We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

Checking Privilege

Checking Privilege: How the European Parliament fails to reflect the diversity of the EU

Investigation by Noteworthy finds disabled people are significantly underrepresented, with little practical support given to improve participation.

Noteworthy logo with a woman standing in front of five microphones at a podium, with an EU flag in the background.

“PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES do not compete on equal terms in European elections.”

That is according to Alejandro Moledo, deputy director and head of policy of the European Disability Forum. 

“There are a series of added difficulties,” he explained, citing examples including inaccessible infrastructure and interpreters needed by those who uses sign language.

“Due to the lack of funds to cover these reasonable adjustments or alleviate accessibility barriers, candidates with disabilities rely on their own resources to compete on equal terms.”

Disabled people are significantly underrepresented in the European Parliament (EP). Just six outgoing MEPs are disabled, accounting for less than 1% of MEPs.

That is according to a new investigation by Noteworthy and a team of journalists from across the EU, as part of the European Data Journalism Network (EDJNet).

In contrast, EU statistics show that 27% of Europeans reported to have a disability (activity limitation) in 2022. 

There are a number of disabled former and current politicians in Ireland, at different levels of government.

Brian Crowley, a wheelchair user, was a prominent Fianna Fáil MEP for Ireland South for 25 years. He retired from public life in 2019. 

Disabled people are one of a number of underrepresented groups, with the majority of MEPs being male and university-educated, according to our investigation findings. 

Earlier today, Noteworthy also examined the age of parliamentarians, reporting that young MEPs are few and far between – and that’s not likely to change soon.  

A recent report by the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) found that despite advancements in terms of gender as well as the number of MEPs with dual citizenship in the current parliament, “disparities persist in reflecting the EU’s demographic reality”.  

It found that the “proportion of MEPs identifying as belonging to racialised minorities remains modest”, representing just 4.3% of all MEPs in the outgoing EP. 

“Some black female MEPs reported that at the beginning of their mandate they were often stopped by security at the entrance to Parliament because their appearance did not fit the stereotype of an MEP,” said Dr Tina Magazzini, researcher at Inegrim Lab and co-author of the ENAR report.

The Parliament doesn’t keep any record on ethnicity of MEPs so Magazzini and her colleagues identified MEPs “who explicitly identify themselves as non-white and/or those who were born in or hold citizenship of countries located in the global south”.

The Immigrant Council of Ireland has reported a large increase in candidates of a migrant background running in the local elections, with over 100 on ballot papers across the country. However, the same is not true for the European elections here. 

MEPs identifying as part of the LGBTIQ community are also underrepresented, though Magazzini said that data on sexual orientation only reflects those MEPs who have disclosed it.

Des Kenny wearing sunglasses and a shirt, with a plant in the background. Des Kenny said that no disabled person is running in the upcoming European Parliament elections. ILMI ILMI

Noteworthy, the crowdfunded community-led investigative platform from The Journal, supports independent and impactful public interest journalism.

Consequence of missing voices

It’s important for politicians to be close to the population, according to Dr Kevin Cunningham, lecturer in politics in TU Dublin and founder of independent polling company Ireland Thinks.

He said that it’s not their job to “come up with clever ideas and work out solutions” and that “it’s worth emphasising that they have entire departments” who do that. 

“It’s the job of the politician to be the representation of the public, to be able to determine which is the more important priority between, you know, one more bed in emergency care or one more house.”

When it comes to allocation of resources, “there’s no scientific answer”, he said. “It is up to our representatives to effectively make those decisions.” 

This becomes an issue when groups have no representation.

Des Kenny, chair of Independent Living Movement Ireland (ILMI) said that Irish MEPs are supportive of issues they raise, but the voice of disabled people is missing.

He said that MEPs in general often look at the bigger global picture when it comes to disability, but a disabled MEP would examine the minutiae of an issue impacting their community and work on its various aspects of development. 

He compared this to looking at a knitting pattern and said “if you’re a disabled person you’re actually going to take to time to knit it”. 

Still striving for equality  

Significant progress has been made when it comes to gender balance in the past number of decades, increasing from 16% in 1979 to 40% in the current European Parliament. 

But still, 22 of the 27 member states have more men than women in the EP. When it comes to the European political groups, all except one also consist of more men.

Ireland ranks 11th in the EU for female representation, with five women among our 13 outgoing MEPs (38.5%). This decreased from six (46.2%) in the 2014 election.

Luxembourg has the most female MEPs (67%) and Romania has the least (15%). 

Katie Deegan from Women for Election said that historically women tend to do well in the European elections here, “considering how poor we do” at local and national level.

In the last general election, just 22.5% of the Dáil seats were won by women, according to the organisation’s Data Hub. This was marginally better at local level, with women making up less 23.8% of councillors elected in 2019. 

In the elections next month, the same number of female candidates (24) are vying for a seat at the EU Parliament as five years ago, but this time there are 14 more men in the running, leading to a drop in women candidates from over 40% in 2019 to 33% this time around. 

