A few good women

“I don’t see myself as a victim of the system, or anything like that. I made a choice, because it was a 24/7 job that I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice that element of my family for,” says Olwyn Enright.

A generation ago, when Mary Robinson was elected President, it looked like things would turn out differently. But today, women make up just 23 of our 166 TDs. Political correspondent Mary Regan meets the people determined to turn the stats around.

I would say there are probably more token men in the Dáil then there are token women,” says Mary Mitchell O’Connor with a nod of the head and raising one eyebrow. It’s a year since the independent TD Mick Wallace was caught referring to her as ‘Miss Piggy’. When Mr Wallace was embroiled in controversy about his tax settlement, Ms Mitchell O’Connor didn’t ‘kick him’ when he was down. It’s not how women in Leinster House do business, she says.

“All that shouting and roaring and play-acting, and that testosterone stuff, I really don’t believe that women participate in that in the Dáil,” says the Dun Laoighre TD. “They work hard and are not looking for the limelight, they just want to do a solid day’s work.”

The Fine Gael first-time TD was prepared for the Dáil vote on laws to put gender quotas in place before the 2014 local elections.

Ms Mitchell O’Connor supported the legislation, which was passed on the last day of Dáil sittings before the summer. But she says it will madden her if anyone refers to female politicians as “token women”.

It’s not just inside the gates of Leinster House that long-awaited changes are taking place to improve the gender imbalance in Irish politics.

There is a growing grassroots movement across the country.

That attitude of “getting on with the work” is bringing together women of all ages and backgrounds to do what they can about their lack of representation. Many Saturday mornings, in cities around the country, women participate in seminars to equip them with the practical skills they need to get elected or to get involved in a campaign.

The events are organised by Women for Election — one of the many new groups aimed at improving equality in Irish public life.

These groups include The 50:50 Group, Longford Women’s Link, the Irish Feminist Network and Cork Feminista, among others — all established by small groups of women, and slowly developing into a women’s movement not seen since the 1970s.

Another event, held in University College Cork last week, to discuss the proposed gender quotas, was not only full to the doors but had to turn people away.

It is hardly surprising that there is such an appetite for change.

More than 100 years after women were first elected to a national parliament, 20% of the world’s parliamentary seats are occupied by women, up from

17.2% five years ago, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Ireland is ranked 79th out of 134 countries.

Just 15% of Dáil seats are held by women, who make up a mere 23 out of 166 TDs. Just15% of candidates in the last election were women.

This is the best representation that women have ever had in the Dáil’s history, but is still just a 5% rise in female participation in the last 35 years.

A generation ago, it looked like things would turn out differently.

Mary Robinson was elected as the first female President of Ireland, in 1990, and after the 1992 general election the representation of women in the Dáil rose from seven to 20 — putting Ireland 32nd in the international ranking.

“There was a great sense of a new Ireland, a changing Ireland, a modern Ireland,” says Fiona Buckley, a lecturer in UCC’s departments of government and women’s studies.

“But I wonder did a sense of complacency set in then. We had a female president, so we thought we had reached equality in politics.”

Whatever the reasons, progress stagnated and as the Celtic Tiger began to roar, the issue of women in politics fell off the social and political agenda.

But as the good-time boom years ended, so did the perception that the glass ceiling had been broken.

And as people began to ask themselves how the political system had failed, one answer is that it needs to be more representative.

“There was a feeling out there that if there were different voices in parliament - whether there were more women or more younger people or people from different backgrounds - we might be in a different situation,” says Ms Buckley.

The second half of 2010 was an interesting time politically, for many reasons.

As an IMF bailout became a stronger possibility, and a general election was looming, a raft of women announced they would not be seeking reelection.

“There were just 22 women TDs and seven said they were leaving. People were wondering ‘are we going backwards further?’” says Ms Buckley.

Among the women lost to politics was Olwyn Enright - a young Fine Gael TD seen as having huge ministerial potential, and tipped by some as the most likely to become the first female Taoiseach.

Ms Enright and her husband, Donegal TD, Joe McHugh, were expecting their second child. Because she had a young family, she said she would not be able to give the commitment required of an elected representative.

Ms Enright’s decision caused an outcry, with questions asked about why she, instead of her husband, had given up a successful career, with some seeing it as confirmation that politics had failed women.

Looking back on it now, Ms Enright says: “I don’t see myself as a victim of the system, or anything like that. I made a choice, because it was a 24/7 job that I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice that element of my family for.

