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Why are we more likely to send a woman to the European Parliament than the Dáil?

Parties will have ensure 40% of their candidates in the next general election are women if they want to avoid a funding cut.

IF THE CURRENT government survives past the end of the year, political parties will be expected to ensure at least 40% of their candidates in the next general election are women. 

While progress has been made in this area, it will still be a big ask for political parties. Fewer than one quarter of the TDs elected to the 33rd Dáil in 2020 were women and female candidates similarly took just 25% of seats at the most recent local election.

Ireland is doing better at a European level, as 38% of the country’s MEPs are women. 

Experts have said many of the main barriers to politics remain for women and not enough is being done to keep those who do succeed in elections in the job. 

The fact that European elections are focused more on wider issues and less on local politics and internal party dynamics may be a factor in the greater success of female politicians at this level, Orla O’Connor, Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) said.

She said the council has not done research into the different attitudes to female candidates across the election spectrum, but it is a question she thinks is worth asking.

“I wonder if it’s because the constituencies in European elections are less geographically focused,” she said.

“If you look at local councillors, they are so locally based and tied into so many networks.”

She said research conducted by the NWCI found women candidates at a local level believed they got less party support to move forward to the Dáil than their male colleagues. 

“At a European level there’s less of that local politics going on, maybe they get more party support,” she said.

Keeping women in politics

According to Maynooth University’s Dr Adrian Kavanagh, making things work at the council level plays a key part in the retention of women in politics and their progression to the Dáil. 

“It’s hard to stay in the job,” he said. “You could have a Cork councillor from Skibbereen and they have to travel to Cork City for the council meeting and then on top of that, they have subcommittee meetings that can happen at any time.

They’re constantly taking phonecalls – it’s not treated like a fulltime job in terms of the stipend, but it is. If you want to try to do a proper job – for want of a better word – at the same time, something has to give.

Research published by the National Women’s Council of Ireland in March last year asked female councillors if there are other areas that a women’s caucus could prioritise.

Issues raised included childcare supports for councillors, training, personal development and leadership opportunities for women councillors, encouraging all parties to support women candidates, and working to improve how councils operate and deliberate.

Numerous respondents discussed the heavy workloads of local councillors in Ireland. The demands on their time were seen to have increased even further in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Kavanagh said he has noticed a number of younger councillors deciding to give up their seats because it is “just not possible”.

“The fact that we’re seeing younger ones dropping out shows that even if women win seats in elections, that’s not the end of the story. The other part is who stays on in the job.”

Kavanagh said the selection processes in parties have historically often been swayed by the popularity of a person in the party, rather than their actual elect-ability.

“I remember hearing of a few cases in which people were giving out about a woman being chosen, saying ‘you should have picked him, he’d be more electable’ and then the female candidate blitzed him,” he said.

A lot of the popularity in the party can be down to more informal networks outside the party meetings. It will be interesting to see if Covid will break that down a bit because people couldn’t go to the pub for a few hours after the meetings.

One sphere of Irish politics, the Seanad, is approaching parity, with women accounting for more than 40% of members. 

However, Kavanagh has a less optimistic view on it, pointing out that the percentage of female candidates in the last Seanad election was still largely on par with the general election.

“I don’t think women candidates necessarily did better in the Seanad contests ,” he said.

“The higher proportion in the Seanad was mainly down to nominations by the Taoiseach – and Tánaiste and Eamon Ryan – that generally favoured women. Nine out of 11 nominees were women.

“Women did account for half of successful university candidates, but only accounted for 11 of the 43 successful candidates in the panel elections – that’s a success rate (25.6%) that was only slightly better than that for the 2020 Dáil election (22.6%).”

Kavanagh said the gender balance issue is more pronounced in rural areas and in counties in the west of the country.

He pointed out that, geographically, the counties closer to Dublin – or east of the Shannon, as he put it – all saw increases in the number of female candidates in local elections between 2014 and 2019. However, west of the Shannon the numbers were down.

adrian map1 Map showing the change in the number of female candidates between the 2014 and 2019 local elections. Source: Adrian Kavanagh

The absence of female politicians in many areas in the west of the country was an issue of concern also raised by Fine Gael MEP Deirdre Clune when she spoke to The Journal

She said there is also a notable distinction between the number of female TDs either from Dublin or a surrounding county and the number of female TDs from constituencies that are a greater distance from the capital.

“I know in the Fine Gael party, in the constituency that I represent – which has 12 counties – we don’t have any female TDs. We have one Senator in Limerick and myself.”

