Mary Lou McDonald TD speaks on Gender Quota Bill

Mary Lou McDonald TD
Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill 2011
Second Stage/Dáil/21.03.2012

I thank Deputy Stanley for sharing his speaking time. I find myself in the very pleasant position of warmly welcoming the Bill, in particular the measures on gender quotas. I say all of this mindful that, in an ideal scenario, we would not be sitting here debating gender quotas. In an ideal scenario, the Dáil and the Houses of the Oireachtas would be truly representative but, as we all know, we are not at that place.
If I were to boil it right down, I support gender quotas because if we are serious about political reform and about full and equal representation, we have to do something that has a good chance of working. The evidence from other jurisdictions suggests that gender quotas deliver, and delivery is what we need at this juncture. Like many women in political life and outside it, I have lost count of the number of debates and conversations that have taken place, and all of the lamentations about the lack of women in public life. We have done the lamenting. We have all scratched our heads and wondered what to do. Now, in this legislation, we have at least a step – I believe it is an important step – towards putting matters right.
The focus of gender quotas on general elections alone ignores the reality that many elected representatives begin their political careers on local councils. I urge the Minister to take account of this fact, which holds true for women as well as men. We need a level of consistency. If gender quotas are to be applied in respect of the Dáil, there is no good reason they should not be applied in regard to local authorities.
Responsibility lies with all of us in political life to increase women’s participation from the bottom up and the top down. This will mean political parties reconsidering how they organise their work and auditing their own internal procedures and practices. It will mean, at times, men stepping aside and making way for women. It will also mean Governments, when elected, stepping up to the plate, looking at their Front Bench and undertaking a gender audit when making appointments to Cabinet or to committee chairs.
The linking of gender quota targets with party political party funding in this legislation is very important and is evidence, in itself, of the historic failure of politics to deliver equal participation of men and women in public life. Measures put forward by any Government to tackle the low numbers of women participating in national politics are very welcome but, if we are to truly change the culture of politics, gender quotas are only one part of an overall package of measures. A single “big ticket” item will not be enough to address the reasons women “don’t do politics”, as it is said.
The forthcoming constitutional convention offers a real opportunity for the Government to put meat on the bones of this legislative measure. While the smoke signals from the Government to date have not been encouraging, we have time to change this. If Fine Gael and Labour are serious about gender equality, and I believe they are, one simple expression of this would be an announcement by the Taoiseach that he will ensure the equal representation of women on the convention, as proposed by Sinn Féin.
Any new constitution arising from the convention must include maximum human rights guarantees. It must contain all the modern equality and human rights protections that reflect the full spectrum of our international obligations, including the rights of women to be represented and to be present in all of our political institutions. Politics needs to wake up and smell the coffee.
I have spoken on any number of occasions about the barriers that preclude women from taking part in politics but nothing prepared me for how stark the reality of inequality is and how it expresses itself in this House. I am one of just 25 women elected to this Dáil out of 166 members. Outside of this Chamber, women are in the majority, yet in here we make up just 15%. This is simply an unacceptable fact.
It was only when I came into the Chamber and took my seat for the first time that I truly realised how male dominated an institution this is. The reality of the maleness and the sheer inequality of it smacks right in the face. All of the party benches are dominated by men, the Government Front Bench is dominated by men and our most senior civil servants are still predominantly men. Despite this, when we speak about women in politics, the narrative sometimes still suggests we are a minority group. In this Chamber, which is very male and sometimes belligerently so, that is the truth. In the real world, however, we are the majority, with women making up just over half the population.
I believe there is no accidental confusion in the way this story is told; in fact, it is deliberate. It is a narrative created largely by men in power who want to hold on to power, locally and nationally, on the ground and within our political institutions. Political life is in many ways off limits for women, in particular women with children.
The five Cs have been mentioned. Cash, child care, confidence and culture are all obstacles for women, as we know, although we have not done a whole pile about it. However, politics understands full well the reasons that women cannot and do notparticipate in public and political life.
The five Cs are critical components in an overall strategy to empower women to get involved in politics. Above all, however, women must overcome the assumption that it is men who do power. Let us be honest in that regard. This is about power, the attainment and exercise of power and decision making, which in cultural and social terms in this country is considered a male responsibility. We must shift this assumption as a matter of urgency.
Politics is in crisis. Successive Governments have made – and continue to make – decisions that are not in the interests of the wider society. The financial wants of bankers, financiers, developers, business interests and of the European, international and domestic political institutions are prioritised ahead of the education and health needs of our people. Real values have been thrown to the wind and citizens are paying an unacceptable price. Women, alongside our men, can and must play an equal role in political and public life. Delivering parity of representation in politics will act as a lever for reshaping our society. I am not arguing for tokenistic representation which merely delivers a more colourful or attractive Chamber, although I am sure that would be welcomed by many. Fuller participation by women in political life can have a definitive influence in terms of the policy agenda and the policy decisions that are taken.

That is why I warmly welcome the proposal for gender quotas.
There is a range of fantastic organisations willing and able to assist us in our task of achieving gender parity. The Irish Countrywomen’s Association was mentioned by other speakers. The recently launched Women for Election is headed up by women who can only be described as a breath of fresh air. They are enthusiastic and committed to their objective of increasing women’s participation in political life. The 50:50 Group, likewise, is dedicated to achieving equal representation in Irish politics. The National Women’s Council of Ireland continues its excellent work of proactively engaging with representatives in its campaign work. I commend all these groups. The political systemmust engage in an open, honest and progressive way with all interested individuals and groups in order to make progress.
I support the comments made by my colleague, Deputy Stanley, in regard to local government reform. I draw the Minister’s attention to another issue of concern, namely, the representation and participation of women in the media.
The National Women’s Council of Ireland’s submission to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland illustrates starkly that women continue to be marginalised from current affairs broadcasting. The findings in regard to RTE are extremely disappointing. Bottom of the class is “News at One” which, during the surveyed period, shows the lowest level of women’s participation, at just 12.5%. Next was “Drivetime” at 21%, followed by “Morning Ireland” at 23% and Marian Finucane’s programme at 30%. RTE is a public sector broadcaster. If it is unable to develop criteria to ensure equal representation of women in its programming, then it, like the political parties, must be incentivised to do so. If public funding to political parties is to be linked to efforts to achieve gender parity, there is no reason a similar linkage cannot be made in respect of RTE.
Every time the issue of gender quotas is debated, there are strong reactions, both strongly supportive and strongly oppositional. Sometimes it is women who argue most strongly against quotas because they do not want to be tokenised or undermined in any role they might take on in political life. Every woman elected to this House understands precisely why that is the case. However, the opposite to introducing gender quotas is simply to sit on our hands, complain about how terrible the current situation is and wish it were different. In 2012, we no longer have the luxury of such a stance. Politics, public discourse and public policy are all damaged by the absence of women. If we are to support and nurture a representative democracy in this State, we must all – women and men – insist on equal gender representation.
I commend the Minister on this legislation. The introduction of gender quotas is welcome as the first in what I hope will be a series of steps aimed unapologetically at increasing the number of women in the Dáil and Seanad and in local authorities throughout the State. To those who have fears and concerns, I urge them to consider the experience in other jurisdictions in which women and men were also opposed to the politics of tokenism but nevertheless took the plunge of introducing quotas and subsequently transformed the complexion not only of elected parliaments but of the tone and nature of political debate itself.

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