Gender balance in Dáil Éireann poses a new dilemma for established parties

From 2023, the gender quota, which was set at 30% for last year's general elections, will rise to 40%, placing further pressure on political parties who risk losing funding if they don't reach the threshold
Gender balance in Dáil Éireann poses a new dilemma for established parties

The move to equal political representation has been "painfully slow", according to Social Democrat TD Róisín Shortall, who was initially against quotas but now sees the merit in them. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

"No country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contribution of half its citizens" — Michelle Obama.

By the time Dáil Éireann celebrated 100 years in 2019, just 114 women had been elected as TDs. In the same period, around 1,190 men had taken a seat in our national parliament.

Gender quotas are not a perfect solution. Since their adoption, they have resulted in party spats, token candidates, and last-minute additions to some tickets, but they have increased the number of women in the Dáil.

From 2023, the gender quota, which was set at 30% for last year's general elections, will rise to 40%, placing further pressure on political parties who risk losing funding if they don't reach the threshold.

The pinch will be particularly felt by the three main parties as, unlike the smaller parties, they will have an existing rump of TDs to take into consideration.

Fianna Fáil had significant problems in the 2016 election when a number of women were shoehorned onto tickets which sparked in-fighting and convention spats.

One of the most public of these controversies involved Longford candidate Connie Gerety Quinn, who was added by headquarters to make up the gender quota, but endured a torrid time after the local party organisation voted no confidence in her.

Party sources are confident they have learned from their mistakes, but with just five sitting female TDs out a total of 37, there will be pressure to add women to a lot of tickets.

While Sinn Féin elected a significant number of women last year, its success in the polls has put them in a bit of a gender quota fix and the party seems to be making some of the same mistakes as Fianna Fáil did in 2016. 

Sinn Féin has already designated a number of seats as "female only" and recently put a few noses out of joint in Limerick county, where local councillor and former candidate Séighin Ó Ceallaigh was told he could not run again, despite a close race in February 2020.

Fine Gael, along with Fianna Fáil, will be quietly hoping that some of their long-standing TDs will retire ahead of any national poll and party sources have indicated that the likes of Michael Creed, David Stanton, and Michael Ring could make way for new, female blood if they were to retire.

The move to equal political representation has been "painfully slow", according to Social Democrat TD Róisín Shortall, who was initially against quotas but now sees the merit in them. This is borne out in the fact that Ireland is currently ranked 100th of 187 places when it comes to female representation in parliament.

Legislation to introduce gender quotas at national level was first introduced in 2012, but getting to that point involved significant pushing and coaxing from those who argued in their favour.

Former minister, Kathleen Lynch, believes we need to go further than the current system of gender quotas for candidate selection and set aside female-only Dáil seats. Picture: Denis Minihane.
Former minister, Kathleen Lynch, believes we need to go further than the current system of gender quotas for candidate selection and set aside female-only Dáil seats. Picture: Denis Minihane.

Former minister, Kathleen Lynch, who was in government when quotas were introduced, said it took great effort to get women on board with the idea.

"I suppose the people that were listened to most in that debate were women," she says. "Men actually didn't even need to make the counter-argument. 

"In fairness, men couldn't make the counter-argument, but very powerful women were making the counter-argument, stating: 'I want to be elected on merit.'

It was crazy stuff and I used to keep asking them: 'Do you actually believe there are more meritorious men in the world than women?'

She said the 2009 ‘Women’s Participation in Politics’ report authored by Ivana Bacik for the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice was a key moment.
This report found that the obstacles to women’s equal participation in politics can be described as ‘the five Cs’ — cash, childcare, confidence, culture and candidate selection procedures.

Ms Lynch now believes that we need to go further than the current system of gender quotas for candidate selection and set aside female-only Dáil seats.

Another former minister, Mary Hanafin, who was initially against gender quotas, said part of the problem lies in the fact that parties are still aiming to reach the "bare minimum" and are not going beyond that.

"You would have noticed in the last general election that literally a couple of weeks or even days before close of nominations candidates were added in," said Ms Hanafin. "Fianna Fáil did it, Fine Gael did it.

