Is a gender quota the right way to bring more women into national politics, asks Justine McCarthy

This article appeared in the Sunday Times recently in the absence of an electronic link it has been copied and reprinted here in full

‘On Friday, while Lucinda Creighton was hosting a women-only media
briefing in Dublin about her fledgling political party, the former
tanaiste Mary Coughlan was discussing election strategy in her Donegal
bailiwick. Would she be mad enough to return to the political fray,
she was asked. Coughlan laughed heartily and replied: “What was it the
great [John F] Kennedy said about what you can do for your country?”
Suddenly, petticoat power is all the rage in Irish politics. Due to
the introduction of agender quota in the next general election,
candidate selection has turned into a tightrope walk for political
strategists. Parties failing to nominate women for at least 30% of
their candidates face losing half their state funding under electoral

For Fine Gael, which received €2.28m in 2013, the price of failure
would be more than €1.1m. The Labour party stands to lose over
€600,000, and Fianna Fail more than €500,000. Because of the statutory
curtailment of private donations, parties have never been more reliant
on state funding. So the threat of losing half of it is really
concentrating minds. Women are being wooed right, left and centre.

Fine Gael has a perceived female deficit after Enda Kenny, the
taoiseach, failed to promote even one woman as junior minister in last
summer’s reshuffle. The damage was compounded in September when he
passed over three women shortlisted to fill a Seanad vacancy in favour
of John McNulty, a party activist. Samantha Long, one of the three
spurned women, has left the party and now works in Leinster House as
Creighton’s parliamentary assistant. The expectation is that she will
stand as a candidate in Dublin for the new party.

Shortly before Christmas, Kenny invited all the women in Fine Gael’s
parliamentary party to dinner in the Merrion hotel in a gesture
interpreted by some who attended as part apology and part statement of
intent for the general election. Kenny has promised that, if he is
returned to power, he will ensure half the cabinet is female.

On Thursday, Fianna Fail launched the Markievicz Commission report on
gender equality. The party is undertaking to select up to 27 women as
candidates for the Dail election — quite a challenge considering it
has no female TD at present.

Micheál Martin, the party’s leader, has said Fianna Fail could run
all-woman tickets in “three to four or maybe more constituencies,
subject to variables” but that they must be “electable”.

Martin said he anticipates some aspiring male candidates will complain
their suitability and experience are being sacrificed in order to meet
the quota requirements. Signs of potential mutiny surfaced immediately
when Séamus Butler, a Fianna Fail councillor in Longford who plans to
contest next month’s selection convention, said: “We would feel that
the party is looking to meet the gender quotain the urban areas, so
there is no major pressure in this area to have female candidates.”

On Friday, at her home in Frosses, Coughlan debated a return to
national politics with the chairman of her Fianna Fail comhairle
ceantair, the party’s district organisation. Aged 21 when she was
first elected in 1987 to a seat that had been successively held by her
father and her uncle, Coughlan was widely excoriated during her tenure
as tanaiste between 2008 and 2011, being dubbed “Calamity Coughlan”.

She lost her seat at the last general election to Thomas Pringle, an

Coughlan is “seriously considering” contesting the next election and
will make her decision by Easter. With the two current Donegal
constituencies being merged into one five-seater, and part of
Coughlan’s old base in the south being absorbed by Sligo-Leitrim,
Fianna Fail must decide whether to field one or two running mates with
Charlie McConalogue, its sitting TD. Martin has promised to run a
woman candidate in every constituency where Fianna Fail already holds
a seat.

“It’s tough to be anyone in politics, but it’s very tough to be a
woman in politics,” Coughlan said. “You’re in a minority. I wouldn’t
have been an admirer of the quota system, but we have to do something.
It’s hard getting women to stand.” Fianna Fail finds itself between a
rock and a hard place. Should it rely on women with national profiles
and a prospect of being elected, such as Coughlan, or avoid
contamination from the past by opting for untried candidates? The
local election success of Mary Hanafin, the party’s former education
minister, gave the old guard a boost. Hanafin, whose father and
brother were senators, defied Fianna Fail’s refusal to back her and
won a seat in Dublin’s Blackrock electoral area. She is expected to
seek the Fianna Fail nomination in Dun Laoghaire for the Dailelection.

Though the gender quota does not apply to local elections, the parties
set their own targets in May. Of Fine Gael’s candidates, 22.6% were
women, of Fianna Fail’s 17.1%, and Labour’s 28.9%. Sinn Fein, with
31.6%, had the highest female proportion among established parties,
but People Before Profit did best with almost 40%.

