Holly creates history: 'People said that’s a Fine Gael seat - no, they’re all Cork South West seats'

‘More mná’ was the slogan printed on Social Democrat councillor Holly Cairn’s badges as she and her campaigners pounded the pavements and by-roads around Cork South West’s extensive sprawl.

And it’s lucky they did, because Ms Cairns, 30, is now the only female Dáil representative elected from Cork — the largest county and the second-largest city in the country.

Newly elected TD, Holly Cairns (Soc Dems) in the Schull Harbour Hotel with her team to celebrate her election to the 33rd Daíl. Picture: Andy Gibson
Newly elected TD, Holly Cairns (Soc Dems) in the Schull Harbour Hotel with her team to celebrate her election to the 33rd Daíl. Picture: Andy Gibson

Despite a 30% gender quota, female representation is looking disappointingly low in the 33rd Dáil, with many high-profile female candidates losing their seats — although Mary Lou McDonald bucked the trend, sweeping her party to unprecedented success.

The Social Democrats reached beyond the gender quota, however, choosing more female candidates than any other party, and their elected representatives reflect that choice, with four women elected nationwide at the time of going to press.

First-time Dáil candidate Ms Cairns made history by claiming the third seat in the Fine Gael heartland of Cork South West — breaking the party’s hold on the constituency for the first time since it was formed in 1961.

She beat Fine Gael senator Tim Lombard to the seat in the constituency that contains the homeland of party icon, pro-Treaty revolutionary, and politician Michael Collins.

Ms Cairns was first mobilised politically during the abortion rights campaign which, in May 2018, culminated in a landslide referendum result in favour of legalising abortion in Ireland.

Holly creates history: 'People said that’s a Fine Gael seat - no, they’re all Cork South West seats'

She said that, despite two-thirds of her constituency voting for repeal, two of the three TDs of the time — Independent Michael Collins and Fianna Fáil’s Margaret Murphy-O’Mahony — opposed even holding a referendum on the issue at all.

It made Ms Cairns realised there was space for a progressive vote in a historically conservative constituency.

“We were repeatedly told that we couldn’t do it,” she says. “People said ‘oh that’s a Fine Gael seat’, or ‘that’s a Fianna Fáil seat’. But I thought: ‘No, they’re all Cork South West seats.’

We need young women to get involved in politics. We call it representation for a reason, if we have all-male representation, then more than 50% of us are not being represented in that one way.

“The three main players in this constituency [Collins, Fianna Fáil’s Christopher O’Sullivan, and Fine Gael senator Tim Lombard] were right-wing men, and we knew that there were enough people who would like something more progressive — not necessarily in terms of gender, but in terms of stance.

For example, those three main players would not have represented more than two-thirds of the constituency in the last referendum.

"So I felt like there was a seat here for a new candidate. But we didn’t know if we could reach those voters in the three weeks of the snap election.

“It just goes to show that that assumption that we’re all conservative by default in rural Ireland is not true. Many people were delighted to vote for change.”

Despite a successful campaign, Ms Cairns says “casual sexism” plagued her to such an extent that she is reluctant to be pictured with her boyfriend, fellow newly elected TD to the Dáil, Fianna Fáil’s O’Sullivan, who is also mayor of Co Cork.

“The campaign really showed the casual sexism in politics,” she says. “In media coverage, I was reduced to his girlfriend. In the RTÉ summary of our constituency, everyone had their titles, so it would be ‘Senator Lombard, Deputy Collins, Councillor Paul Hayes, County Mayor Christopher O’Sullivan, and his girlfriend Holly Cairns’.

Holly creates history: 'People said that’s a Fine Gael seat - no, they’re all Cork South West seats'

I was the only without my title. Consistently. It’s really frustrating, to be honest.

Now she is looking forward to working with O’Sullivan and Collins. She is also aiming to affect change with her party colleagues.

