Female representation in Ireland
Recently with talk of the need for political reform in Ireland, the low female representation in the Dáil has been raised. Currently, only 23 of the 166 in the Dáil are women, a mere 13.9%. These include eight from Fianna Fáil, five from Fine Gael, seven from Labour, one Green and two Independents. Last October, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women’s Rights delivered a report on the issue, to determine the causes for Ireland’s relative decline in women’s participation in parliamentary politics. In 1990 we had been ranked 37th in the world. Ireland stood mostly still and is now ranked 85th in the world. Extracting the 27 EU countries below, Ireland ranks 23rd, ahead of Cyprus, Romania, Hungary and Malta.
It is true of course that the biological differences between men and women should mean that we shouldn’t expect that in any sphere of life that there would be an even number. But that doesn’t explain the disparity between Ireland and other countries.
I am hesitant to favour gender quotas, as they would impose restrictions either on parties or voters, as well as risking the impression that those women elected might not have got the job without the quota. Successfully elected politicians such as Lucinda Creighton (FG), Mary O’Rourke (FF) and Joanna Tuffy (Lab) are on record in opposition to quotas, as they presumably did not find it an insurmountable obstacle. But, of course, the few examples of women who have succeeded does not lessen the fact that the numbers are still quite low. A legal requirement on parties to have a certain number of female candidates would make life impossible for such single-issue parties as the Fathers’ Rights-Responsibility Party to be recognized, or conversely, a niche party focused on women’s issues. That I don’t think that such parties are the best way of implementing policy change is not the point.
At the very least, this poor showing is something to be aware of in any changes. For example, it could be one of reasons to favour larger constituencies which according to many studies tend to increase the representation of women. Or if a citizens’ assembly were to propose a significant change, such as moving to a mixed member system, as they use in Germany, the top-up mechanism could be configured to strengthen the representation of women.
Aside from any legislative change, parties should make an effort, if they need to, to encourage women candidates. I spoke last Wednesday to a former Conservative candidate who said that constituency organizations were there given free choice from a panel of three men and three women. We should consider what it is about Irish political culture that makes it unattractive for women. Of course, there are some parties that didn’t need to. In three successive elections, the Progressive Democrats, the first parliamentary party in Ireland with a women as leader, had equal representation, with two of four in 1997, four of eight in 2002 and one of two in 2007, without any formal mechanism for the promotion of women.