From Red-Heads to Nationalism – the Irish story

By Carol HuntJournalist, permanent student, mother, feminist, book addict…

Over the past few months there has been a sudden concern about the civic rights of red-heads.

That David McWilliams must be so pleased.

On Twitter, Facebook – and in various newspaper columns I’ve seen – appeals to government to introduce quotas not just for red-heads, but also, plumbers, volvo-drivers and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The point, supposedly, is to suggest that the bill on Gender Quotas, to be introduced into the Seanad this Thursday, is somehow unfair and faintly ridiculous.

The people who, for whatever reasons, are against an honest attempt at increasing the number of women in Leinster House don’t believe the majority gender in this country should be afforded a temporary discriminatory quota (although it actually applies to both genders) because that will mean “everybody will want one”.

It’s a fallacious argument.
There is absolutely no correlation between hair colour, religion etc and gender – to suggest that there is, is absurd & also a little bit desperate.

But we can be guaranteed that the nonsense will continue.

Modern Ireland…
has always been a cold house for feminists despite our constant bragging about electing the first female MP to UK parliament.

In 1866, Corkwoman Hannah Haslam (1829-1922) signed the first women’s suffrage petition on these Islands. It was handed into the House of Commons by John Stuart Mill.

About 20 years later Hannah Haslam & her husband Thomas, founded the Irish Suffrage Society.

Helen Chevenix, Eva Gore-Booth, Aine Ceant, Helena Molony, Louie Bennett & Hannah-Sheehy Skeffington are just some of the extraordinary women who fought for suffrage & labour rights at the end of 19th & early 20th century.

Their achievements were many; sadly their names are remembered today, in the main, only by historians.

What happened?
In a word? Nationalism.
The Republican Brothers insisted the election of Constance Markievicz was living proof of the manifestation of equality as enshrined in the 1916 Proclamation.

The Sisters who’d fought long & hard before & during the War of Independence disagreed: The suffragette Irish Citizen Newspaper wrote on the day following this “historic achievement”:

“Under the new dispensation the majority sex in Ireland has secured one representative. This is the measure of our boasted sex equality.”

Should our revolutionary women have been surprised?

Perhaps not. Anna Parnell, ferociously successful leader of  Ladies Land League was cynically betrayed by her brother on his release from prison – she never spoke to him again.

And it was the Irish Parliamentary Party in 1912, led by the anti-feminist John Redmond, who used their balance of power in Westminster to defeat the Conciliation Bill (limited suffrage).

Redmond was so terrified of female power he specifically banned women from a conference on Home Rule.

Sinn Fein’s Arthur Griffith wasn’t much better. He had little time for “women’s causes”.

In 1914, those who’d decided not to support the Home Rule Bill – because the franchise for women was not included – were accused of  putting their feminist principles before their nationalist ones.

Republicans insisted Women’s Emancipation could only – should only –  be achieved after Independence. The founding of the nationalist Cumann na mBan had been seen as a retrograde step by feminists. Their fears were justified.

In the 1917 Sinn Fein Convention – estimated attendance of 1,000 – only 12 women were selected as delegates.

Increasingly an agenda was created in which Suffragette women, Republican women, Socialist women, would have no voice or influence.

After Treaty Debates of 1922, a plea was made that women over 21 be given the vote – in accordance with the pledge contained in the Republican proclamation. But the boys of the “Free” State believed equality meant a 21 year old man was somehow “equal” to a 30 year old woman… They thought they were  being magnanimous.

And, contradicting the accusation made against Suffragettes in 1914 (that they were putting their feminist principles before their nationalist ones), they were denied equal rights because their motivations were Republican (anti-Treaty) rather than feminist.

Which makes one wonder who the contrary sex is?

With the establishment of the ultra-Catholic Free State, Irish men ensured women were returned to their proper sphere – the home.

Fianna Fáil
Just when your average feminist thought things couldn’t get any worse, Fianna Fail gained  power. Believe me Sisters, things can always get worse.