“When you look at how much Catherine [Murphy] and Róisín [Shortall] did as a duo — things like the Parental Leave Bill — it’s really exciting to think of what we can do with more TDs. We’re building a viable alternative for people who want change,” she says.

She believes that change involves changing politics “at a fundamental level”.

“The Social Democrats stand on a policy of transparency,” says Ms Cairns. “Increasing transparency is something I’ve been working really hard on in the council. And it’s clear to me, as someone new to politics, that there’s a lot of work to be done.

For example, the Social Democrats are the only party with an anti-corruption policy. It should be standard to have things like an independent watchdog for Government.

On a personal level, Ms Cairns, a farmer and her party’s spokeswoman on agriculture, is motivated by climate action.

“I think the biggest injustice facing us now is climate change,” she says. “The debates around it have been frustrating, things like pitting farmers against environmentalists.

“I don’t know any farmers who want to damage the environment. We just need to change that narrative and that debate and come up with intelligent solutions.

Holly creates history: 'People said that’s a Fine Gael seat - no, they’re all Cork South West seats'

"We have to make changes, but they can’t fall unfairly on rural Ireland or low-income households, and we just need some more joined-up thinking rather than divisive debate.”

Ms Cairns is also in favour of gender quotas for local elections.

“Since the foundation of the State, we’ve been apparently trying to engage more women in politics, and it’s not working,” she says. “Quotas are a blunt instrument, but how long do we have to wait?”

Ciairín de Buis, CEO of Women for Election, agrees, saying that gender quotas must be introduced to boost female participation in local government, and that parties must start recruiting more female candidates now if they hope to meet the 40% gender quota set to be in place by 2023.

The number of women in the Dáil has been increasing — “achingly slowly”, but steadily. The first Dáil in 1918 saw just one woman — Constance Markievicz — elected, representing 0.9% of parliament.

By 2011, that number had increased to 25 out of 166 seats (15.1%) and with the introduction of the 30% gender quota in 2016, that number grew again to 35 out of 158 (22.1% of parliament — Independents are exempt from the quota).

And although the 33rd Dáil will still look largely male, this is the first time every constituency fielded a female candidate in a general election.

“The larger parties seem to regard the gender quota legislation as a providing a target rather than the minimum that it actually is — for them to access their full funding,” says Ms de Buis.

They need to cop on to that. Women are over half the electorate now.

“The quota is clearly working, because in the previous election in 2016, the first time that 30% threshold was there for parties, most of them met it, whereas previously they ran significantly fewer women on the slate.

“The quota will increase to 40% in 2023 and some of the parties need to be tackling that now to ensure that they have candidates ready to run. It will be a huge challenge if they don’t start recruiting now.”

In order to do that, she says, parties need to go out and ask women to run.

“If you look to the smaller parties like the Social Democrats and the Green Party, they have been asking women to run. Why haven’t the larger parties?”

Ms de Buis says she did not expect a huge increase in female TDs once she knew how many female candidates had entered by the close of nominations.

“If women are not on the ticket, they’re not going to be in the Dáil,” she says.

“It might sound obvious, but they can’t win a seat if they’re not on the ballot paper.

“And if parties are running 30% or just above 30%, gender balance will not be reflected in their representation.

Holly creates history: 'People said that’s a Fine Gael seat - no, they’re all Cork South West seats'

“Some high-profile women have lost their seats. You couldn’t help but have empathy with them.

“But we’ve also seen women elected who weren’t necessarily expected to win. Mairead Farrell, who lost her seat in the local elections last year, is romping home in Galway.

“And Holly Cairns, who people were giving an outside chance to, has showed again how important it is for women to stand. She is now the only female TD representing Cork.

“Her election also shows how important it is for people to vote down the ballot paper, because it was transfers right down the ballot paper that got her elected.

“This election was all about change. There seems to be this huge shift in the political landscape, but there hasn’t been any significant change in the number of women.

“That needs to change.”

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