publicly funded and its operation funded by the State. 
  • Despite agreement reached in spring 2017, still no sight of completed governance structure in public domain.  

The debacle over ownership, control and ethos at the new National Maternity Hospital has the key ingredients classic Irish pickle: Land, public money, church, and women’s healthcare. Let’s try and unpick the key governance, control and ethos issues which have hindered the progress of this key healthcare infrastructure. 

Despite assurances from all parties involved, the public still aren’t 100% clear about religious influence and control at the hospital and its layered governance structures.

Will the new National Maternity Hospital be publicly owned and controlled, and will religious control or influence be involved? It’s a complex issue, requiring an indepth look into the governance structures of two long-standing healthcare providers – the National Maternity Hospital, and St. Vincent’s Healthcare Group (both private companies). The third party in this pickle is the Department of Health.

Everyone agrees a new National Maternity Hospital is long overdue – the current facilities at Holles Street are not fit for purpose for 21st century healthcare delivery. Like most hospital building projects in this country, it has a long and complicated history, and the longer it goes on it more it costs the taxpayer.

First announced in 2013 with an indicative budget of €150m, five years later the budget had doubled to €300m of public money and likely to be significantly more before it’s finally operational.

It’s been agreed that the new hospital will be built on the St Vincent’s Hospital campus at Elm Park. That’s on land owned and provided by the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group. SVHG was incorporated in 2001, and currently operates under updated constitution under the 2014 Companies Act as a private company (DAC) limited by shares with charitable status. Its sole shareholder are the Religious Sisters of Charity, who appoint the board, (which currently has 10 directors – 9 men and 1 woman).

In their Constitution (Memorandum and Articles), the Purpose of the company states : ‘the continuance and furtherance of the ethos, aims and purposes of the Congregation of the Religious Sisters of Charity.’ Under its Objects, Object 2 states: ‘to conduct and maintain facilities in accordance with the Health Care Philosophy and the Ethical Code of the Religious Sisters of Charity.’

Now the Sisters have stated that this will change and this Purpose and Object will be removed when a new holding company is formed, which I’ll come back to later.

Some historical context of the governance of hospitals and healthcare is useful to understanding how we got here:

St. Vincent’s was originally founded in 1834 by the Sisters of Charity. A century later in 1934 it purchased land at Elm Park for £25,000. It now has two hospitals on that site – the public St. Vincent’s University Hospital, and St. Vincent’s Private.

The National Maternity Hospital was established in 1894, and in 1903 received its Corporation Charter from the Crown. In 1936 the Charter was amended when the National Maternity Hospital was rebuilt with public money. It’s this 1936 Charter that the NMH still operates under for the purpose of its corporate governance, 4 years after the Irish Eucharistic Congress, and just months before the newly minted Constitution came into effect – a time where the Catholic Church was flexing its muscles in the fledgling Irish State, with increasing control and influence on  healthcare, education and social care in general, and specifically the chilling implication for women’s rights.

The New 1936 Charter provided for up to 100 governors of the NMH, who would establish an Executive Committee or Board to manage its affairs. The Governors elect the ordinary members of the Board at each AGM and the Master once every 7 years.

Governance is devolved to the Board  – they effectively run the hospital, with management further devolved to the Master. Unusually for the time, the charter also made specific provision for there to be a minimum quota of women on the board.

There are a number of governors who are ex-officio – by virtue of their position – and there are also a number of places on the Board that are ex-officio. These 4 positions are: The Archbishop of Dublin (who also is automatically appointed Chair); The Lord Mayor of Dublin (Vice Chair); The Master; and the parish priest of Westland Row. Alongside these ex-officio positions, there are 2 nominations of Dublin Corporation (DCC); 2 nominations of the Minister for Health, and 21 ordinary members who bring clinical and medical as well as legal, business and other technical skills to the board. There are currently about 79 governors (members) and 28 on the Board.

In 1930’s Ireland the Catholic church was most definitely seeking to stamp its authority and influence on the governance of the NMH. Nowadays, the Archbishop doesn’t exercise his right to chair, and isn’t involved in the board, but is still kept informed of significant developments. The effective chair of the board is the Deputy Chair who is elected at the first board meeting after each AGM.