Eamon De Valera emulated the German mantra of  Kinder, Kuche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church) when he included a constitutional article which maintained that a woman’s legal place was within the home.
[In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, women gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall, therefore, endeavor to ensure that mothers shall  not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home. Article 41.2.]

(Historian Margaret Ward has commented that Dev’s comments were indistinguishable from Nazi decrees.)

The majority of exhausted double-jobbing mothers I know are either howling with laughter or annoyance at the above constitutional piece of nonsense.

Interestingly, no-one has actually challenged it in court (many families today need two incomes to pay the bills). Could all those mortgages given to two-income families be unconstitutional?

Any takers?

The Gender Quotas Bill
It seeems likely the Gender Quotas Bill will be passed – if all the parties supporting it are to be believed (never a given).
And Fianna Fail’s suggestion that it be extended to the 2014 Local Elections should be taken up (before they get back into power & change their minds).

We need to take this chance
… for greater equality in political representaion and run with it. It may not come again. We have to support our female candidates –  and all candidates who support what are condescendingly called “women’s issues”.

As UCD historian Rosemary Cullen-Owens said of the aims of our early Suffragettes:
“… That it took fifty years for such demands to be voiced again by Irishwomen is perhaps a lesson to be noted by their successors.”



We are delighted to welcome Carol Hunt as author here.  Carol recently wrote a great piece for Irish Independent after the How to Elect More Women Conference – here’s the link


Ivana Bacik’s reply to McDowell’s letter in the Sunday Independent

Sir —
Surprise, surprise. Former PD leader Michael McDowell believes that a proposed gender quota law is unconstitutional.

As one of the very few elected women politicians in Ireland, I read his article (Sunday Independent, November 20, 2011), with interest. As always, he argues his ideological position with energy — but without substance.

He suggests that Eamon Gilmore has promised to publish a bill designed to encourage political parties to nominate women candidates. In fact, Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan has, in line with commitments in the Programme for Government, already published the heads of a bill the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill 2011, which will make particular funding levels for political parties contingent on the party achieving a certain minimum percentage (30%) of candidates of each gender in the next General Election.

This is an entirely modest and reasonable proposal, similar to legislation introduced in over 100 countries internationally. Experience has shown that without some sort of temporary positive action measure like this, the level of women’s representation in politics will not improve.

Ireland is no exception. The Dail has always been at least 85% male — we rank at 79th place in the international listings of women’s parliamentary representation, well below the EU average.

We have never improved that position — in fact our ranking has fallen nearly 40 places since 1990. Clearly, some positive steps need to be taken to address the unrepresentative nature of our parliament.

In 2009, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice adopted a report I had written which found that this sort of law is one vital measure to ensure greater choice for voters and ultimately greater equality of representation.

Michael McDowell fails to cite any substantive constitutional ground on which this law could be challenged, suggesting only that it might breach the freedom of association. However, this right is very restrictively framed in the Constitution, which specifies that laws may be enacted for the regulation and control in the public interest of its exercise. In other words, even if the legislation were to be challenged, a very strong defence of its adoption in the public interest could be made, based on the facts.

Further, as Mr McDowell himself acknowledges, there is no reference to the ‘political party’ as an institution in the Constitution.

Accordingly it is impossible to argue, as he does, that any political party has any right to any particular level of State funding. The principles governing levels of State funding of political parties have been set down by the legislature in a series of different Acts.

Finally, it is well accepted that this measure is very modest and does not provide for any outcome. It is only an ‘opportunity’ quota. It does not impose in any way on the choice of voters; it expands the choice available to voters who in several constituencies in past elections had no opportunity to support a woman candidate.
This modest proposal deserves support from women and men alike, and I very much look forward to a full and constructive debate on the legislation when it comes before us in the Seanad.
Ivana Bacik,
Seanad Eireann, Dublin 2