A seat at the table: Women in Irish politics

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

Brianna Walsh ponders the space for women in Irish politics.

“If women ran the world we wouldn’t have wars, just intense negotiations every 28 days.”

The words of the late Robin Williams are weighty. Whether they ring true or not has always stood contentious. More striking perhaps is the fact that we are still waiting to truly find out. 

Jacinda Ardern’s landslide victory in New Zealand raises the recurring question facing our own small island. While Justin Trudeau championed the Labour leader’s compassion, efforts to combat climate change and ensure equitable vaccine distribution, he equally cited with confidence her capacity to “empower women and girls around the world.” The sentiment echoes decades of Irish feminist suffrage, Ardern coming to the fore as the Countess Markievicz of the Southern Hemisphere. Her re-election resurrects the same concern with a breadth of new life; where is Ireland’s Ardern, Clinton, Merkel? What is the impact of Markievicz’s legacy today? 

Despite over a century passing since Markievicz’s appointment as the first female member of the Irish Cabinet, it remains evident that representation of women in Irish politics remains meagre. The 33rd Dáil is made up of 22.5% women, even though the group comprises over 50% of the population. As Senator Ivana Bacik bluntly put it when she was first elected, our Parliament appears to remain “pale, male and stale”, despite efforts to reform the rhyme. Indeed, the prospect of analysing women at the table, and their ability to negotiate warfare, feels fruitless when their seats are empty! With few female politicians in Ireland and even fewer sitting as government ministers, the only thing we can really wonder is why? 

The Irish government introduced a gender quota under the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act in 2012. This new legislation meant that funding to parties would be halved unless 30% of their candidates at general elections were women. Although the reform showed some promise, with the number of female TDs surpassing the 30 mark for the first time after the 2016 general election, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil struggled to reach the quota target. Testimonies from the time indicate greater issues with this logic of change. Speaking to  The Irish Times, Josepha Madigan felt that she had a lot more to prove, “because you don’t want to be just on a ticket because you are a woman.” Tackling the true roots of the issue never appeared starker when she went on to reveal her initial response to the proposal that she run in the 2014 local elections; “I looked behind me to see was she talking to somebody else.”

There is more to this than ratios and quick-fix regulations. Research of the 2009 Justice Committee notes the 5 C’s holding back women in Irish political advancement; Cash, Childcare, Confidence, Culture and Candidate Selection Procedure. 

Women in Ireland statistically earn less, a fact that makes it difficult to begin a career in this field. Why are women more likely to make less money? Typically, they are expected to resume childcare facilities following the birth of a baby. The inadequate value placed on paternity leave and the care industry in Ireland, alongside the lasting Constitutional position of women in the home, conflicts directly with the long working hours expected of a politician. Ireland as a modern state seems fast-moving but in reality, society still has a lot of catching up to do.

It also takes confidence to put yourself forward in the public arena, particularly a public arena that historically hasn’t expected you to. Máire Geoghegan–Quinn’s daunting first Cumman meeting doesn’t seem too far removed from politics today, despite taking place in the mid-1970s; “I walked in the door and I was surrounded by a sea of men.” In a modern world where the media disproportionately affects women, it is even more understandable why we may be put off by the pressure of public perception. 

The candidate selection procedure relies heavily on connections with the area in which contenders are campaigning for. A significantly harder hurdle for women to cross, this primarily includes a recognised family name, or a long familial history with the area – i.e. a relation to the previous TDs of the region. 

But are we really that backwards? Do female politicians still face the same abuse as Mary Robinson did on the campaign trail, labelled a “Marxist, lesbian bitch” and informed that her place remained firmly in the home? Today, it seems young women are more interested in politics and social justice than ever before. A significant portion of collegiate politicians are female. However, The University Observer reported just last month that Ógra Shinn Féin maintained a “lads club”, misogynistic mindset and on another level, Black women and the trans community remain underrepresented - perhaps because there is “no representation”. 

Be it further education, representation, or systematic reform, both the causes and solutions to this disparity are multifaceted. Most importantly, it is vital to encourage young women that they do deserve a seat at the table. Frankly, the sooner we act, the sooner negotiations with Ardern can begin.