There is an increase in both men (up 74) and women (up 120) contesting the local vote. Overall, 31% of the local candidates are women.   

“It’s really important that at all levels of our government, including Europe, that we’re sending representation that reflects the society that it strives to represent.” 

This means that “our candidates should be 50%”, Deegan added. 

Abuse levelled at politicians has been raised more frequently in recent months as a potential reason people, especially women, would not run for election.

UCC’s Dr Fiona Buckley specialises in the study of women in politics and warned that “despite the chilling effect” of more reports of this behaviour, “you are seeing increasing numbers running for the local election”. She added:

“Sometimes I think people have rushed to a conclusion that women are more likely to be impacted in the sense that they are less likely to run as a result of this.

“But the evidence is showing, actually, women are very resilient and very resolute in the face of harassment and intimidation.”

Quotas ‘a blunt instrument’ that work 

To address some of the gaps in diversity, a number of experts that spoke to Noteworthy called for the expansion of quotas.

A 40% gender quota is currently in place for party candidates contesting the Dáil elections. In 2023, this quota increased from 30%. If it is not met, parties lose 50% of their annual funding.

Women for Election’s Deegan said that gender quotas are needed for other elections, especially at the local level. 

“Although they are a blunt instrument and nobody likes the idea that we have to have them, unfortunately we do,” she added. 

This call was echoed in the final report of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Gender Equality in 2022 which recommended that the gender quota for party candidates be extended to local, Seanad and European elections. 

Ireland is one of 12 member states with binding quotas of 40% or higher for national elections. Almost all also have quotas for European elections, with the exception of us and Malta. 

Marginalised groups have also called for quotas in order to better reflect society when it comes to ethnicity and disability. 

ILMI’s Des Kenny was one such expert, saying politics is “such a tight access gate”. 

Paired or blended quotas are being discussed in many countries, said UCC’s Buckley. That is when quotas for underrepresented groups are blended with gender quotas, she explained. 

“The research that I’ve seen is if you have an ethnic minority quota, for example, it tends to benefit men rather than women. Whereas if you pair a gender and ethnic minority quota, that’s a way of ensuring that women are [also] being selected.” 

When asked about this, a spokesperson for the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage said that “there are no additional quotas being considered at this time”.

Support needed to level the playing field 

Quotas are one tool but practical support is also needed in order to empower political ambitions and remove existing barriers. 

In addition to accessibility issues facing disabled people, including not being able to go to certain meetings due to their location up stairs or with difficult access, many face extra costs to run for election. 

According to ILMI, this could be personal assistance service hours to perform specific tasks such as driving a car or providing guidance from door to door, and in the case of deaf candidates, sign language interpreters for meetings and canvassing. 

Kenny said there is funding in place for disabled people in some other countries to participate in elections. 

These funds operated in the UK in the past, with the ‘Access to Elected Office Fund’ running up to 2022 in Scotland and an ‘EnAble Fund’ worth £250,000 open from 2018 to 2020 in England.

A report on the previous version of the English fund up to 2015 found that the average value of grants paid was £4,455. Most of the funding went towards support workers and sign language interpreters. 

When Noteworthy asked the Department about this type of initiative, a spokesperson said that “there are no plans for a grant or fund of this nature”. 

They added that “An Coimisiún Toghcháin (the Electoral Commission), established last year, has a new and very significant role in increasing and enhancing electoral participation in Ireland, and improving the inclusivity of Ireland’s democratic system”.

This includes publication of a draft research programme which “envisages a significant focus on research exploring how best to support and increase engagement by under-served and under-reached groups, such as members of the Traveller Community, people with disabilities and ethnic minorities”.

The investigation team also asked the Electoral Commission about plans for supports for disabled people as well as expansion of quotas.

In addition to their proposed research, a spokesperson said that it has “engaged extensively with disabled people and their representative organisations” through their work “in promoting electoral participation and education in both the recent referendums and in the current elections”. 

Late last year, Art O’Leary, the Commission’s chief executive, acknowledged the difficulties faced in this area by disabled people when speaking at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Disability Matters.

“We have become acutely aware that the universality of people’s access to voting and democratic participation is riddled with obstacles.”

He said the commission planned to focus “on a universal design approach to democratic participation”, which included access to political activity from registering, to voting, to standing as candidates. 



Do MEPs reflect the diversity of the EU? 

EU flag with stars visible on it.

By Maria Delaney of Noteworthy 

Checking Privilege is a data-driven investigation into diversity in the European Parliament that was undertaken with the European Data Journalism Network.

Noteworthy is the crowdfunded investigative journalism platform from The Journal, and was the Irish partner for this cross-European project. 

It was done in collaboration with: Maximilian Henning, Gina La Mela and Simon Jockers of SWR (Germany), Lorenzo Ferrari of OBCT (Italy), Gianna-Carina Grün of DW (Germany), Álvaro Merino of El Orden Mundial (Spain) and Tomas Hrivnak of Denník N (Slovakia).

This article is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here