Alison O'Connor: Same old territory for the election of women

It's been a “change” election in so many ways, but one certainty we cling to is that we’re stuck in the same old territory when it comes to the election of women to the Dáil.

There were 35 women elected in 2016, hitting record numbers, up 10 from the previous election. Even then, though, our national parliament was well over 80% male.

Eoghan Murphy and Kate OConnell pictured at Election count 2020, at the RDS Dublin. Mr Murphy retained his seat while Ms O'Connell lost hers. Picture: Stephen Collins/Collins
Eoghan Murphy and Kate OConnell pictured at Election count 2020, at the RDS Dublin. Mr Murphy retained his seat while Ms O'Connell lost hers. Picture: Stephen Collins/Collins

This time around there were a record number of female candidates who ran, although it was an increase of just two on the 2016 figure, bringing it to 162 candidates. On a plus point, this time around at least one woman ran in every constituency.

However, regardless of gender quotas being in operation, and the geographical spread of female candidates, it looks as if there will be a bare increase of female TDs in the 33rd Dáil once all votes are counted, possibly as little as 1%.

There remain a number of all-male constituencies — Dublin Bay South, Limerick City and County, Meath West, Tipperary and Dublin West. In all of the Cork constituencies, Holly Cairns of Social Democrats is the only woman TD, having been elected against the odds, in Cork South West.

But the constituencies of Cork East, North West, South Central and North Central are male bastions. The Labour Party has no female TD now.

In 2016 a woman had been elected to Cork South West for the first time with the election of Fianna Fáil’s Margaret Murphy O’Mahony.

But she lost that seat this time around. So in this case, one female, albeit of a different political persuasion, replaced another. Other female names to lose out, a number of them high profile, include serving and former ministers.

Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty, in Meath East, former Tánaiste and Labour party leader Joan Burton, Solidarity People Before Profit TD Ruth Coppinger (in the same Dublin West constituency) junior minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor in Dún Laoghaire, Labour’s Jan O’Sullivan in Limerick City, Fine Gael’s Kate O’Connell in Dublin Bay South and Catherine Byrne in Dublin South Central, and Fianna Fáil’s Lisa Chambers in Mayo.

There is a positive side in that the big winner of this general election is a woman — Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald. Her party won 37 seats, 13 of those by women candidates, so now has 35% female TDs. Indeed Denise Mitchell in Dublin Bay North won the accolade of being the ultimate election poll topper winning an incredible 21,344 votes in that constituency.

Then you have the Social Democrats with their joint female co-leaders Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall. That party had a 57% female election candidate slate.

They steadily and thoroughly went about the business of the campaign and managed to get themselves re-elected, as well as the aforementioned Holly Cairns in Cork South West, Garry Gannon in Dublin Central, and likely Cian O’Callaghan in Dublin Bay North and Jennifer Whitmore in Wicklow.

So in that instance, you would have the highly unusual scenario of an Irish political party — albeit a small one — dominated by women.

Crucially it is also a relatively new party. This means that it is keen to attract new people to its fold, and there is an absence of the frequently off-putting factor of history and tradition; not to mention people in the local organisation trying to control who is in and who is out, as happens with the larger parties.

Gender quotas for elections kicked in for the first time in 2016 where 30% of candidates for a party had to be female, or the party faced financial sanction. Women for Election, the not-for-profit organisation which encourages and supports women in Ireland to run for politics, is disappointed at the general election result in gender terms.

Three candidates who just won a seat in Dublin Central behind Mary Lou McDonald.
Three candidates who just won a seat in Dublin Central behind Mary Lou McDonald.

At the beginning of the campaign chief executive Ciairín de Buis pointed out that Fine Gael just scraped over that gender quota at 30.5%, Fianna Fáil at 31%, Labour at 32% and Sinn Féin at 33%.

In the end, Sinn Féin’s gender figures also ended up being boosted very significantly by its overall success in the election, with only five of its candidates overall failing to make it to the Dáil.

In contrast to the other parties, People Before Profit had 38% women candidates and the Green Party 41%. Ciarín de Buis pointed out the larger parties seemed to regard the quota as a target, not the minimum requirement. She said there may have been an inevitably about it given the larger parties did not run a balanced ticket.

Orla O’Connor, director of National Women’s Council of Ireland, described the general election as a missed opportunity to break that critical barrier of 30% of women’s representation in Dáil Éireann.

“Parties need to develop candidate selection processes that look outside traditional networks like the GAA for example.” Claire McGing of the Social Sciences Institute at Maynooth University, who researches women in politics, said more analysis will be needed of the performance of women in the coming days.

However, at first glance she believed the lack of progression in female representation was driven by Sinn Féin, Social Democrats, Green Party gains, being offset by Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and Labour losses. As in previous elections, she said, women TDs seem to have been disproportionally affected by vote swings.

From 2025, for Irish political parties, the legal requirement to have a gender balance on the election ticket will rise to 40% female.

As of now, the way female candidates appear to be selected and, most importantly, supported, is going to prove a significant struggle for most political parties. Quotas are only a piece of the jigsaw when it comes to getting more women elected to national politics and keeping them there.

This is an issue due to be discussed shortly at the new citizens' assembly on gender equality. Our results over the last few days show that it is a subject that needs addressing.

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