Ireland had, until this year, an appalling record on women’s participation in politics. Men always represented at least 84% of TDs. The proportion of women TDs had never increased above 16%. Voter choice was severely restricted, with no women candidates of any party fielded in several constituencies in both the 2007 and 2011 general elections. Between 1990 and 2011, women’s rate of political representation actually reduced. In 1990, Ireland was in 37th position in the world table of women’s representation in national parliaments but by 2011 had fallen to 84th position, with only 23 women TDs out of 166 (14%), well below the world average.
In the February 2016 general election, the percentage of women TDs increased significantly to 22%, with 35 women out of 158 TDs. This still remains below the European Union average. Ireland is at 76th place in the world tables of women’s representation. So, while improved, our democracy continues to be not truly representative. Nonetheless progress now seems possible and further gains can be expected.
Gender parity has been one of my key campaign priorities since my first election as a Senator in 2007. The barriers are significant, known as the ‘five Cs’ of childcare, cash, confidence, culture and candidate selection. These are captured in the 2009 report, that I drafted, of a Sub-Committee on Women’s Participation in Politics of the Joint Oireachtas Justice Committee. We made a series of recommendations aimed at addressing each of these challenges. The introduction of quota legislation to require political parties to select a minimum proportion of women candidates for each election was recommended for candidate selection. This was the underpinning for the progress made in the February 2016 election.
This recommendation was controversial and was vocally opposed by many, including some high-profile women politicians. NGO support and campaigning was key in changing the political climate for this recommendation. The National Women’s Council, ‘50:50 by 2020’ and ‘Women for Election’ all played a big role in this. ‘Labour Women’, the women’s section of the Labour Party, had a particularly influential role. The combined strength and influence of these groups enabled Labour to push successfully for the inclusion of this recommendation in the Programme for Government of the Fine Gael/Labour coalition elected in 2011.
The Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill was introduced in the Seanad in February 2012, and became law in July 2012. It obliged each political party to select at least 30% of their candidates of each gender for the subsequent general election; rising to 40% after seven years. Political parties failing to meet this figure would lose half of their state funding. Legal quotas work and have a transformative effect as was proven in the February 2016 election.
Clearly, other obstacles remain. Candidate selection is only one of the ‘five Cs’. Culture is key and remains a significant barrier. The political culture in Ireland is still predominately male, just as it is in other spheres, such as third-level education. Quotas need to be accompanied by action for a change in culture.
It is early yet to predict the likely impact of gender quotas on culture and practice within political parties. There was some opposition to the Act itself from individuals who felt adversely affected by it. The Constitutional status of the Act was challenged unsuccessfully in the Courts. Generally, however, the necessity for some positive action measure to tackle persistently low levels of women’s political representation was accepted, albeit grudgingly by many.
Culture within the political system is also at issue. It is to be hoped that, over time, the way we do politics may be positively influenced by the increased presence of women in the Oireachtas. In my own limited experience, increased numbers of women in the Seanad seems to have made for a more collaborative and less adversarial working environment.
Much more still needs to be done before we can achieve gender parity in our democracy. In particular the intangible work of changing cultures within political parties and the political system requires attention and initiative. I look forward to continuing the campaign and to further developing this focus.
I am currently working with others in the Oireachtas to celebrate the centenary of that momentous 1918 election, with a series of events in Leinster House and elsewhere. Our celebration – called ‘VoteAll 100’ should remind us that as we commemorate the achievements of the past, we have yet to achieve true gender equality. It is these types of initiative that can stimulate the shift in values that would drive a new culture in our politics that embraces and reflects gender equality.
By Ivana Bacik