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Column: For a new politics, we need more women in the Dáil

Writing for, Mary Mitchell O’Connor – who was recently caught up in a Dáil sexism row – argues that our male-dominated political system cannot represent today’s Ireland.

Mary Mitchell O'Connor

Fine Gael deputy Mary Mitchell O’Connor was recently caught up in a Dáil row after being the subject of sexist remarks by Independent TD Mick Wallace. Writing for, she argues that a better balance of the sexes is necessary if our political culture is ever to change.

THIS YEAR MARKS the fortieth anniversary of the establishment of the Women’s Political Association in Ireland. It was founded as part of a general move towards women’s liberation in the seventies, but with the specific aim of encouraging women into political life and party politics.

So, forty years on, how are we doing? There is no doubt that we have come a long way. In 1971 there were only three female TDs in Dáil Éireann. We have certainly made some strides since then. However we must look at that figure in the context of its time. The marriage bar was not removed until 1973. Women were not actively encouraged into the workplace. Nor were we matching our male counterparts in the typical male dominated fields in academia. For example, 1972 was the year the first woman graduated from engineering in Trinity College Dublin.

Now however in 2011, it is a different world. There are no excuses anymore. Girls are outperforming boys in the academic sense. Data compiled by the State Examinations Commission consistently shows girls achieving more As, Bs and Cs than boys across almost all subjects and levels.

It is far more the norm for women to work outside the home than it was in the ’70s, indeed for many families it is now a necessity for both parents to work in order to maintain their large mortgages. There is absolutely no reason why women should not have equal representation in our national Parliament.

Unfortunately however, the reality is nothing close to equality in representation. The current Dáil has only 25 female TDs out of a total of 166. A 15% female representation in Dáil Éireann is a shocking indictment on modern day efforts to bring more women into politics.
The problem, it must be noted, is not necessarily a failure on the part of women to get elected. For a variety of reasons, women are not putting themselves forward for election in high numbers.

Only 15% of the candidates in this election were women, a decrease of 2% on the last election in 2007. An analysis of party candidate selection by Dr. Adrian Kavanagh in NUI Maynooth has highlighted that there were no women candidates at all in the constituencies of Cork South West, Kildare South, Limerick and Roscommon- South Leitrim. It is a shameful fact that female representation in Dáil Éireann has never exceeded 14%.

‘He who shouts loudest’

So what is the consequence of these low numbers of women in politics? I have spent over 30 years as a teacher and school principal, a largely female-dominated environment. My career change from teaching to politics has been quite an eye opener. I now find myself in an entirely male-dominated world, where he who shouts loudest is heard. In this I refer to the constant play acting in the Dáil by many long standing TDs who should know better.

We all know, however, that he who shouts loudest isn’t always the most knowledgeable. This needless arguing and play acting in the Dáil amounts to a serious waste of time and the public are fed up with it.

There is also the obvious point that if our society is made up of equal numbers of men and women, so too should our parliament be made up of equal representation from both genders, as far as possible. A group in Cork called The 5050 Group has set about trying to ensure that we have equal representation in Ireland by 2020- an admirable cause, but perhaps we can achieve this aim before then.

So what is the new Government doing to address the low number of women in politics? Something quite significant actually. As part of one of the most innovative political reform proposals in decades, Minister Phil Hogan recently announced that political parties will be fined if they fail to implement a 30% gender quota for general election candidates. This seeks to address the hesitancy of women putting themselves forward for election.

Of course it is not enough to want more women in politics simply for the sake of it. Women already in politics must use the opportunity to further empower and better the lives of women in Ireland.

I am personally taking an interest in the issue of domestic violence and have approached the relevant ministers with my ideas on the subject. I welcome the commitment in the Programme for Government to introduce reformed domestic violence legislation, and I look forward to working closely with the Minister for Justice on my ideas when the Bill comes to the Dáil.

I mentioned my time spent in the female dominated school system, and I strongly believe that we should have gender balance across all sectors. There are not enough men in teaching, for example. My fight for more women in politics is simply a reaction to the fact that as a society, we should have the representation which proportionally reflects the society in which we live. This, clearly, is not currently the case. But I believe Minister Hogan’s proposal is a start in the right direction, and I am optimistic for the future.

Mary Mitchell O’Connor is a Fine Gael TD for Dun Laoghaire.

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Mary Mitchell O'Connor

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