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Jan O'Sullivan Decisions in the Dáil affect us all, which is why it needs more women

Quotas alone will not bring about equality of representation writes former Labour TD Jan O’Sullivan.

I AM PART of a generation of Irish women who became political activists because the Ireland of the time was so conservative and limiting on our rights and opportunities.

Men were paid more for the same work, contraception and divorce were illegal, women were expected to take sole responsibility for the care of children and the home, while single mothers were ostracised, unsupported and, in many cases forced out of their jobs.

We were campaigners on many fronts and huge reforms were achieved in a short few decades.

Despite the progress made and the extraordinary change in Irish public opinion shown in the results of the Marriage Equality and Eighth Amendment referendums, gender equality is far from being achieved. Our Constitution still contains a clause that identifies women’s place as in the home and a referendum on amending this is long overdue.

While this change in the fundamental document on which our rights and laws are based is essential, in my view, gender equality in the makeup of our national parliament would make even more difference. Decisions made there affect all our lives.

Research indicates that the presence of women’s voices brings more focus on issues such as childcare, equality, poverty alleviation, reproductive rights, domestic and sexual violence, climate change and the genderised impact of policy decisions in areas such as housing and transport infrastructure.

Aren’t these the very issues that are crying out for attention and action right now? Yet, only 22.5% of those elected to the Dáil in 2020 were women, though that increased from 36 to 37 last year with the success of Ivana Bacik in the Dublin Bay South by-election.

Progress has been painfully slow since the foundation of the State but the introduction of gender quotas in 2012 proved effective in bringing the number of women TDs from 25 in the 2011 election to 35 in 2016. The requirement for political parties to have 30% of their candidates female to avoid a cut in funding, will go up to 40% in 2023.

I have always been a strong advocate of quotas to ensure that enough women get the opportunity to run for election. But this alone will not bring about equality of representation. There are many obstacles to women running for election in the first place and in staying in the job.

Back in 2009, an Oireachtas committee identified the main barriers to women’s participation in Irish politics as five Cs: Childcare, Cash, Confidence, Culture and Candidate Selection Procedures. These barriers remain. While practical measures can be taken to address some of them, I think Confidence and Culture are more fundamental and complex.

The recent horrific killing of Ashling Murphy has touched a deep chord with Irish people and many articles and opinion pieces have grappled with what it is in Irish society that makes so many women feel that their lives are limited and their freedom curtailed simply because they are women.

This does not just relate to fear of male violence. This sense of powerlessness and lack of confidence stops women from putting themselves forward for public roles.

In a Dáil debate following Ashling’s death, women deputies from across the political spectrum eloquently and honestly described the abuse hurled at them via email and social media as well as actual physical threats.

If this is not addressed, women will become more reluctant to put themselves in the firing line despite wanting to make a difference and to make their voices heard.

From my experience, the unsociable hours and the requirement to be away from home 3 days a week (unless you are living within commuting distance of Dublin) are a major barrier, especially for women with young children.

I vividly remember a fellow TD being really distressed because she was missing her child’s school play and having to weigh up whether to drive the 3-hour journey home and back to support her daughter or stay in her Dáil office in case a vote was called.

There is no reason the blended model of working, partly at home, partly in the office couldn’t apply to TD’s as well as other jobs. Couldn’t you follow a debate as easily from your office in Kiltimagh as your office in Kildare Street?

We learned a lot during the Covid pandemic about how the old ‘normal’ was not inevitable and some of the changes we were forced to make made for a more balanced, and more caring society.

Now is the time to make the changes that will bring us, not back to where we were but forward to where we want to be.

Jan O’Sullivan is a former Minister for Education and Minister for State. She served as a Labour TD for the Limerick City constituency from 2011 to 2020, and previously from 1998 to 2011 for the Limerick East constituency. 

  • This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is 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.

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