Group's sex costs Ireland the vote

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The Independent Online

Ireland, which prides itself on an enlightened human-rights record, has had its voting rights suspended at the Council of Europebecause all of its delegates to the body's parliamentary assembly are men.

The council, which sets standards for civilised and democratic behaviour across 45 European nations, ruled last autumn that national delegations - composed of MPs from member states - must include at least one woman.

Ireland was one of 10 founder members of the Council of Europe in 1949. The organisation, which is not related to the European Union, sets standards for human rights and democratic behaviour and administers the European Convention on Human Rights. Its parliamentary assembly meets four times each year in Strasbourg.

At this week's winter session, only the Irish and Maltese delegations turned up with all-male delegations.

The Portuguese assembly member Manuela Aguiar, acting on behalf of the council's gender equal opportunities committee, challenged the right of the Irish and Maltese delegations to take part at all because they had disregarded instructions about including women.

She pointed out that even tiny San Marino had a woman on its two-person delegation. But the assembly thought barring Ireland and Malta was too stiff a penalty to impose when some the council's members are accused of war crimes and torturing political prisoners. It decided instead that the Irish and Maltese can remain but cannot vote on anything until they include at least one woman in their delegations.

The suspension of voting rights and the implication of sexist standards is an embarrassment to Ireland, which has twice elected women presidents, one of whom became United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

One member of the delegation, who did not want to be named, said yesterday that everything would be done to ensure that the Irish delegation will include a woman for the next session.

Jim O'Keeffe, another delegate, said that there were few women in Ireland's parliament, which made it difficult to find representatives for the Council of Europe delegations. He also said committee meetings were sometimes held in Eastern Europe and that women might find the idea of travelling to these places alone "quite unattractive". Malta has promised its delegation to the next meeting in April will contain at least one woman.