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Inexorable ascent of women electoral candidates

By Ivana Bacik.

Members of first Dail, 1919-at least 40%too much testosterone
Members of first Dail, 1919-at least 40%too much testosterone

Selection conventions are now being held across the country to bring forward candidates for the May 2014 local and European elections. It is timely to revisit the issue of women’s representation in politics, especially in the new context created by the enactment of the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012. This Act should have a transformative effect on the political landscape at the next General Election, likely in 2016. 

The 2012 Act requires political parties to select at least 30% women and 30% men as candidates in that election. After a period of seven years, the minimum requirement for each gender will rise to 40%.  Parties which do not meet these targets will see their State funding cut by half. However, unfortunately, the Act does not apply to this year’s local or European elections.

In the 2011 General Election, just 86 (15%) of 566 candidates were women and 25 women were elected, representing 15% of the 166 Dáil deputies. This was the best result ever achieved for women in Irish politics. The new statutory target will effectively double the number of women standing as candidates in the next General Election and is likely to result in a significant increase in the numbers of women elected. 

This is likely to have a knock-on effect in the numbers of women going forward for local election this year. Currently, only 16% of elected councillors are women, following the 2009 local elections in which 17% of the candidates were women. In the previous local elections, held in 2004, women constituted 19% of elected councillors, the best result to date for women in local politics.

Political-party organisers are certainly conscious, during the ongoing selection processes, of the need to recruit more women as local candidates, in order to have sufficient numbers in place to meet the new targets for the next General Election. Figures provided by the Women for Election group, which has been monitoring the convention processes, show that women constituted 24% of the 1,022 candidates selected up to January 2014. Labour had the highest rate of women selected, at 32%. In second place, 30% of the selected Sinn Féin candidates were women. Fine Gael had selected 22% women candidates and only 17% of Fianna Fáil candidates were women. 

These figures could change before the election date of 23rd May, but already it seems that the proportion of women candidates will be significantly higher than 2009. This should be part of a build-up to women being more visible as candidates in the general election and, ultimately, in Leinster House.  

Nominations are not yet completed for the European elections. In 2009, women constituted 24% of the candidates in the European election  and 25% of those elected (three MEPs out of a total of twelve). Following the resignation of some MEPs and their substitution according to party lists, there are now five women MEPs for Ireland. This constitutes 42% of the total, a record level of participation at any level for women in Irish politics.

Five years ago, I organised an event to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the 1918 election, when women first had the right to vote, and in which Constance Markievicz was elected as the first woman TD and MP. The chamber was almost half full of women on that occasion, with 72 present. 

I finally obtained permission for the photograph of that event to be displayed on the walls of Leinster House, along a ground-floor corridor in late 2013. Lise Hand memorably observed in the Independent that male TDs and Senators should be sure to see it, given that it is prominently positioned on the way to the Dáil bar. 

To mark the 95th anniversary of the historic 1918 election, I have organised for another photograph to be taken, this time of all current women TDs and Senators (a total of 45) sitting in the 60-seat Seanad chamber. Commemorative events like these create a powerful visual image of how a parliament made up equally of men and of women would look. 

Perhaps, after May, our local council chambers and European parliament seats may look more like these pictures. •