So neither the current National Maternity Hospital Holles Street nor St Vincent’s are in public ownership, though both receive the majority of their operational funding from the public purse, and operate under licence from the HSE.

Apart from the usual building delays with projects of this cost and complexity, it’s the wrangling over a new governance structure for the new hospital at Elm Park site, between these two healthcare organisations and the Dept that has hampered its progression.

Negotiations reached an impasse in 2016, as the NMH wanted to retain a separate board and its mastership model; and St Vincent’s wanted all the hospitals on the campus to be run by one board with the NMH having 2 seats on that board.

Kieran Mulvey helped the two parties reach an agreement in April 2017. The new NMH at Elm Park would be run by a new company, which would be a 100% subsidiary of SVHG – so still in private control –  and ultimately owned by the Sisters of Charity as sole shareholders.

The new company – The National Maternity Hospital at Elm Park DAC has yet to be fully constituted. However, under the Mulvey agreement, this will the structure:

  • The company will retain the identity and ethos of the current NMH, with clinical, operational, financial and budgetary independence, without religious, ethnic or other distinction.
  • Its independence is assured under its reserved powers, with a ‘golden share’ held by the Minister of Health.
  • There will be 9 directors: 4 appointees of SVHG; 4 appointees of the NMH including the Master, and one international expert in obstetrics and gynaecology.
  • 2 of the NMH directors will also sit on the SVHG board.

In August 2017, planning permission was granted by An Bord Pleanála.

So at that stage, it could be summed up as  proposed clinical independence for the NMH, with no religious influence day-to-day;  BUT ultimately the company would still be in private ownership of a religious order. Which led to huge protests that the government were essentially handing over €300m of public money and our new National Maternity Hospital into the nuns’ hands – generating understandable unease about access to healthcare which is at odds with Church doctrine including abortion care, sterilisation, and access to IVF.

The Sisters of Charity responded by committing to end their involvement in St Vincent’s Healthcare Group and no longer being involved in the ownership or management of the new National Maternity Hospital. They stepped down from the board of SVHG, and stated they would form a new holding company with charitable status – St Vincent’s Holding CLG –  that would ultimately own SVHG and its assets. Crucially they also stated that their ethos would no longer form a part of the new company’s purpose or objects, and that the clinical independence of the NMH would be enshrined in its Memorandum and Articles:

“Upon completion of this proposed transaction, the requirement set out in the SVHG Constitution, to conduct and maintain the SVHG facilities in accordance with The Religious Sisters of Charity Health Service Philosophy and Ethical Code, will be amended and replaced to reflect compliance with national and international best practice guidelines on medical ethics and the laws of the Republic of Ireland.”

All well and good indicating there will be no religious control or influence in either SVHG or the NMH. Except it hasn’t happened…yet. The public haven’t had sight of the new constitution of the holding group, or the constitution of the new NMH. It took 18 months for the legal document giving effect to the Mulvey deal to be circulated to the parties, and now the Minister of Health is seeking an additional Public Interest Director be appointed to the new NMH board, which would bring the number of board members to 10.

And the land? Well, the site apparently can’t be ceded or sold to the government as SVHG has loans secured with it, so it looks like the Minister is now seeking a 99 year lease on the site at a peppercorn rent. The building itself will have a lien on it so it can’t be sold or used to secure loans by SVHG.

And the urgency now? Well, if contracts allowing the commencement of key building work at the site are not signed by the Department of Health by December 31st, the entire project is in jeopardy, as new EU regulations come into effect on Jan 1st 2019, requiring zero energy standards for publicly-run facilities. If the project is delayed, plans will have to be redrawn, the costs will certainly rise considerably.

If the Sisters of Charity deliver on their commitment, I think it’s highly unlikely that there will be religious control or influence in the day-to-day running of the NMH, or effecting the experience of the people using its services. We need to see a timeline for when these changes will come into effect.

However, the New National Maternity Hospital will still not be in public ownership or control, and without change to its Charter or Constitution, the Archbishop of Dublin and the Parish Priest of Westland Row will remain as Governors whether they choose to be actively involved or not. It’s not only the governance at SVHG that needs to be altered, but also at the NMH.

Church and State are still intimately interwoven in our healthcare system, and this debacle only demonstrates the deep complexities of untangling the two.  

