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Column: Until imbalance is deliberately corrected, women won’t be attracted into politics

properly run quota system would encourage parties to go find the good female candidates; without obligation this won’t happen, writes John Verling.

John Verling

THAT WOMEN ARE badly represented in Irish politics is a fact. Embarrassingly, we are worse than most countries in Europe. The Dail is around 23rd of the 27 members of the EU when it comes to female seats. If the country is to be run properly then we need the best of the population in the Oireachtas, regardless of gender. Legislation, coming in after May’s local elections, will penalise parties which don’t have at least 30 per cent of the ticket female. This is an improvement but problem is historical and drastic action is needed.

The right step would have been the introduction of quotas.

Quotas aren’t a form of tokenism but are necessary to right a bad wrong. What we do have at the moment is tokenism; if there is an issue seen as female, such as childcare, a party will put a woman deputy out to talk. (Of course Fianna Fail can’t do this as they only have male deputies.)

Sinn Fein, always aware of good optics, has long had a female in any line up. This may have led to Mary Lou being given such a starring role but few can deny that she is one of the best TDs in the current Dail. Would she have got there as a member of Fianna Fail or Fine Gael? Indeed where are the Deputy McDonalds of the other parties?

One of the best features of Mary Lou McDonald is that she speaks on all matters. She can speak eloquently on the economy, health or justice while her gender remains irrelevant. A properly run quota system would encourage parties to go find the good female candidates; without obligation this won’t happen. The big parties need to enlist some female stars, I doubt if it would be difficult, get them on the ticket and elected.

Such low representation doesn’t make sense

To have such a low ratio of women to men in the Dail doesn’t make any sense. Of course politics was long seen as a male job and ‘not for the girls.’ That mindset could have been addressed at the foundation of the State but wasn’t. This despite the fact that women had played such an important part in securing independence. Of course this isn’t just an Irish problem but that shouldn’t exclude us from dealing with it.

It is unfair to thrust the mantle of ‘role model’ on every female who shines. However, until the Dail is populated by rows of women, role models will be needed. RTE has some excellent journalists and the majority, I reckon, are female. Claire Byrne or Miriam O’Callaghan aren’t there just for show nor is Mary Wilson and the rest of a long list. We don’t need to find role models for female success, we have them already. What we do need is encouragement and enforcement.

Without a large number of deputies, females won’t be able to displace the male club of Irish politics. Who remembers the male line-up behind successive Taoisigh at FF Ard Fheiseanna when the camera was looking for a word? The male bravado that nearly wrecked our country and society during the Celtic Tiger years needed to be counterbalanced, but the voices weren’t there. A large return of female TDs will break the mode and thus encourage others. Seeing others succeed is vital; without such predecessors as Marion Finucane and Olivia O’Leary, that list at RTE wouldn’t be as long. Yes, we have had less-than-excellent female TDs, too, but the males far outscore them on that one.

The Dail should be seen as a place that business is done, where the best brains solve the countries woes and everyone has a voice. The long-held view that a couple of women can represent all women is absurd. As is the belief that women can only talk about female issues. Women elected to the Dail are there to represent their constituencies, not their gender. Until the imbalance is deliberately corrected nothing will change and women won’t be attracted into politics. The Dail can only function fully when it represents all of the population.

Quotas are currently the only way to ensure change

Irish politics has always been male dominated. We have never had an election return of more than 15 per cent female, the 2011 vote gave us just 25 seats. There may be reasons behind the low levels of female representation. Traditionally politics was seen as a man’s game; women weren’t encouraged or indeed invited into the circle. Dail service entails long hours; higher office is a seven day a week commitment, not very practical if you wish to raise a family.

Strangely enough, women used to be seen as unelectable and weren’t put on the ticket. These ‘reasons’ contributed to a male dominated parliament, one where women weren’t really expected to feature. Excuses aside, it is still ridiculous that over 50 per cent of the population is so badly represented in our modern society. The country suffers as a result. Equality may be enshrined in law but without equality of opportunity there will be the anomalies.

Until a better method can be devised quotas are the only way to ensure change. There is nothing like the critical mass of numbers to encourage others to follow. In an ideal world a couple of elections with quotas would be enough to right the wrong and they could be dropped again.

So let’s give it a go. We’ve nothing to lose.

John Verling is a father of three children and is from County Cork. He writes a blog called Verlingsweek. To read more from John for TheJournal.ie click here.

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