Way behind on women in politics

With only 23 women TDs Ireland equals Djibouti in East Africa
Ivana Bacik

Ireland has an appalling record on women’s participation in politics.  We account for half the Irish population, yet the proportion of women TDs has never exceeded 14 per cent.   To put it another way, the Dáil has always been at least 86% male.  In fact, over recent years, Ireland’s rate of women’s political representation has actually reduced drastically.   In 1990, Ireland was in 37th position in the world classification of women’s representation in the lower or single house of national parliaments.  However, by October 2009 Ireland had fallen to 84th position, ranked equally with Djibouti in East Africa.  Currently we have only 23 women TDs out of 166 (13.8%).  This is well below both the world average and the internationally-recommended figure of 30% (a critical mass of women politicians).

This has had a number of negative consequences.  It means our democracy is not truly representative and it also means that voter choice in Ireland is severely restricted.  In the 2007 General Election, women constituted only 17% of candidates overall.  At least 60% of constituencies had no women candidates from either of the two largest political parties at that election: Fianna Fáil fielded no women candidates in 28 constituencies and Fine Gael had no women standing in 30 constituencies.  In fact, in five constituencies out of the total of 43, no women candidates stood, even as independents.  There is strong public support for changing the status quo to increase voter choice and Ireland also has strong international obligations to achieve better representation levels.

Since my election as a Senator in 2007, one of my key campaign priorities has been to try and increase the numbers of women in politics.  With this in mind, last December I organised an event in Leinster House to commemorate the 90th anniversary of Constance Markievicz’s election in the 1918 general election, the first in which women had the right to vote.  I invited all living former and current women members of the Oireachtas, 80 in total, to take up seats in the Dáil chamber; a powerful way of celebrating the women elected, but also of showing how few women have ever been elected in our nation’s history.  The photograph, displayed on the Oireachtas web site, represents the only time that the Dáil chamber has ever been half full of women!

Then in April 2009, I got the agreement of the Joint Oireachtas Justice Committee, of which I am a member, to establish a Sub-Committee on Women’s Participation in Politics.  Chaired by Brendan Kenneally TD, the Sub-Committee was asked to analyse the challenges facing women in entering politics, to examine potential initiatives to encourage more women to consider a career in politics, and to make recommendations to enhance the role of women in politics.

As Rapporteur to the Sub-Committee, I drafted a report which was adopted by the Joint Committee, with overwhelming cross-party support.  The report was launched on 5th November, and has engendered livelty media discussion since then.  I am optimistic that its recommendations will be debated in both the Dáil and Seanad in coming months, and ultimately adopted by the Government.  So what were our key findings? First, we examined the challenges facing women on entry into politics, and suggested that these can be summarised under five headings, the ‘five C’s’.  It is clear from research and experience elsewhere that a whole package of reforms is necessary to tackle each of these challenges.  The report accordingly makes a series of recommendations aimed at addressing each one.

Under the heading of childcare, we found that the ‘long hours’ culture in politics is a factor which discourages women in particular from being more politically active.  We recommended therefore that changes to political party processes and Council and Oireachtas sitting times are necessary to ensure that childcare and other family caring responsibilities can be accommodated, both for men and women in politics.  We said that childcare supports should be provided, the Oireachtas crèche maintained, and that women TDs and Senators who give birth in office should be entitled to automatic pairing arrangements.

Under the cash heading, we found lack of resources to be another major factor inhibiting women’s progress in politics, particularly as, in Ireland, women earn on average 22% less than their male counterparts.  We recommended, among other things, the establishment of a national fundraising campaign to finance women’s electoral campaigns and the voluntary provision of additional funds by political parties to support women candidates.

The third heading was that of confidence.  Women tend to lack sufficient self-belief to participate actively in political life generally, and to put themselves forward for selection in political parties.  So we recommended that political parties should be encouraged to introduce recruitment drives specifically aimed at women seeking to identify and head-hunt women in local areas, both as party members and potential candidates and that mentoring and leadership training programmes should be provided for aspiring candidates.

Under the culture heading, we found that the overall masculine image of politics remains as a powerful barrier for women’s increased participation.  We recommended that specific steps be taken, in particular through the education system, to encourage more girls and women into politics through civic education programmes and the creation of a national data bank of potential women candidates, on a constituency by constituency basis.

Finally, the issue of candidate selection procedures within political parties has been identified in research internationally as the single most important obstacle to women’s political participation.
The question is how best to reform these procedures to achieve increased numbers of women in parliament.  We reviewed the different models for reform in different countries.  First, we found that the model of reserving seats for women in parliament, while used in many African and Asian countries, might be problematic under EU gender-equality laws.  We also looked at the idea of introducing voluntary political party quotas, but found that while these have been effective in some countries, notably Sweden, they require strong commitment by individual political parties, and generally take many years before results may be seen.  Experience elsewhere in Europe, especially in Belgium and Spain, shows that legislative electoral quotas might be more effective in the Irish political system.  Thus, we recommended that candidate quota legislation be adopted, to oblige each political party to impose a maximum limit on the proportion of candidates of any one gender selected to run in elections at local, national and European levels.  Such legislation should be introduced on a temporary basis only, to ensure that when targets are met, the law will lapse.

The legislation should provide initially, based on the Belgian model, that no party could have more than two-thirds of their candidates of one gender in the next general election; the proportion of women required could then be revised upwards for subsequent local and general elections.  A system of financial penalties should be imposed, so that parties that do not achieve the target of at least one-third women candidates for the next general election, for example, would receive reduced levels of state funding as a result.  Clearly, such legislation would require support from all the political parties to ensure that it would be effective.  But it is also clear that there is widespread concern about the low levels of women in Irish politics, and that the single most effective reform for women in Ireland would be the introduction of legislation requiring political parties to adopt gender targets in their candidate selection processes.  Unless effective positive action measures are adopted, Ireland will continue to languish at the bottom of the international league tables for women’s representation, and our democracy will remain ‘unfinished’.  It is up to all of us to press for the implementation of this important report.