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Column: Women will make politics better – and quotas are the only way

Having more women in politics is the shake-up our system needs – but those who say we don’t need quotas are kidding themselves, writes Eoin Murray.

Eóin Murray

Last Wednesday, the first ever women-only meeting of TDs and Senators was the subject of controversy when Labour’s Joanna Tuffy said she would not be attending.

Tuffy suggested that a female-only meeting was “stereotyping” and would lead to women in politics being pigeonholed. Here, Eoin Murray of the National Women’s Council responds.

JOANNA TUFFY’S BOYCOTT of Oireachtas women provoked a flurry of media controversy. Although Tuffy generated ample news coverage for herself she did little to make progress on the substantial issue – how to get more women involved in Irish politics. Tuffy’s decision was a distraction at a time when equality for women in politics should be a burning component of our political reform agenda.

Minister Phil Hogan has proposed legislation to introduce candidate gender targets of 30 per cent. However, his proposals only provide marginal re-balance to the historical injustice. Irish women have been woefully under-represented at almost every level of politics. Only 91 women have ever been elected to the Dáil. Of the 4744 Dáil seats filled since 1918 only 260 have been filled by women (5.48 per cent). The Dáil today is no different. It is an almost entirely male dominion: 85 per cent of the members are men.

This injustice is the first reason we want more women involved in politics – half of the population have been marginalised from political decision making.

A parliament of all talents

The second is that women bring different experiences, skills and perspectives to politics. A more diverse set of experiences will create a different kind of Oireachtas – a parliament of all talents.

Finally, a critical mass of women in politics can change the political agenda and, ultimately, change the kind of decisions being made.

In Norway this was called a “politics of care”. Women politicians ensured that the State absorbed its responsibility for balancing the role of women as mothers/carers and as full economic participants. The State provided better care facilities for children. It extended flexible working arrangements in both the private and public sector. Most radically, it provided arrangements for shared maternity and paternity leave after a child is born.

In Rwanda – top of the global league table for representation of women at 53 per cent – politics has moved on from the 1994 genocide, where rape was used as a weapon of war. Today gender based violence is at the top of the political agenda.

In these states – and in 17 of the top 20 countries for representation of women – some form of gender quota has been applied. This is because they work. Opponents of targets are long on criticism but test them and they are short on alternatives. Gender targets are a proven method of transforming politics.

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The kind of target applied is important, however. To be truly effective targets must:

  • Be balanced between women and men. Minister Hogan’s legislation does this by providing for a minimum of 30 per cent female and 30 per cent male candidates.
  • Be ambitious enough to effect change. Sadly Minister Hogan’s legislation falls down on this count by asking for only a 30 per cent target when most political parties are close to meeting this. Candidate targets should be at set at a 40 per cent minimum, rising to 50 per cent over time.
  • Enforce strict penalties on political parties. The proposed legislation includes a welcome 50 per cent cut in State funding if political parties do not meet their candidate targets.
  • Ensure the measure is temporary. Targets are about ending, not perpetuating, discrimination. Minister Hogan’s legislation needs a ‘sunset clause’ which will end the targets in defined circumstances. Once balance is achieved the temporary measure comes to an end.
  • Operate at local elections. All the global evidence indicates that women start out in local politics before moving to national politics. Indeed, it is the same for men. In election 2011 two-thirds of new TDs were previously local councillors. If we really want more women elected in the next general election these targets must be linked to the local elections in 2014. This is the most important measure of all to ensure the legislation is effective.

Phil Hogan’s legislation for candidate targets is a step in the right direction. It will compel political parties to provide voters with more choice and help bring an end to ‘smoky back-room’ politics. It will help develop and improve our democracy.

Imagine the situation was reversed. If men had been excluded from political decision making since before the foundation of the State, we men would – rightly – be up in arms, demanding change. Women’s rights are human rights. They are a duty of all citizens: both women and men should support the campaign for change.

Eóin Murray is the first male employee of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, Ireland’s largest national representative body for women. He coordinates the campaign to get more women involved in politics. Learn more at nwci.ie.

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Eóin Murray

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