How women fared – reflections and lessons for the general election
Claire McGing, Maynooth University/5050 Group, firstname.lastname@example.org
On Friday, January 30th, a fantastic seminar on women and politics was organised by the Longford Women’s Manifesto Group and the 5050 Group in Longford. With a general election due in the next year, it is important to reflect on how women candidates fared in last year’s local elections and to look towards how parties and women’s groups can ensure the election of more women TDs. Gender quota legislation enacted in 2012 means that parties must run 30% women candidates (to rise to 40% after seven years) or else lose one-half of the funding they receive annually from the State. At present, just 27 out of 166 TDs (16%) are women and this is a record high. The figure places Ireland at 94th in the global world rankings for women’s representation, sandwiched between Chile and Azerbaijan. At local level one in five councillors are now female, but this is below the EU28 average of 32 per cent for women’s representation in local politics.
On the day, Dr Adrian Kavanagh (Maynooth University) gave an in-depth analysis of female candidacy and election in the 2014 local elections; Cllr. Kathleen Shanagher (Independent), Cllr. Maura Hopkins (Fine Gael) and Nora Fahy (local Fianna Fáil candidate) openly discussed their political experiences with Longford Leader editor Sheila Reilly; Johnny Fallon (local political analyst) gave an insightful (and humorous) contribution into party politics and why he supports gender quotas; and I outlined the findings of research I have conducted on the barriers to female representation, particularly in rural areas.
Owing to various institutional and cultural factors, the main theme to come out of the event was the significant urban-rural divide in terms of women’s representation. The vast majority of women TDs elected since 1918 have come from urban-based constituencies. Of the 28 females in the current Dáil three-quarters represent constituencies in Dublin or Leinster, while the five districts with two women TDs are all in Dublin or Meath. Illustratively, Michelle Mulherin (Fine Gael) is the only female TD in the whole of Connacht and Heather Humphreys (FG) in the Republic’s Ulster counties. All this means, as my presentation showed, that 42 per cent of the Irish population (and 43 per cent of women) currently have no female TDs, the vast majority outside of Leinster. By contrast all constituents have at least one male TD and most, of course, have more than this.
Adrian Kavanagh’s talk showed that there is also a geographical dimension to female vote-winning and representation in local councils. Urban councils are relatively healthy gender-wise, while rural Ireland remains populated by male councillors. Following the 2014 local elections, women hold one-third of seats across the Dublin electoral areas. In Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown women took as many as 43 per cent of the seats. But the view was less positive in many rural areas with women winning only two seats on the Monaghan, Carlow, Longford and Offaly County Councils. Given that most TDs ‘cut their teeth’ in local government (77 per cent of new TDs in 2011 were sitting councillors), the lack of women councillors creates difficulties in terms of seeing Dáil increases. My research found that, excluding sitting TDs, around three-quarters of those who looked to run for Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or Labour in the 2011 general election were local councillors and the vast majority were male. The ‘pipeline’ to the Dáil is mostly men.
The need for political parties to address the urban-rural discrepancies in gender representation was emphasised and some recommendations were made.
Even though the quota law does not apply to local government, parties should aim to build on the female increases seen last May. Co-opting women candidates if vacancies arise is a relatively easy way for parties to give women members a local profile and could be adopted as policy.
As the quota legislation is national and does not insist on 30 per cent female candidates in every constituency, fears were expressed by speakers and audience members that parties will meet the threshold to avoid losing their funding but that they will run women in ‘unwinnable seats’ or pack them into urban centres, leaving many rural constituencies remaining male-dominated. Thus the degree to which the legislation is successful at increasing the number of women TDs right across the country depends on the extent that parties take full advantage of this historic opportunity. Women’s groups should lobby parties to ensure that all ballots are ‘feminised’, not just those in urban areas. On this point, it was suggested that parties establish their own rural development programmes aimed at encouraging more rural women members to run for party positions and elective offices. Sinn Féin to my knowledge already has an initiative along these lines.
The working hours of political life was also seen as an obstacle to women’s representation and should be addressed, especially for rural women TDs with children who have to spend at least three days a week in Dublin. The need for formalised maternity leave, or other arrangements like proxy voting and teleconferencing, for women TDs and Senators who became pregnant while in office was also raised.
Finally, why does women’s underrepresentation in rural Ireland matter? First, women account for over half the population in urban and rural areas, so it is important that any advances in gender representation are equally distributed. Second, the importance of role models for rural women was noted. Studies show how high profile local women act to ‘shake up’ the status quo and encourage other women to take a leap into politics. Third, the more diversity there is in the Dáil and local councils, the better for democracy. This is not to suggest that all female representatives will act in women’s interests by virtue of being women – just like men, party affiliations and constituency considerations will be a priority for most – but that decisions made by a diverse group of people are more-rounded and result in better outcomes in the long-term. As Johnny Fallon said to me after the seminar over coffee, if you were setting up a company you wouldn’t want the board to be comprised entirely of accountants. Why is politics any different?