Five years ago we entered an election in circumstances which were embarrassing for our country. The outgoing government had just entered a bailout agreement with the Troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Unemployment was at 14.3%.
The global economic situation has improved, and Ireland has more than taken advantage of it. We are now the fastest growing economy in the EU, with unemployment at 8.8% and falling, and a steadily improving rate of job creation. We have regained a position of respect within the European Union. This was done under the guidance of the Troika institutions, a program Ireland successfully exited from. Ireland compares very favourably to other countries which were very badly affected by the global economic crisis. This government of Fine Gael and Labour deserves credit for this stewardship of the economy.
No government shifts and improves a country’s budgetary position and economic standing as significantly as has been done here without taking decisions which merit or deserve criticism. This can be particularly said in the area of housing. However, what matters most is that there is a strong environment favouring job creation and growing incomes, to create the resources to tackle these problems, whether privately or by government.
But apart from the improved economic situation, there are many other ways in which we are a changed country since early 2011. We have seen a significant program of positive law reform.
It is now a crime to withhold information on the abuse of children. Our Taoiseach Enda Kenny spoke out strongly in the Dáil, condemning the role of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican in covering up the sexual abuse of children, the first Taoiseach to do so in clear and unambiguous terms. Children are now specifically protected in the Constitution, so that their voice can be heard in the legal process and their best interests considered.
Instead of filing in the District Court, in between regular business there, new Irish citizens now swear their allegiance in welcoming and open Citizenship Ceremonies.
After a wait of 21 years, and many governments, we finally had legislation in response to the X Case, which activists had called for since the judgment, legislation which certainly came at political cost, the first change to abortion law in this country since 1861. I would support more extensive reform, but this is as far as our current constitutional position allows, and it made space for debate on the next stage from here.
Local authorities now have the power to alter the local property tax within a range of 15% on either side of a base rate, giving much greater meaning and effect to local elections than before. The next Ceann Comhairle will be elected by secret ballot of TDs, creating a measure of independence from the government.
Reform of minor sentencing now allows for fines by installments, rather than needlessly sending people for short prison sentences.
We had the beginning of the process of school divestment from religious management, though admittedly this has been a process that has been slower than desired.
Gender quotas for candidate selection at general elections were introduced; though it will take more than one election to have an effect on the makeup of the Dáil, it is the beginning of a process.
A new Register of Lobbyists was created to monitor corruption in public services and provision.
The government called a vote on marriage equality, and with so many others too, strongly campaigned for a Yes vote. Both parties did so enthusiastically, and our country had a moment of pride on the world stage when we became the first in the world to vote in support of equal marriage in a popular referendum, in a campaign that captured the public imagination.
Last year also saw the enactment of one of the best gender recognition laws worldwide, with provision within the act itself for progressive review in two years’ time.
The Children and Family Relationships Act was the most comprehensive review of family law since the 1960s, which among its many provisions, gave fathers greater automatic guardianship in cases of cohabitation, allowed cohabiting couples or civil partners as well as married couples to adopt jointly, and provided for donor-assisted reproduction.
Changes to equality law mean that the ethos of a school or hospital can no longer be the basis of employment discrimination solely on the basis of personal characteristics like sexuality, or family status, or any of the other grounds of anti-discrimination.
I will be voting for a return of this government of Fine Gael and Labour. I do not expect it to be returned to office. But I do expect that it will be remembered as a reforming government, and that these many reforms will stand well to this country, improving the lives of those who live here in many small and significant ways, allowing us to continue to become a more open society.
Tomorrow morning, Young Fine Gael will debate a motion on gender quotas, which I will be speaking in favour of,
YFG calls on the Minster for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to impose the 30% gender quota as outlined in the Electoral (Amendment) Political Funding Bill 2011 on the 2014 Local and European Elections.
Quotas would not be proposed in the ideal world, as they do set a restriction on the process of election for TDs. It is a blunt instrument that does not address the wider reasons that there is such a low proportion of women in the Dáil. These include provision of childcare and sitting hours, as well as the wider political culture which Minister Lucinda Creighton recently described as “toxic”. But it will be very likely be the thing to kickstart the changes required that would not happen otherwise.
The question for us should not be why there are fewer women than men in elected politics in Ireland; the same is true in all but two countries worldwide, Rwanda and Andorra. The question is why there are proportionally fewer than in most other EU countries, where we rank 23rd of 27 countries, with Cyprus, Romania, Hungary and Malta behind us. Quotas recognize a need to address an historic imbalance, and are used in different forms in 100 countries worldwide.
Wherever one stands on the issue, quotas are now the law, and will be in place for the next general election, due by February 2016. Parties will lose half of their allocation of state funding if either male or female candidates comprise less than 30% of their total candidates. The quota is at the point of ballot access, not of election. This will improve the current situation where those who would like the option of voting for a woman of their own party is greatly diminished: in 2011, in four constituencies there were no women candidates; the three main political parties fielded at least one male candidate each in 36 constituencies (84% of all constituencies) while the same three fielded at least one female candidate each in just two constituencies (5%), Dún Laoghaire and Longford–Westmeath.