"That's a real disservice to women because then they just become the quota candidate and they are all genuine serious candidates but they are being put on [tickets] in areas where there is no chance of them taking a seat." 

This is less of an issue for smaller parties according to Ms Shortall, who said the Social Democrats was in a "fortunate position" ahead of last year's general election as it was starting from scratch in building a new party.

Where there are opportunities, there are openings. 

"There's no problem in women coming forward. Very often, it's the incumbency and parties not going out of their way to ensure better female representation," said Ms Shortall.

Multiple studies show that women's presence in parliament is associated with the adoption of more stringent climate change policies and they also are more likely to prioritise social issues such as childcare, pay equality, parental leave, and pensions. 

Women also tend to focus on gender-based violence, poverty alleviation, and reproductive rights.

A 2008 worldwide survey of both male and female parliamentarians carried out by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) found that 90% agreed or strongly agreed that women bring different views, perspectives and talents to politics.

Dr Fiona Buckley of UCC's Department of Government and Politics says a gender-balanced and diverse parliament would go a long way to ensuring a gendered perspective is brought to bear on policymaking.
Dr Fiona Buckley of UCC's Department of Government and Politics says a gender-balanced and diverse parliament would go a long way to ensuring a gendered perspective is brought to bear on policymaking.

Women felt this way more strongly than men, with more than two-thirds of women ‘strongly agreeing’ as opposed to just 30% of men.

"Overall, a gender-balanced and diverse parliament would go a long way to ensuring a gendered perspective is brought to bear on policymaking that considers the needs and experiences of both women and men, but also recognises the differential gendered impacts of policy decisions on women and men," said Fiona Buckley of UCC's Department of Government and Politics.

But, she said, gender quotas should be understood as "the start rather than the culmination of efforts" to achieve gender equality in Irish politics, and should be seen as "one aspect of a suite of measures" that are required.

"Since the adoption of legislative gender quotas, Ireland has seen a 44% increase in the number of women elected to Dáil Éireann, rising from 25 in 2011 to 36 in 2020," said Dr Buckley.

The gender quota has accelerated the pace of increase — what the gender quota has achieved in one electoral cycle across five years, previously took four electoral cycles across 22 years to achieve.

"Ireland was coming from a very low base prior to the introduction of the legislative gender quota, so while we have seen advances, at 22.5% for women’s representation in the Dáil, we currently are nowhere near gender parity."

Majority of female TDs back quotas

An overwhelming majority of female TDs in the Oireachtas support the use of gender quotas.

The Irish Examiner carried out an anonymous survey of the Dáil's 36 female TDs to assess their views on quotas. 

Some 29 TDs responded, of which 25 supported the use of gender quotas to improve the number of female representatives in Irish politics.

Although most of the women who spoke to the  Irish Examiner were in support of the measure, many of those interviewed pointed out that they felt quotas were necessary but would rather they were not needed.

Social Democrat co-leader Roisin Shortall, who was previously against gender quotas, now supports them.

"I used to operate on the basis that I didn't like quotas because I felt women should get nominations and get into positions on the basis of their ability," she said.

"While I still believe that in an ideal world that should be the case, it's not what happens in practice." 

You just have to look back over the last 20 to 30 years progress has been painfully slow in terms of women's representation in politics in particular.

She said some parties may not have taken the quotas seriously by adding women as 'token candidates' very late in the race, Ms Shortall said it has still "opened things up for women".

Verona Murphy says gender quotas do not mean a female candidate will be supported by her party. Picture: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie
Verona Murphy says gender quotas do not mean a female candidate will be supported by her party. Picture: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Verona Murphy, the Independent TD for Wexford and former Fine Gael candidate said she is "non-committal" on the issue.

"Sometimes gender quotas can be deceiving," she said. "Just because you're selected doesn't mean you're going to be endorsed in the same way as male colleagues.

"They might select women so they don't lose money, but women are not supported in the same way; at least that was my experience.

"I don't think it's beneficial, it doesn't instil confidence. I think we need more women but we need them to come forward themselves and you need them to push themselves as opposed to depending on a party."

