THE 2014 local elections have seen a marked improvement on the low level of female candidacy and representation associated with previous contests.
There were 127 more women candidates contesting this year’s local elections than in 2009.
At the time of writing, the number of successful female candidates stands at 194 — 20.6% of the total number elected. This is well up on the number of women who were elected at the 2009 (147) and 2004 (151) elections.
However, women still account for just one in five out of every city and county councillor, a figure that places us below the EU average of 32% for women’s representation in local politics.
A review of first count data (with the exception of the delayed Ballybay- Clones contest) reveals that women candidates won nearly 25,000 more first-preference votes than they did in 2009, with women candidates’ share of the national vote rising from 17% to 20.3% between the two contests.
Independent Jennifer Whitmore’s result in Greystones was particularly noteworthy, where she won 2,328 first-preference votes, or 28% of all the votes cast in that electoral area.
Niamh Kennedy, an Independent candidate, topped the poll in the Donegal electoral area. Despite the collapse in her party’s vote nationally, Labour’s Lettie McCarthy topped the poll in the Glencullen-Sandyford electoral area, polling 1,577 first preference votes. In the process, she brought in a second candidate for her party, marking this as one of only two gains for Labour at these local elections.
A number of younger female candidates fared especially well. Fianna Fáil’s Niamh Smyth topped the poll in Bailieborough-Cootehill with 1,886 votes, setting her up for a possible run at the next Dáil elections should Brendan Smith decide to retire or else follow his West Cavan base into the new Sligo-Leitrim four-seat constituency.
First-time Independent candidate, Karey Hugh did particularly well to win a seat in the Tuam electoral area. For the Government parties, younger female candidates such as Fine Gael’s Maura Hopkins (Boyle) and Labour’s Grace Tallon (Dundrum) managed to take seats for their beleaguered parties.
The Greens’ electoral recovery at these elections was built on strong performances by successful female candidates such as Catherine Martin, Claire Byrne, and Marianne Butler, as well as other candidates who fared well but ultimately just missed out, including Celine Moorkens, Cara Augustenborg, and Liz Dunphy.
Women candidates in the Sinn Féin, People Before Profit, Anti-Austerity Alliance, and other left-of-centre political groupings had a very good election, winning over 100,000 votes and together accounted for over 30% of all votes won across these groups.
In addition, female candidates for these parties/groupings did well in winning seats in areas outside their traditional heartlands. For Sinn Féin, Lisa Marie Sheehy’s win in Cappamore-Kilmallock was especially notable given that she entered the contest only a few weeks before polling day. There was a notable urban-rural divide in terms of female vote and representation levels.
In Dublin, women candidates won close to a third of all the votes cast (32.3%) and took 61 (33.3%) of the seats across the different Dublin electoral areas. In Dún Laoghaire- Rathdown, 17 of the 40 (42.5%) council seats were won by women, who accounted for 42.7% of all the first preference votes cast in that area.
Female candidates did particularly well in a number of electoral areas in the greater Dublin area, winning more votes than male candidates in the Blackrock (67.3%), Rathfarnham (57.1%), Greystones (53.3%), Crumlin-Kimmage (52.1%), and Ballymun (51.8%) electoral areas. There were also notable results in some other city constituencies, such as Galway City East (42.3%), and in constituencies located in the Dublin commuter belt, such as Kildare-Newbridge (43.5%) and Laytown- Bettystown (44.7%).
Mirroring previous trends, the view was not as good in the more rural constituencies, where less than one in six votes (16.2%) were cast for women candidates. The lowest female vote shares came in Donegal (9.4%), Monaghan (10.2%) — although this may improve when the delayed Ballybay-Clones election contest takes place — Clare (11.2%), Offaly (12%), Wexford (13.6%), and Mayo (14.5%). As yet, no woman has been elected to Monaghan County Council but, again, this may change following the Ballybay-Clones contest. In Carlow, Longford, and Offaly, just two seats in each of these councils are held by women.
The percentage figures for women councillors now stand at Fianna Fáil — 14%, Fine Gael — 21%, Green Party — 25%, Sinn Féin — 29%, Labour — 33%, Anti-Austerity Alliance — 36%, People Before Profit — 43%, and Independents — 17%.
The overall increase in the number of women candidates saw a corresponding increase in female vote numbers and seat levels. This augurs well for the next general election, when parties will be legally obliged to select 30% women candidates or else see their annual State funding cut in half.
The good work done at these local elections to promote women in politics needs to continue, particularly in rural areas, if Ireland is to see further improvement in female electoral participation and representation levels. To borrow a phrase from Fianna Fáil’s 2007 general election campaign, it’s a case of a lot done, more to do.