Parties are going to have to adjust to the new system and work out how to ensure a balance across the country. Most candidates for the Dáil come through the county council system. While I would hope that being compelled to think of ways to bring new people into the system might encourage parties to look at a broader range of entry routes, looking to local business, policy expertise and community involvement, most will continue to come from local government. In order to facilitate a smoother selection process ahead of the general election, and to emphasise the importance of offering a choice of women candidates across the electoral system, it only makes sense to amend the legislation to bring the change forward to the 2014 local and European elections.
Much later than initially intended, these are details on the proposals on political reform which were carried by vote last Saturday week at Young Fine Gael Summer School, on 9 July. Some themes run through these, of distinguishing clearly between the roles of elected representatives at a local and at a national level.
The most notable call was for the party whip to be relaxed for non-budgetary votes. This was to be on our agenda before Denis Naughton lost the whip for his vote against the government on Roscommon hospital, but the incident served as a concrete example in people’s minds. My own reasoning is that for debates in the Dáil to mean something, there should be times when those speaking should be trying to convince others, and genuinely hope to change their fellow TDs’ minds. There are times watching TDs traipse in to vote by party line on an amendment to a private members’ bill, and then by the same numbers on the new motion, that we may as well have trained monkeys to press the right button. With a government majority so large, this is the perfect opportunity to allow TDs have a say for themselves.
In an effort to strengthen the role of county councils, we passed motions calling for the abolition of town councils, and to remove the right of Oireachtas members to be treated as county councillors at a local level. The latter provision would clearly delineate the distinct roles of local and national politicians, and could be achieved simply by amending the Local Government Act 2003, deleting Section 3. It wouldn’t eliminate TDs acting locally, but it would reduce their capacity to do so.
A motion opposing the government’s proposal on gender quotas was carried. While the participation of women in politics in Ireland is incredibly low by European standards, t is a very blunt instrument, that does not address the deeper structural problems limiting participation. There are ways around it too, such as parties adding women to the ticket where there are already established TDs.
The only proposal that would require a referendum was to lower the age of office for all positions to 18. I can’t imagine a rush of young adults rushing to be elected, but throughout history, and in different countries, there have been those who have led at young ages, whether William Pitt, Michael Collins or Alexander the Great. As any candidate has to be nominated and seek a popular mandate, the constitutional bar seems unnecessary.
This is a full summary of the votes in this political reform session of summer school:
- Young Fine Gael believes that Town and Borough Councils should be abolished. – Carried
- Young Fine Gael believes legislation should be brought forward to outlaw members of the Oireachtas making official representations at council level on behalf of individual constituents. – Carried
- Young Fine Gael calls for the voting age for local elections to be lowered to 16. – Defeated
- Young Fine Gael calls for the electorate to the presidency to be extended to all Irish citizens, with voting in embassies and by postal vote across the world. – Defeated
- Young Fine Gael calls for a universal age of 18 for eligibility to serve in political office. – Carried
- Young Fine Gael opposes the Governments position on the introduction of gender quotas whereupon a political party will have its funding reduced if it does not have a minimum number of female candidates. – Carried
- Young Fine Gael calls for the whip system to be relaxed in the case of non-budgetary votes. – Carried
There are fewer women now in cabinet than there has been since 2004. Of course, when it’s a matter of either two or three out of fifteen, it’s a big proportionate difference. With Joan Burton as Minister for Social Protection and Frances Fitzgerald as Minister for Children, there is the unfortunate impression that they got soft female-friendly positions. There had been widespread assumption that Joan Burton, having been Labour Spokesperson on Finance, could expect the position of Public Expenditure and Reform, which went to Brendan Howlin. That decision rests with Eamon Gilmore, as the leaders of parties within a coalition is usually given free rein as to the distribution of personnel within the departments they have received.
At cabinet level, parties should of course focus on picking their best TDs for the job, regardless of other factors. They also seemed to ignore geography as a major factor, with a high concentration from both parties of Dublin TDs in cabinet. But this is not to say that some others of women mentioned like Róisín Shortall or Jan O’Sullivan wouldn’t be as good as one Labour’s former leaders.
Of course, we should recognise the first female Attorney General in Máire Whelan.
The proportion of women in the 31st Dáil is up marginally on the last Dáil. There has been only marginal change in the proportion of female representation in Ireland, and in any analysis it is our position relative to the rest of the world, not an absolute proportion that is worth considering.
There are 25 women in the current Dáil, including 11 of Fine Gael’s 76 TDs, 8 of Labour’s 37 TDs, 2 of Sinn Féin’s 14 TDs, 2 of the 5 United Left Alliance TDs and 2 of the 14 Independent TDs. Significantly, no women were elected for Fianna Fáil.
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.