We’re not looking for a Christmas miracle, just for the respective organisations and the department to get the legal details and governance structures finally and fully resolved. They’ve had years to work on this, we can’t lose our new national maternity hospital over it. #OurMoneyOurHospital

Sign the petition here:

Listen to Social Democrats co-leader Roisin Shorthall on NMH ownership on Sean O’Rourke

Collective action for gender equality in theatre

Monday marked a major milestone on the road to gender equality in Irish culture with the publication of gender equality policies from ten leading theatre organisations (The Abbey Theatre, Cork Midsummer Festival, The Corn Exchange, Druid, The Everyman Theatre, Dublin Theatre Festival, Fishamble: The New Play Company, The Gate Theatre, The Lir Academy and Rough Magic).

On International Women’s Day 2016 I called on the theatre sector to achieve full gender equality by 2021. At the final public meeting of #WakingTheFeminists in November 2016, a working group of representatives from several theatre companies was established. The collective action of publishing their gender equality policies will go a long way to achieving the three original objectives of the #WakingTheFeminists campaign – policy, action plans and measurable results; equal championing of women, and equitable pay for everyone.

The campaign commissioned ground-breaking research led by Dr Brenda Donohue, Dr Tanya Dean and Dr Ciara O’Dowd, Gender Counts, which forms the baseline for measuring progress, and the organisations have committed to using that methodology. Already, theatre organisations have made significant progress since 2015, and other culture organisations have also taken up the challenge. A key part of their commitment, and ultimate success, will be learning from each other, and holding each other to account on an annual basis.

In 2017, the then Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht requested all National Cultural Institutions to have gender equality policies in place in this for this 100 year anniversary of women’s suffrage. Hopefully the NCI’s will follow the theatre sector in jointly making their policies public by the end of the year.

#WakingTheFeminists wanted not only to be a driver of change in the theatre sector, but also a catalyst for change in other sectors. By jointly publishing their policies it’s also the hope of the working group that other sectors take up this collaborative approach to achieving gender equality. While each company drew up its own policy in response to its own circumstances, there are several common threads including:

Gender equal boards

Gender equality as a board priority, and progress regularly reported at board meetings

Annual reporting of gender statistics of their programmes using common methodology
Introducing and improving dignity at work policies and practices

Commitment to achieving gender balanced programming over a five year period

Embedding principles of equality in mission statements and strategy
Recognition that gender is more than binary

As a parting gift in 2016, #WakingTheFeminists gave the companies a copy of Iris Bohnet’s book: What Works: Gender Equality by Design, an excellent account of an evidence based approach to achieving gender equality. It’s too soon to tell whether the sector will achieve full gender equality by 2021, but with this collective, transparent, and mutually accountable approach, informed by the best research available, the Irish theatre sector is well on its way.

Achieving gender equality requires leadership from the top and committed, consistent action from everyone. It’s not easy task, so there’s no room for complacency. One of the key areas to address is the gender pay gap. Updated research is required as Arts Council research from 2008 indicates that the gender pay gap for artists may be as high as 50%.

It’s also not enough to only have more women creatives, we also need to ensure there is a wider diversity of stories about women. Stories and storytellers shape our view of the world – with greater space for a variety of women’s stories, we will shift the historic imbalance of power in every sector.

The policies and more information is available here.

Breaking the second silence of #WakingTheFeminists

Power, harassment, silence and theatre

I am tired and angry about continuously seeing the ‘women as victim’ trope performed on our stages and screens.  In the few instances where women are portrayed as seeking power, they are often ultimately punished for doing so.

Are we staging the truth of women’s existence to expose it to the light, or are we denying access to alternative narratives that would help women express their strength and power in a positive way? I think both are simultaneously true.

I was deeply uncomfortable recently watching the Suppliant Women on the stage of the Gaiety – precisely they were suppliant, not defiant. I also wonder about the cost for those women who perform these types of roles, and are cast to perform them again and again over the lifetime of their careers – what does this do to them?  

I recall Joanna Crawley’s excellent analysis of Polish theatre in this regard, which she spoke about at a #WakingTheFeminists public meeting. What does it do to us as audiences when we witness artwork about past traumas?  Are we at some level, traumatised or re-traumatised by that experience, in our bodies, or does art help us reframe and transform the traumas of the past? Theatre, as much as it has the power to positively transform our culture and be inclusive and healing, also has the power to replicate and perpetuate its inequalities.

