The 2016 general election will be the first to see the effects of the gender quota. Sinead Conroy examines the changing role of women in Irish politics.
The upcoming general election will see the Electoral Amendment Act come into effect for the first time. The act seeks to ensure that 30 per cent of candidates standing for election for each political party are female. If any party fails to reach that target their state funding will be reduced by half.
There are currently 26 female TDs (16%) and 19 female senators (32%) in Ireland. In the history of Irish politics the percentage of women in the Dáil has never been higher than 16.
Ireland is currently ranked 25th out of the twenty eight EU countries in terms of female political representation. These statistics bring to light three key questions: Why are there so few women in our political system? What can or should be done to actively increase the numbers? Is a mandatory quota system the answer?
Independent TD Catherine Murphy sees a number of factors responsible for the imbalance. “The biggest barrier is cash, while the dysfunctional political system is also hugely off putting.” She also cited indirect decision making as being alien as is “the combative nature of the Dáil in particular.”
It would seem that much of the problem lies with the system itself and the way politics does business. This is confirmed by Senator Darragh O’Brien who believes the system is off-putting to anyone with a life outside the political arena, regardless of gender. “Basically the hours that both houses sit are a massive disincentive to anyone with a young family and particularly mothers. Why is it that the Oireachtas starts at 2.30 pm on a Tuesday and can sit till midnight or later on a Wednesday? Oireachtas sittings in my view should be more in line with “normal” working days. Why not sit 9 to 5, Monday to Friday,” he said.
O’Brien is of the opinion that many of the issues, including the participation of women, could be addressed primarily “by changing the way in which politics and in particular, the Dáil and Seanad organise and do their jobs.” A system deemed somewhat dysfunctional by those within it would seem in need of considerable change and could be part of the reason why women are put off from entering politics.
Deputy Murphy is not convinced that there are many viable options in order to increase the ratio of women to men in the political system. The solution may be harder to find. “The problem has been identified for years but there has been no progress. Suddenly there are quotas and suddenly women appear,” she said.
Senator O’Brien cites the current rate of 16 per cent of our TDs being female as one of the lowest in the OECD and says: “increasing female participation in politics does need to be actively pursued and increased.”
The introduction of gender quotas in the upcoming general election has received a very mixed reaction. Many would suggest that by enforcing a quota we are dictating the make up of each political party rather than allowing it to be formed with those best suited, most driven and most qualified but there is also a counter view. “For years there has been lip service paid to including women, the only thing that is making an obvious difference is the financial penalties of not having sufficient women contest,” said Deputy Murphy.
There are currently 26 female TDs (16%) and 19 female senators (32%) in Ireland. In the history of Irish politics the percentage of women in the Dáil has never been higher than 16
“The quota system is having the desired effect, which is what I had expected and I support quotas because nothing else seems to make an impact,” she added. It can of course be argued that by its nature a gender quota seeks to exclude or minimise the over-represented gender which undoubtedly leads to the passing over of qualified candidates. This sentiment is echoed by O’Brien who believes that we now have a situation that is driven by the fear of losing much needed funding. “Gender quotas as this government have implemented can lead to the charge being made against female candidates that they are now only token candidates and simply filling the ticket for parties to reach their legal obligations under the new law,” said O’Brien.
“We have had situations in my own party whereby very capable prospective male candidates have been barred from contesting selection conventions because a “female only” directive was issued,” he added. This issue has seen the introduction of the term “gendermandering”. O’Brien is of the opinion that gender quotas as they stand are discriminatory.
As it stands quotas will not determine who will be elected. “It will be up to the electorate to decide who they believe will be elected, but they should have that choice. That is all the quotas are doing for now,” added Deputy Murphy. Senator O’Brien said: “I have never, thankfully, come across discrimination against a female candidate,” he insisted. “I think… there is a perception that needs to be actively addressed that politics in Ireland is an ‘old boys club’. Whilst this may have been true in the past I don’t think it to be the case now.” According to O’Brien, “Increasing female participation in politics does indeed need to be actively pursued and increased but I don’t believe that gender quotas are the way to do this.”
Senator O’Brien believes that the gender quota system is a “blunt and crude instrument,” while others believe it can make a real difference to women and the political system.
There is no shortage of well-respected women held in high regard in the public eye with women currently occupying the most senior of roles including Tánaiste, Minister for Justice, Garda Commissioner, Attorney General and Chief Justice. Ireland needs to design a fair and more effective system to give more women the opportunity to succeed.