“I can understand how other people may have seen it, because they thought it would mean a woman less in the Dáil. But I couldn’t weigh that up in my decision-making, I had to just look at it from a more selfish, family point of view.”

The childcare dilemma is the biggest challenge that faces most women in politics.

Ms Mitchell O’Connor wanted to be involved in politics from a young age, but she waited until she was 52 — until her two sons had grown up — before standing for the Dáil.

“In my head, I had wanted to run for election since the early-1980s,” she says. “I waited until my children did the Leaving Cert. I wanted to make sure I was always in the home, supervising studying and where they were in the evenings.” She says she “wouldn’t like to solemnise to anyone” because everyone has to make their own decision. “I realise other women make other decisions and they are very valid decisions,” Ms Mitchell O’Connor says.

“It’s very difficult for parents in here, but I think particularly so for the mothers.”

There have been discussions about family-friendly Dáil sitting times.

But as Ms Enright says: “I don’t think a system can be found that will work for women from the country and women from Dublin.”

“You hear Dublin politicians saying it should be a five-day week, with far more family-friendly hours. But it’s not family-friendly if you are a TD in Cork, or in Donegal, to be in Dublin five days a week.”

Consideration was given, by an Oireachtas committee set up to examine the participation of women, to the use of video-conferencing.

This would allow TDs to spend more time with their families, while also engaging in Dáil debates.

But Ms Enright says: “I’m not sure how well that would go down with the public, if their representative was not actually in the Dáil.”

Ms Enright, who gave birth to her third child earlier this month, says choice is the most important achievement for the progress of women, and she was exercising that choice.

It annoys her to see women talking endlessly about the lack of gender balance in politics, when they won’t do something about it and run for election themselves.

“Taking steps and taking it by the scruff of the neck doesn’t seem to happen,” she says.

That’s why she was happy to offer her advice to the Women for Election organisation, which contacted a number of TDs, past and present, when it was getting up and running last year.

“What I like about them is they are focused on the practical side of it. It’s not about having another conversation about the barriers, etc. It’s about trying to see if we can stop complaining about it and take practical steps,” Ms Enright says. Instead of seeing themselves as victims of discriminatory parliamentary structures, the women who take part are rolling up their sleeves and getting on with it. “There are things we can’t change for now, and things we can change quickly,” says Niamh Gallagher, who, along with Michelle O’Donnell Keating, set up Women for Election.

“We know the barriers and we have to see what the steps are to get over them,” she says.

They hold INSPIRE programmes around the country, with seminars on building the confidence to run for election, how to organise a campaign and how to communicate a message. “We are supporters of the quota legislation, but we wanted to do something more practical,” Ms Gallagher says.

The programmes also include talks from politicians, including Mary Lou McDonald, Kathleen Lynch and Aine Collins.

The 50:50 group started in 2010 and is focused on lobbying politicians and raising awareness to achieve equal parliamentary representation by 2020. It came about almost accidentally, after a run-of-the-mill academic conference on women in politics, in UCC, found itself massively over-subscribed in Sept 2010.

Ms Buckley, and others involved in organising the conference, were taken aback by the level of interest.

“There was a huge sense of a demand and willingness to change. And we said to ourselves, ‘we can’t just have this as an academic exercise, we need to tap into that willingness’.”

She says: “A few of us sat down and said ‘what are the issues that are facing us, why are women not getting involved in politics’ and said ‘it’s time to just grow public awareness on the issue’.”

Since they held their first meeting in Cork, gatherings of the 50:50 group around the country in recent months have seen huge attendances.

“There is a big momentum

for change out there,” says Ms Buckley. She says women are thinking, “‘let’s do what we can now and get on with it, instead of talking about it and bemoaning it.’ There is certainly that sort of attitude to spur it on.”

Similar movements developed in the 1970s, and former ministers, Gemma Hussey and Niamh Breathanch, said they had the Women’s Political Association to thank for their career.

Ms Hussey recently told an Oireachtas committee that “rampant testosterone” played a part in “the madness of the Celtic Tiger years” and said that there were no women in key roles in the cabinet during that time.

Ms Mitchell O’Connor says an important step will be the appointment of more women to the next cabinet.

At present, there are only two out of 15 ministers. “There is a very bright, energetic set of women here in the Dáil,” Ms Mitchell O’Connor says, “and I’d like to see that reflected in the next cabinet. The Taoiseach will have more women to chose from the next time.”

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