According to psychoanalyst Darian Leader, we literally stage our traumas to achieve both closeness and distance from them. We connect with fictional stories to reconnect what is broken in us. In his book The New Black, Mourning Death and Melancholia he argues that “the place of the arts in a culture [is as] a set of instruments to help us to mourn. The arts exist to allow us to access grief… In our unconscious use of the arts, we have to go outside ourselves to get back inside.”

We need to pull our focus right back and see and hear clearly what the theatre is showing us about women’s experiences. Until we acknowledge and address the violence against women in real life, the theatre we unconsciously programme will continue to scream this violence at us. Will we finally listen? Will we finally speak the unspoken in the real world? Will we make space for more powerful and strengthening narratives about women to allow us to shape a different destiny for half of humanity? This isn’t just about one person, or one incident, or only the theatre sector. It’s everywhere. But in the theatre, we have the power to start to tell different stories from different perspectives, to begin to reshape the culture.

This has begun with Grace Dyas, Lisa Tierney Keogh and others and their great bravery in speaking up. Their truths begin to displace the deceit and abuse of power that has gone unchallenged too long.

It also challenges those of us who may not have been directly affected by bullying or abuse, but knew it went on. We had all heard stories. I believe there’s not a single senior person working in Irish theatre today who hasn’t heard the stories, or has been aware of bullying, abusive behaviour.

Both the abuse, and the culture of silence around it, place each person who has been abused by these men into an invidious situation. On the one hand they are told to be brave and speak out, sometimes at great personal cost, and on the other hand they are told to be cautious, careful and keep quiet, also often at great personal cost.

It maybe difficult to do, but I believe that for our culture to change it means that many more women and men will need to come forward to share their stories about their experiences, and what they have witnessed. I just hope that if and when they do come forward that they have support and are fully informed of their rights and legal options, and if they do speak out they don’t have to do so in fear of potentially negative consequences. There are some risks in speaking out, but there’s great power there too, especially when many voices join together. I also believe there has never been a better time to speak out than now, and I hope the conditions for truth-telling continue to improve.

Everybody knows
Not all bullies are sexual predators, but all sexual predators are bullies. Harassment and bullying have been an ‘Open Secret’ for years. The trouble with open secrets is that that while they may appear to give people some comfort that they are not alone, because they sometimes share their experiences in private, open secrets also shut the conversation down. They go only so far, and the perpetrators are not publicly held to account. If ‘everybody knows’ and nobody does anything about it, I can only imagine how much more isolating that is for people at the receiving end of abuse. It is  protective it is of perpetrators. Where there is not explicit condemnation of abusive behaviour is it perceived as implicitly condoning it, and that needs to change. Open secrets are like severely gerrymandered districts, the truth flows silently along certain planes, but rarely crosses boundaries into the open. ‘Everybody knows’ doesn’t really mean everybody knows until an open secret becomes a public truth. And it’s only when things become public that we can really deal with them in the open, and change them.

It seems crazy to me that one set of laws (defamation) are actively set against another set of laws that are there to protect us from harassment and abuse. We have work to do on the legal structures too.

I’ve been thinking about complicity, and what we can do right now when faced with others in powerful situations which they abuse. As a producer and company manager I once warned a young intern about taking up a job at a certain theatre because of the stories I had heard over the years, and I was concerned for her. It seemed like all I could do at the time. But it’s not enough. We need to figure out ways to speak up when we see or hear something, and not leave those who have been abused to tell their story alone – a clear step by step process. I’ve had to do a lot of questioning myself. And often I don’t know what to do, but I’m working on it.

Those of us who have some power and roles of leadership, whether as executives or board members have a responsibility to create, promote and enforce structures and cultures of openness where people can speak freely and report abuse, bullying and misconduct without fear of retribution, without fear of a damaged career, without fear of being discredited and disbelieved. We can no longer be bystanders, and just shake our heads and roll our eyes. We need to actively open paths to truth, and be proactively supportive. And there’s a lot more to be done to ensure the conditions for abuse never arise again in our workplaces.