‘Different conversations’

Clune has been across all levels of the political system, having served as a TD, a Senator and Lord Mayor of Cork before her first election to the European Parliament in 2014. 

When she first took her Dáil seat in 1997, representing Cork South-Central, she recalls that there was very little discussion about the fact that people had families and no mention of how childcare was being managed while TDs were away from home for multiple days of Dáil sittings.

“Predominantly I would say the men that were there didn’t think about childcare,” she said. “You know, my father was a TD before me and that was never an issue for him, but that was the way it was – I’m not saying anything was right or anything was wrong, that’s just the way it was. 

I think the kinds of words like childcare, or school drop-offs weren’t part of the language like they are now. They were different conversations. I mean I was very conscious, if they said ‘let’s do a breakfast meeting at 8 o’clock I’d be thinking ‘Oh God, how in the name of God…’. You’re at the end of your limit, stretching to get everything organised for the three or four days you’re away, but I would never say I couldn’t do that, I’d never mention schooling or childcare.

Clune, who has four children, said she did not want to appear “weaker” at the time by mentioning her family responsibilities. 

“I thought I’ve committed to this so I’m going to put the face front-on, the suit on and go – and you leave the chaos behind you,” she joked.

Although those conversations are happening in the Dáil now, and last year saw Minister Helen McEntee make history by taking maternity leave, Clune said the Dáil systems are still set up in the same way.

“The Dáil is still very much the same as it was then for a rural TD – and I don’t like using the term rural but anybody outside Dublin is considered rural – travelling and spending two nights or three nights a week in Dublin,” she said.

That was the hard part of it and I think that’s still the same for people, for men or women, whether they have children or not, whatever backgrounds they come from, whatever their relationship or family situation. The overall structures in the Dáil haven’t changed.

She said changes have been discussed over the years, but a solution that suits everyone is hard to come by.

There was talk about changing it to Monday to Friday, nine to five, but then how would that suit someone who’s travelling from West Cork, North Cork, West Galway, wherever? Wouldn’t people want to use the time in Dublin properly, even if it’s late nights? If you’re away, you’re away and people want to maximise the time.

On the question of why voters appear more willing to elect a woman to the European Parliament than the Dáil, Clune said voters may see the European Parliament’s work as “more remote”. 

“It might be that they see the European elections as a different space, that it doesn’t impact them daily – even though it does,” she said.

She said there is less interest from constituents in the work she does now, compared to her political roles in Ireland, and the correspondence she receives generally comes from individuals who are directly engaged with a particular piece of European legislation.

Clune said some voters may see the European Parliament as dealing mainly with seemingly “softer issues”.

“Issues like climate change, environment protection, gender equality – probably one of the first things that came from Europe was the right to work for women who were married – that kind of equality issues. That might be one reason,” she said.

I’m not really sure because one area where women are really active is in their local communities, residents associates, community groups, so you’ve got the local and the European but then the inbetween [the Dáil] doesn’t square with that.

The role of gender quotas

Although gender quotas were not in place for the last local elections, Adrian Kavanagh said the general election quotas had a knock-on impact on local selection processes as parties needed to ensure they would have enough viable, well-known female candidates for the next national election.

He said the new 40% quota for general elections from 2023 will be a big jump for the larger parties and they will need to ensure they increase their female candidates significantly ahead of that in the next local election. 

“It won’t just be an issue for Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, Sinn Féin were a few short of the 40% in the last election too and they will all be conscious of getting new female candidates involved so they have people to choose from for the 2025 election,” he said.

The Journal asked each of the main political parties about their work to encourage more women into politics and their confidence about reaching the 40% quota for the next general election.

A Fine Gael spokesperson said the party had, in government, introduced the 40% quota, which will see a cut to funding for parties if they fail to run at least 40% candidates. Financial incentives to encourage parties to run more female candidates at a local level were also introduced. 

The party is actively seeking and encouraging more women to run for Fine Gael and is committed to running more female candidates at the next local elections, building to 40% at the next general election, the spokesperson said.

“The Fine Gael Women’s Network (FGWN) encourages, empowers and supports women to become active at all levels in the party,” they said.

Fine Gael is to roll out a series of initiatives across the country this year to encourage women to get more involved in the party, in campaigns and in elections.

Local Government Minister Peter Burke is also due to bring forward a package of maternity-related measures for councillors in the coming weeks for the consideration of Cabinet. 

Fianna Fáil said it is “fully committed” to ensuring that 40% of candidates for the next general election will be women.

“In terms of internal party supports, there is a strong Fianna Fáil Women’s Network which campaigns for gender equality and the promotion of women´s rights at a national level,” a spokesperson said. The party also has a full-time equality officer.