The overwhelming support for the practice stands in stark contrast to a similar survey carried out in 2010, when The Irish Times carried out a similar poll.

The survey conducted 11 years ago found most female TDs did not want political parties to be required to adopt gender quotas in their candidate selection process.

Then, out of 23 women Dáil deputies, 14 were against and eight were in favour of a proposal that candidate quota legislation be introduced in an attempt to bring more women into politics. One TD was undecided on the issue.

Among the women who were serving at Cabinet level, there was no support for the recommendation in the report produced for the Oireachtas justice committee by Labour senator Ivana Bacik in 2009.

Fianna Fáil won't enforce quotas in every constituency

Fianna Fáil has taken a constituency-by-constituency approach to gender quotas in previous elections and the same method will be deployed next time around.

The party has a healthy cohort of female senators, many of whom lost Dáil seats last year. 

They, along with some strong contenders at council level, will be easy options for the party to choose from.

Interestingly, party sources are clear that Fianna Fáil will not be demanding a female candidate in every constituency, meaning some, including the Taoiseach's own Cork South Central, will have an all-male offering.

In the case of Cork South-Central, the two current TDs — Micheál Martin and Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath — are seen as untouchable. Adding a woman in the four-seater constituency has also been ruled out by the party.

It is understood that members believe "there would be a strong case to leave as is", as this is just one of 39 constituencies and the objective is to maximise seats and meet gender quotas.

One senior member said: "In that four-seater, you have two males who are high profile. You can't run three candidates in a four-seater where, on a good day, there are only two seats, but there are other areas where you could run people.

We have got to be realistic as well.

The easiest place for the party to seek out female candidates will be in the Seanad, with Fiona O'Loughlin expected to run in Kildare South, Lisa Chambers in Mayo, Niamh Smyth in Cavan-Monaghan, and Erin McGreehan in Louth.

There was some surprise when Margaret Murphy-O'Mahony was not among the Taoiseach's nominees for the Seanad and she also missed out on selection in the recent Seanad by-elections. 

Fianna Fáil's Margaret Murphy O'Mahony was elected as the first female TD for West Cork and is widely tipped to be put on the ticket in the next general election. Picture: Denis Boyle
Fianna Fáil's Margaret Murphy O'Mahony was elected as the first female TD for West Cork and is widely tipped to be put on the ticket in the next general election. Picture: Denis Boyle

However, the former Cork South-West TD is widely tipped to be put on the ticket in the next general election.

In Kerry, the two Normas — Education Minister Norma Foley and local councillor, Norma Moriarty, — will be chosen on what could be an all-female ticket next time around.

Dublin councillor, Kate Feeney, is not only expected to be selected in Dublin-Rathdown but is also viewed as having a very good chance of securing a Dáil seat.

Over in Dublin South-West, Teresa Costello could be added to run alongside sitting TD, John Lahart, and former senator, Lisa McDonald, could join James Browne on the ticket in Wexford.

But like Fine Gael, the party will be quietly hoping that some of their long-standing TDs will decide not to run again next time, freeing up seats on tickets.

"In 2023, the class of 1997 will be in the Dáil 25 years and we have a good few members who were first elected back then, so there will be a natural decision to be made there," a Fianna Fáil source said.

2020 wipeout gives Fine Gael chance to refresh

Losing 15 seats in the 2020 elections should give Fine Gael the opportunity to fill ballot papers with female candidates next time around.

Leo Varadkar's party generally run two, if not three, people in most constituencies so this should give them the ability to keep the sitting TD in place and add a woman to the ticket.

Dublin-Rathdown and Mayo are the only constituencies in the country where the party currently holds two seats.

In Mayo, where the two current TDs are male, former TD and senator, Michelle Mulherin, is seen as a "very credible" third candidate.

Ahead of the 2016 general election, the number of male incumbents who could not be kicked off the ticket in favour of untested female candidates was an issue. 

However, this will be less of a factor when it comes to the next election, even with the pressure of an increased quota.