We cannot achieve gender equality in Irish Theatre without facing up to cultures of abuse on and off stage. It is not enough just to say we are open to women and expect them to come forward without doing the work to make our spaces, procedures and structures safe, welcoming and supportive, and communicating exactly what can be done to seek redress when people abuse their power. We all need to do a better job of communication, to really listen to each other, without dominance.

In order to support those who wish to speak out and to change the culture of abuse and silence, we all need to be more knowledgeable about:

  • clear definitions of harassment and abuse
  • How to report an incident, whether it has just happened for from years back
  • Who to report an incident to
  • Who is responsible for investigating an incident, and the process involved
  • What to do if someone reports an incident to you, and the steps to take
  • What your legal rights are
  • What supports are out there and how to access them (incl. counselling, legal, HR)
  • How to talk about this in public if you wish to do so

Powerful men and abuse of power
Power is a very useful thing. It can do great good in the right hands. In the wrong hands it does great damage when it is abused. All abuse is an abuse of power. Some very powerful men have a finely honed calibration of the balance of power, not just in general, but in every particular situation and social setting. They understand who has power and who doesn’t and to what precise extent. They gauge minutely who they can and can’t abuse, and how and when they can indulge in all sorts of bad and criminal behaviour with impunity. They know when and where and with who to be utterly charming, gregarious, entertaining, generous. They understand how to hold on to their power at all costs, to implicate others in their power structure, and to maintain silence and complicity. They know to associate themselves with other powerful people to increase the feeling of hopelessness in speaking out in those who may wish to challenge them. They hide in plain sight. They relentlessly go after anyone who may critique or call them out even in the mildest way. They destroy or attempt to destroy the careers of those who would challenge them. And when the are held to account for anything they immediately become a wounded pathetic animal, lashing out in fury, acting the victim, seeking sympathy for their supposedly ‘unjust vilification’ (as if their predicament, entirely of their own making, is worth vastly more sympathy, than those they have wronged). They are given the most ironic of platforms of power, on boards, on air, on television, at the top of companies and institutions, are funded/paid vast sums of money, are highly successful in many fields, can look forward to a comfortable retirement on a decent pension, and this exercise of toxic power and abusive leadership is allowed to go unchallenged because of this success, and their ability to extend and leverage their own power and dismiss others. And eventually, if they have to face up to public outrage over their misdeeds, they are more sorry about their own diminished power than feeling genuine remorse and empathy with those they have abused. We have seen this with recent cases in the US, but it is a common pattern.

They depend on silence. But then sometimes the day arrives when their power fades. Each person they have abused holds a jigsaw piece, that if all those various pieces were put together, we would all see a very different picture from that carefully cultivated public persona. When the silence begins to crack, we all begin to see a little more clearly the long-term damage that silence about abuse does to all of us caught in this malign web of power.

Silence as Trauma
It’s the silence that keeps us in the web of trauma. Our culture records, stores and reshapes our collective memories, including our collective traumas. Trauma, personal or collective, remains invisible and deadly until silence is broken. Breaking silence is necessary for healing to occur.

Two years ago, as #WakingTheFeminists started to break silence about gender inequality, TRAUMA the exhibition was running at Science Gallery Dublin. One of the curators, neuroscientist and Director of Science Gallery London Daniel Glaser, wrote in his introduction:

“It’s the burying of traumatic memory for the individual, the family, the culture that preserves its power. And this imperfect encoding and uncontrollable recall lies behind post-traumatic stress disorder. When memories break through in unrelated everyday life situations it is the chaotic, fragmented echo of the original traumatic moment that shatters the conscious present.”

To me, storytelling, whatever its format is one of the most powerful ways we shape our world. The stories we tell ourselves, our cultural narratives, define who we are, and who we are not; what we talk about; and what we don’t talk about; what and who we include and what and who we exclude.

It’s time to reshape our stories, to repurpose their power. It’s time to break again the hold of silence about sexual harassment in all our power structures.

There is no democracy without meritocracy; there is no meritocracy without equality of opportunity; equality of opportunity cannot effectively exist when one group is silenced.

