WHEN I look at my ballot paper on February 26 I will have a choice of voting for four females amongst all the candidates listed. This is actually the average number of women running in each constituency in this general election, with the female candidate percentage more than doubling since 2011. That major change is thanks to one of the best achievements of the Fine Gael/Labour Government, the introduction of candidate quotas.
Whatever happens on election day, even with a fantastic result for the female candidates, there will no overnight change in Irish politics or any immediate cultural shift as a result of an improved gender balance. However, it would hopefully be the beginning of something very significant in our national politics.
We are just over a week into the campaign and already I find myself somewhat weary of all the male voices shouting over each other in what, at the end of it all, usually comes across as some sort of a big mickey contest. The horrendous shootings carried out in Dublin give the perfect opportunity for political fisticuffs.
Yes, I know that we have a female Minister for Justice and a high-profile opposition politician in Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald, who are both more than able to mix it. But what else do we expect when we have such a small number of women currently involved in politics, other than that they would adopt the hectoring habits of their male counterparts in order to be heard?
But back to my home constituency of Dublin Bay South. I live in Harolds Cross and in recent weeks we’ve had the arrival of two ‘pop up’ political offices in the village, opened coincidentally by two of the four female candidates who are running. Both women are interesting for different reasons and, for political anoraks, well worth observing.
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The first painted the outside of an old bookie shop bright yellow, which seemed an eccentric choice until you realised it was the office of the Renua leader Lucinda Creighton and that is the new party’s signature colour.
Further up the road in a premises that once housed a pharmacy, Fine Gael councillor Kate O’Connell has her office. Both are impressive bright women. O’Connell is a very good candidate and very likeable when you meet her. I’ve been impressed when I’ve heard her speak in the past, and have heard her say to people that it’s important generally to support women in politics, not just her.
I did think Creighton was daft to leave Fine Gael when she did over the abortion issue, but really admire the amount of work she has put in to begin a new party, and her attempt broaden out the Irish political landscape. She has guts.
Clearly, Creighton has the advantage of incumbency and name recognition, while O’Connell, the newcomer, has the might of the Fine Gael machine behind her. Sitting Fine Gael TD Eoghan Murphy looks certain of election but there is some talk that he’s been told that if he manages to bring in O’Connell he might find himself rewarded if the party gets back into Government. If Creighton, a significant thorn in Enda Kenny’s side, were to be unseated, it would be all the sweeter. So far it’s all quite predictable.
Sadly, though, it has descended into a situation where we are almost imagining a metaphorical shoot-out taking place outside the village pub which stands half way between the female candidates two temporary offices.
My colleague Caroline O’Doherty went canvassing with O’Connell earlier this week and very ably outlined the electoral battle between the two women, and how O’Connell has personalised it, quite nastily, and needlessly, taking personal potshots at Creighton.
Some of the comments include how “sanctimonous” she is, “needs to get off her high horse” and that she’s “a career politician” gone straight from university to politics. “What interface has she had with reality?” asks O’Connell.
Candidates sniping at each other is nothing new and on occasion can be entertaining if done with some wit. The ‘outside’ candidate traditionally uses it as a tactic to get noticed, and all the better if the established candidate responds. Creighton is well able to stand up for herself, and also well able to dish it out, but so far she has wisely resisted that temptation despite the unpleasant edge to O’Connell’s comments. All of this has the added needle (loved by the media) of two women involved in a cat fight.
Politics, by the very nature of people putting themselves up against each other to get elected to a limited number of seats, will always have an adversarial nature. There will always be some candidate who believes that going the more personal, name calling route, is the best option. This approach is not confined to one gender, but I would argue that females running might take a moment’s consideration before going down this road. It does no favours to the sisterhood in this most important election.
I like to think that with a more equal gender balance in the Dáil, we might get a more measured political debate in general; or that the horse race quality of the campaign, which obsesses with the runners and riders, might not take as much prominence as discussions, say, on where the country might be heading.
To put all of this in context, it is worth highlighting the current male dominance of our politics and how the percentage of women running for the Dáil, as highlighted by the Women for Election group which has helped women who wish to stand for office, was on a gradual but steady decline prior to the introduction of these quotas by former Environment Minister Phil Hogan. Without the quotas, at the current rate, it would take 250 years for 50:50 representation to be achieved in the Dáil. It is so heartening to read of France and Slovenia doubling their female representation with quotas, or how Belgium, through quotas. has more than trebled its female numbers since 1994 to almost 40%.
The figures are staggering when you consider that out of the 1,242 TDs elected to Dáil Eireann, only 95 have been women, and of 196 Cabinet ministers, only 15 were women. Imagine that — the total number of female ministers we’ve had would fit in a mini bus, whereas the men would need a train.
This time, there is a record breaking 155 women candidates out of a total of 506 declared to date. It is only the poor people of the constituency of Limerick county who are left without a female to vote for in this election because there are no women running there, whereas the highest number, eight, are in Dublin South-West.
I think of my home constituency of Cork South West where a woman has never been elected. On each visit, I notice that at least 50% of the population of the constituency is female. How great it would be if that half finally had a woman representing them in Dáil Eireann, or indeed if we got two women elected in Dublin Bay South.