Ireland lies 94th in the world for the level of female representation
in national parliaments, behind Libya and Uruguay. Britain is 60th.
Qatar and Tonga have no women. Rwanda has more than any other country
because of a quota system introduced after the 1994 genocide.

“There is no evidence that people don’t vote for women, or for that
matter that they don’t vote forquota women,” said Meryl Kenny, a
politics lecturer at the University of Leicester. “In fact, where
there are women candidates, women voters are more likely to engage and
participate in the process. It has been proposed that we should think
about no quotas for women but quotas for men. If we hadgender-neutral
requirements — a certain number for both sexes — it could produce the
very best of both. Spain has a parity law whereby party candidate
lists can’t have less than 40% or more than 60% of either sex.”

IRELAND got off to a good start with the election of Constance
Markievicz to the first Dail in 1918. The number of women rose to six
in the second Dail but dropped to one in 1927. It did not reach double
figures until 11 women were elected in 1981, and it took until 1992 to
reach 20.

In all, just 95 women have been elected to the Dail since its
foundation. There are 27 in the present Dail — a record. Of six
by-elections since 2011, three were won by women: Helen McEntee, who
took the Meath East seat of her late father, Shane McEntee; Gabrielle
McFadden, who won the Longford-Westmeath seat of her late sister,
Nicky McFadden; and Ruth Coppinger, the new Socialist party TD for
Dublin West. One of the recommendations in the Markievicz report
adopted by Fianna Fail is to “explore options” for a gender quota in
Seanad elections, one of the main pathways into the Dail. Almost one
in three senators is a woman, compared with 16.5% of TDs.

“Throughout the 20th century, the vast majority of women in the Dail
were either widows or daughters of TDs,” said Claire McGing, a
researcher at NUI Maynooth. “That has changed greatly. We tend to
deride that, but we would have had far fewer women TDs if it hadn’t
been the case. Women in politics tend to have fewer children than
their male counterparts.

They tend to be professionals, well-educated and less likely to be
married.” Creighton, who will launch her new party next month, says
that of nearly 2,500 people who have signed up to support it, 20%
arewomen. The proportion rises to 25% when emails sent directly to
Creighton are included. She is “especially calling on women, who not
only are under-represented in the Dail and the Seanad, but are missing
in the entire nexus of policy-making in this country”.

For some party strategists, the obligation to nominate female
candidates is a gift.

They have watched Sinn Fein notch up election successes with
articulate, modern women such as Lynn Boylan and Liadh Ní Riada in
last year’s European elections. Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein’s deputy
leader, is one of the most recognisable members of the Dail.

Labour got a gender-balance fillip after the party’s disastrous
performance in the local elections when Eamon Gilmore was replaced as
leader by Joan Burton, the first female leader of the country’s oldest

At the launch of the Markievicz report, Martin said it could be
difficult persuading women to stand forelection. “The way politics
works is a disincentive to some women,” he said. “I’ve had personal
experience of women saying they want to rear their children with
normality, and a lot of women do not see the logic of sitting [in the
Dail] until 10pm or midnight.”

Fiona O’Loughlin, the current mayor of Kildare, intends to stand in
Kildare South. “I wasn’t in favour of the quota,” she said. “I felt
women who want to be in politics want to be there in their own right,
not necessarily as a woman. But the quota is there now and it must be
used in a fair way.

“There is a danger that good women candidates could suffer from this.
[Party] tickets can be manipulated. You could have a situation where a
woman candidate is needed, and it may be a weaker woman candidate who
is chosen to ensure the male candidate gets elected. That has happened
in the past in all political parties.”

Fiona Buckley, a lecturer in University College Cork’s department of
government, is a founding member of the 5050 campaign for
parliamentary gender equality. She warns that the quota will not
produce instant balance in Dail Eireann.”Research from the Nordic
region suggests it may take, on average, three electoral cycles before
parliaments see a significant increase in women’s parliamentary
representation following the introduction of gender quotas,” Buckley
said. “In Ireland, it’s likely that, following the next general
election, we’ll see women’s parliamentary representation rise by about
4% or 5% to bring the overall percentage of women in the Dail to about

Buckley said the quota system adopted by Ireland was similar to one
introduced in Belgium in the early 1990s, when its level of female
representation was 10.8%. In last year’s Belgian elections,women’s
representation rose to 39.3%.

“This issue is not going to go away,” said Yvonne Galligan, a
professor at Queen’s University Belfast who chairs the Markievicz
Commission. “It’s part of how people are looking at their democracy.
People are not happy to settle for the same old status quo. Young
women and young men want representation that reflects them.’

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