Equal voice
Equal opportunity
Equal pay
Equal representation
Equal bodily autonomy
Equal power

This second silence is breaking. We are taking back our stories; We are taking back our stages; We are taking back our bodies; We are telling our truths. What has been whispered will become a roar until it shatters every pane of illusion and truth is finally acknowledged, and our culture tilts towards honesty and equity. Beyond the breaking of silence there are new horizons of healing, resilience and growth, and ultimately a shift in the balance of power. I have huge admiration for those who are already speaking out – I believe and support them. I hope more will follow in their own time with their own truths.

This is not a chorus of Supplication. This is a chorus of Defiance. This is a chorus of Strength & Support. This is a chorus of Change. Come Sing.

One Thing More #WakingTheFeminists closing speech, Abbey Theatre

One Year Later, 1800 homeless women live here in Ireland.

One Year Later, over 1000 women live in direct provision here.

Over 3,000 women here have had to travel abroad for an abortion.

And the time to close the gender pay gap globally has widened to 170 years.

One Year Later, I had wanted to talk of Hope, but the outrage remains.

Making theatre is a privilege – it’s not life or death. Behind each of these numbers is a woman in a life or death situation. If we can’t make room for the marginalised to share their own voice from our stages, then what the hell are we here for?

If any of you doubted the real-world consequences of permitting male characters such wide ranging scope to do whatever they want and still be credible figures of power, while vastly restricting female characters’ access to powerful identities:  LOOK AT WHAT JUST HAPPENED [US election result].  That came from our CULTURE.  WE shape our culture, and how we shape it has consequences.

Women are central to the great events and issues of our time.   Our place is not at the cultural periphery, because inequality of voice compounds the inequality of our power.  Exclusion festers until it explodes. Listening to predominantly male narratives, is not only delusional, it’s dangerous. In failing half our talent, we fail our art, we fail our culture, and we fail our society.

Attentive listening and inclusion of other voices is a powerful restorative. Equality is not a luxury we can afford to defer. Equality is a muscle that improves with Feminism and exercising Feminism daily strengthens everyone of us.

Getting in touch with my own dormant feminist muscle through #WakingTheFeminists has been an immense privilege and a transformative experience.  Each of us working on the campaign will carry this learning into every area of our future endeavours. It will not be lost.

To female artists, this year you have heard loud and clear – your gender does not make you less capable of creating extraordinary theatre.  Your voice is vital, and we need it. The flaw is not in YOUR talent or ability, it is in our perception of it.  LOOK AT THIS, THIS IS WHAT COLLABORATIVE, FEMINIST POWER LOOKS LIKE, and it is a JOYOUS, playful, inclusive thing.

To male artists, thank you for listening and thank you for your support, for recognising value of #WakingTheFeminists in all our creative lives. I hope you understand that this movement is about expanding all our opportunities and talents, not diminishing anyone’s. We welcome hearing more from you in this conversation, because all want the same thing really – to live creative lives to our fullest potential.   

Now, the point of any public campaign of protest is to get a seat at the table – to rebalance the power.  All year, week after week, those of us organising #WakingTheFeminists have been pulling up chairs at all sorts of tables. We have found ourselves at tables we never imagined we’d be sitting at!  So that when you sit down to do your artistic work, you can do so in greater confidence that you will have a fair and equal chance that it will meet the audience it deserves.

And with that opportunity comes responsibility. Women of the theatre –  make your work with an urgency like never before. Take on this research as a creative challenge, not a fait accompli.  Be more ambitious than ever – equality can only be achieved with your full participation and your creative curiosity.  Be brave, be big, be rigorous, but as writer Danai Gurira says: Get It Done.

The research shows us where we can improve. It’s not about blame. It shows none of us are immune to bias.  Numbers are important, but they are not the whole story.  Awareness and action need to work hand in hand. No one organisation can do this alone.   Implementing widely initiatives like the Abbey’s visionary Guiding Principles on Gender Equality will help.

We all have an individual responsibility, AND there is additional onus on our leaders to ensure the appropriate practices to support this change are activated. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the law.

Section 42 of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014 places a positive duty on public sector bodies to have regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, promote equality, and protect human rights, in their daily work.

This applies to all bodies financed, even partially, with public money.

To all of you, and especially to you leaders of companies, I know, through all our conversations this year, that each of you believe passionately in equality in your hearts. Together we can to figure out with our heads, how to put what’s in our hearts on our stages. We are not defined by these statistics we have seen here today – use them as a springboard not a weight.