Fine Gael has already chosen senator and former minister for social protection Regina Doherty to replace the retired James Reilly on the ticket in the Dublin-Fingal constituency at the next general election. Picture: Steve Humphreys/PA Wire
Fine Gael has already chosen senator and former minister for social protection Regina Doherty to replace the retired James Reilly on the ticket in the Dublin-Fingal constituency at the next general election. Picture: Steve Humphreys/PA Wire

Fine Gael will still need to promote a significant number of female reps, something that will not sit well with their male council colleagues.

"The bottom line from a Fine Gael perspective is where we're running multiple candidate tickets, at least one of them has to be a woman unless there are absolutely extraordinary circumstances, and because of that we can get to the 40%," one senior party source said.

Fine Gael has already chosen senator and former minister for social protection Regina Doherty to replace the retired James Reilly on the ticket in the Dublin-Fingal constituency at the next general election.

She lost her seat last year in the Meath East constituency, but it is hoped that she will be able to shake up the five-seater Dublin constituency as running partner to Alan Farrell.

In Cork-East, if David Stanton does not run, Midleton-based councillor, Susan McCarthy, and Sinead Sheppard in Cobh could both easily be put on the ticket as the two Fine Gael candidates.

Two male candidates were put forward last year in Cork North West: Sitting TD Michael Creed and John Paul O'Shea, who was seen as having a good chance at the time but lost out on a seat. 

Macroom councillor Eileen Lynch could be added to the ticket or even replace the former agriculture minister if he decides not to run again.

The Cork South-West constituency has been left without Fine Gael representation after Jim Daly bowed out of politics. 

This gives the party an opportunity to put forward two female candidates on the ticket, with councillors Katie Murphy and Marie O'Sullivan likely to get the nod.

Limerick City has two strong female city-based councillors, Oliva O'Sullivan and Sarah Kiely, one of whom could be selected to run alongside Kieran O'Donnell.

In Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael has almost always ran three candidates but has never put forward a woman, that will have to change.

Sinn Féin 'on track' for 40% female representation

Sinn Féin says it has been looking at the issue of improving gender balance in the party for the last number of years and will have no issue hitting 40% next time around.

One-third of all female TDs in Leinster House currently come from Sinn Féin.

The party has already designated a number of seats as "female-only" ahead of the next election, including Limerick county, where local councillor and former candidate Séighin Ó Ceallaigh was told he could not run again, despite a close race in February 2020.

Likewise, Cork North-West was also designated a female-only constituency, where former MEP Liadh Ní Riada has already been selected to stand.

The party has two TDs in Donegal and believes it could win a third seat in the constituency in the next election.

Former MEP Lynn Boylan is the likely candidate for Dublin South-West, where she would run alongside Sean Crowe. Picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie
Former MEP Lynn Boylan is the likely candidate for Dublin South-West, where she would run alongside Sean Crowe. Picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Donegal councillor Máire Therese Gallagher is most likely to be the third name on the ticket.

In Dublin, popular councillor Janice Boylan is a likely contender to run alongside party president Mary Lou McDonald and in Dublin central, councillor Marie Devine has been floated as a potential entrant.

Former MEP Lynn Boylan is the likely candidate for Dublin South-West, where she would run alongside Sean Crowe.

Female representation is tied to membership numbers within the party. The party has a target to reach 40% female membership within five years. Sources say the party is "well on track to return that", with a 50/50 gender split a realistic target within 10 years.

The party has somewhere around 18,000 members.

"We're easily going to meet that target, we believe, and in the [Stormont] Assembly it will be higher than 40%," a senior party source said.

We've seen an increase in the number of female members we've had in the last number of years, even in the last six months of this year it's increased again.

"So we monitor things quite regularly.

"The level of female members you have is usually aligned to the number of people who hold senior positions within the party, chairperson position or treasurer of the party at the local level, and then from that goes on to more senior elected positions."

Within the membership, the party says it ensures that positions are opened up in the local authority level and coupled with additional training or supports that are being provided over the last number of years, such as events or forums specifically for women or mentoring by another female TD.

There are rules within the party to ensure balance, too; where there are two male candidates elected, a third man could not stand in that constituency, under rules adopted by the Ard Comhairle.

Sources say "there is an understanding and an appreciation within the party over the last number of years, in trying to increase member membership. This is where we need to go."

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