This public phase of #WakingTheFeminists is drawing to a close, it has done its job as rocket fuel for this movement. But, we all know there is more to be done. What comes next is slower and more deliberative, because true change takes time and collective, careful attention to be deeply rooted.

In order to manage the legacy project, we have set up a temporary non-profit company. It’s two aims are to publish the research, and to establish a learning programme in gender equality. Later today, we are coming together with our colleagues in the theatre to continue that work.

Last year we asked you t’ Stand with Us. This year we’re inviting you to make equality a reality within 5 years. Today is our momentous opportunity for leadership. Each one of you decides how this story, this history, plays out – WE have it in our collective power to be the first theatre community in the world to attain and sustain full gender equality. Imagine what that would be like.

All inequality is an outrage. Rage out against it in determination without despair until there is nothing to be outraged about. In this chaotic global moment, let’s open up – ignite ALL our stages with big complex messy conversations, using ALL our talent, ALL our genders, ALL our diversity. Make our theatre a beacon for equity, not a bystander to a burning world. International Women’s Day 2021 beckons us. LET’S GET IT DONE.

Achieving a Feminist Republic, Mansion House

Talk given to Labour Women

What more needs to be done in order for us to really live in a Feminist Republic?

I’ve recently had conversations with with three female top executives in major leading corporate companies – companies dedicated to achieving gender equality. One explained that over one month, she had been the only female in every single meeting she had attended. Another outlined that while they are making progress in this area, it’s incremental, and not seeing it happen fast enough is demoralising. They say they’ve been inspired by the #WakingTheFeminists movement.

Yet, their stories, and stories about countless women like them, changing their world day by day, are not reaching our main stages or screens or airwaves. I’m fed up sitting politely in theatres regularly having to translate the protagonist’s experience to my gender. It’s not that there aren’t any great lead roles for women in theatre. It’s more that those roles tend to be women who kill their children, shoot themselves or throw themselves under a train. ‘Strong woman as cautionary tale.’ What if we expanded the narrative? What if we had a theatrical reference for Hillary Clinton other than Lady Macbeth?

The republic has to be imagined before it can be created. We create ourselves through stories. To achieve a feminist republic within the next 20 years we need to create imaginative spaces that allow us to explore that possibility, exactly the kind of space that the arts can and should provide. #WakingTheFeminists, Women In Film and Television, Women on Air, Composing The Feminists, Women in Advertising, all know in our bones and our everyday working lives – as women, we’re continually culturally famished.

Boys and men are spoon-fed their cultural icons and heroes, breakfast, dinner and tea. If we want a feminist future, then we have to start a more balanced cultural diet across all artforms. Girls have precious few external structures from which to build positive complex versions of ourselves as women.

It matters who is in charge of our stories, and who is doing the telling. Women’s cultural space matters as much as our political space, our economic space, and our physical space. These all work together to either diminish or affirm our humanity and equality. As a society we cannot be economically rich while we remain culturally impoverished.

A snapshot of our deficient cultural diet: 11% of history is written about women; less than 15% of plays on our main stages are written or directed by women; less than 28% women’s voices are heard on air; less than 16% of our films are written or directed by women.  In some cases the statistics for women’s work have diminished, not increased over time.  We can go backwards as easily as we go forwards – there is no such thing as a ‘natural’ progression towards equality over time. Just ‘waiting our turn’ is not going to work.

Yet women are the majority of ticket buyers and audience members in our theatres, but a minority as far as what happens on our stages. This damages our collective ability to advance – inequality of voice, inequality of visibility, perpetuates an inequality of power. Equality legislation and policies, as fundamentally important as they are, only give us the possibility of equality, not the actuality. They are a starting point, the danger is the destination is on a eternally receding horizon. Equality in principle must be back up by equality in practice.

#WakingTheFeminists aim is simple: Equality for women in Irish theatre. Equal opportunity, equal advancement, equal pay, safe workplaces, childcare – you’ve heard it all before. The theatre community is small, but its reach is wide – and we hope that what we achieve will impact beyond the theatre world.

So, we need more stories by and about women, told from a woman’s perspective throughout our culture, reaching wider audiences, performed in prominent places, more often. Otherwise there is no strong counter-narrative to the dominant patriarchy and its constant feedback loop affirming male dominance. We need to make it normal, not exceptional to listen to female voices.

And what women have to say through our artistic work is not just for a female audience, it’s for everyone, in as much as male work is assumed to be for everyone. And, yes, there is quality in equality! Meritocracy remains a fallacy until there is full equality of access and opportunity  – it’s only effective on even playing field. It’s one of those tricky ways language is used to exclude women from advancement.
On the morning of the 12th Nov last, as I waited to go on Morning Ireland, discussing the matter with a government minister in the green room, he commented,   ‘but surely it’s about picking the best plays.’   It should be, but it’s not. You can’t rise on merit if someone else’s unacknowledged privilege is prioritised. The flaw is not in the talent and ability of our female artists, (scientists, politicians, economists, etc.) It is in our perception of them, steeped in a culture that does not value women.

There are many deep and subtle causes, structural and systemic, that contribute towards gender inequality, and the solutions are complex. Unconscious bias is everywhere. Inequality is a socially transmitted disease. Without the tools and training in the practicalities of addressing gender inequality, and the focused participation of leaders, nothing will actually change. Awareness is not enough. Only by taking rapid, extensive, and sustained measures to adjust our perception will we achieve herd immunity to this disease.  

As well as commissioning groundbreaking quantitative research, #WakingTheFeminists are working with leading theatre organisations in order to set up policies, assessment plans, and training programmes that will address several aspects of the issue. From these actions we have to see results – soon.  We co-exist in a globally connected community, and we will achieve our aims faster by working together.  

While the Abbey found itself at the centre of a maelstrom last November, since then its reaction has been astonishing. The Board have developed and adopted several key principles to address inequality, that are visionary, far-reaching and practical. Combined, they place gender equality at the centre of the organisation. They understand it has to be addressed first at highest level – it’s a board responsibility, and then to be implemented at every level. I am fortunate as I join the Board, not to have to be the lone voice for gender equality, because they have all gone on that journey and fully embraced it. Because Lian Bell started a conversation we’d all been waiting for.

Ultimately, though, at its very heart it’s simple. Danai Gurira actor, and playwright of the Tony award-winning play Eclipsed speaking at the Lilly Awards in NY, gave this wonderful advice to women writers: ‘Go where you are loved.’  Hearing this, to me, it correlates that we must have structures, institutions, companies and champions that love women and want them to succeed. Love, in the respect, listening, encouragement, trust way, not in the ‘oh, you’re so hot’ way.

Finding ourselves as accidental activists with #WakingTheFeminists, here’s what we’ve learned so far:

  • Be publicly vocal on every platform and at every opportunity
  • Demonstrate the real impact on women’s lives
  • Place accountability at the top of governance and with leadership
  • Make specific and achievable asks that address structural inequality
  • Empower others to speak out, tell their story, get organised, and take personal and collective action
  • Include men in the conversation
  • No blame, focus on solutions we can all be responsible for
  • Meet weekly, use Slack (it’s a brilliant app)
  • Be clear about the issues and back them up with statistics
  • Count the numbers to change them
  • Listen for what’s going on under the surface as power dynamics begin to shift
  • Move fast, but understand that lasting change takes patient negotiation to achieve
  • Create space, time and training for people to learn about the issues and co-create the solutions
  • Create mutual amplification with sister causes
  • Have Meryl Streep in your corner, [Meryl makes everything better!]


While it feels like there’s been a huge shift in our cultural consciousness, it’s easy to forget that nothing has objectively changed yet: male artists are still in the vast majority on our main stages. As a former producer, there’s nothing like setting a date for Opening Night. #WakingTheFeminists have set a deadline of five years to achieve full gender equality in Irish Theatre.

It’s quite probable that another 100 years could pass without achieving a fully feminist republic. We need to rapidly accelerate the pace of change across all our institutions. Set a deadline. Make achieving gender equality a stated priority at every opportunity.

Finally, women of the theatre will no longer fade into the wings. We will not wait.  The stakes too high for us, we’ve lost so much already. They are too high for you, and for every other woman out there trying to make her way in the world, to allow the status quo to continue.  No woman should wait for her voice to be heard, for her body to be fully her own, for her wages to be equal, for her full potential to be recognised.  We must disrupt the culture. The time for action, the time for equality is NOW. To change the future, change the story.