As we prepare for the local elections in 2024, and the subsequent general election, we are fully committed to fielding more women candidates, appointing more female local area representatives up and down the country, providing more training and offering more guidance and assistance to our women candidates and representatives. This is a high priority for the party.

The Green Party said it has a party constitutional mandate for gender balance on all committees and the selection of candidates for public office. 

“The Green Party’s elected representatives across the island of Ireland are approximately 50% women, with women in many senior positions in the party including on the executive committee, the general secretary, GPNI leader and Cathaoirleach,” a spokesperson said.

The party is also devising targets for new local electoral area representatives to ensure female participation begins at the grassroots, they said.

Our women leaders established the cross-party National Womens’ Caucus in the Dáil, formerly chaired by Catherine Martin TD. This is now being replicated at a local level through some of our female councillors.

The party said it is committed to achieving more ambitious targets for the 34th Dáil across all parties through the electoral reform process being led by Green Party Minister Malcolm Noonan.

A Sinn Féin spokesperson said: 

“Sinn Féin are committed to ensuring that women are fairly represented in public life. As the party with the largest number of women TDs, we have a track record of ensuring that women candidates are given the opportunity to seek office.

Over half of Sinn Féin’s MLAs in the northern Assembly are women. We will meet the 40% quota at the next general election.

They said there are many issues that need to be addressed but ensuring that women are given the opportunity to seek office is “fundamental to addressing the lack of women in politics”.

“To that end, we believe that gender quotas for Dáil elections should incrementally increase to 50% in the coming years.”

The Labour Party is constantly working to recruit more women, and support new candidates to run in elections for the party, a spokesperson said.

Last year the party published a Women’s Manifesto for International Women’s Day and ran a campaign called ‘Sign up a Sister’ to recruit new women members. Like other parties, it has a dedicated section, Labour Women, which runs training and networking events.

The Labour Party will meet the gender quota requirement of 40% for the next general election,” the spokesperson said. “We have had an internal quota of 30% for local elections since 2014 and this also rise to 40% for the next local elections.

Speaking on behalf of the Solidarity party, TD Mick Barry said women join the party because it “campaigns on issues women care about”.

“Since the last general election we have played an important role in assisting the struggle of the Debenhams workers – overwhelmingly women – for a decent redundancy settlement,” he said.

We are currently highlighting issues such as gender-based violence and the housing crisis. We are actively assisting the socialist feminist organisation ROSA in building for college walkouts and street protests on International Women’s Day, 8 March, to demand government action on gender violence issues.

He said the party encourages women to play leadership roles at all levels. 

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“We try to remove practical barriers to political activity for our female members like assistance with childcare and use of Zoom training to facilitate women taking leadership positions,” Barry said.

He said the party will meet the 40% target whenever the next general election is held.

“It is a condition of the People Before Profit/Solidarity agreement that this target is met,” he said. We will give a degree of priority to the Dublin West constituency at the next election where we hope to secure the election of our former TD Ruth Coppinger.”

Women’s voices at the table

Gender quotas have made a difference to the number of women running for election, but Orla O’Connor said something that is as important as reaching parity in political structures is what this means for women’s equality in legislating and policy-making.

“We’ve seen a big leap since the introduction of quotas for national elections and women are making their mark, their presence is very much felt,” she said.

“We can see more issues around women’s equality and rights are being raised so I think it is making a significant difference.”

O’Connor said female politicians were crucial to the 8th Amendment referendum and the work done on the legislation beforehand. 

A lot of that was about newly-elected women who really pushed to get that cross-party approach so they are bringing about a different way of doing politics. I’d be the first to say how slow progress is but you can see the positive impact.

However, she said women need to see more of their peers sitting around the decision-making tables and the current gender make-up of the Cabinet is “very weak”.

She said the absence of women in high-level decision-making was clear during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We could see it in terms of those critical decisions, the impact was that women were getting left out. An example from early on in the pandemic was that women who were on maternity leave were not included in wage subsidy payments.

In the end they were included, but one thing that was said to me was ‘oh look, this wasn’t deliberate, we just didn’t think of it’ and that said so much, that’s the problem. You’ve got men in a room who are just not thinking about issues like that that might impact women, so they’re excluded.

She said the NWCI also had to “put up a strong fight” after the publication of the Commission on Pensions report last year.

The NWCI has said recommendations did not take into account older women who were expected to take on the full weight of caring responsibilities in their families when they were younger. 

“We have a pension gap of over 30% so a review of the impact of the system on women is critical and there was enormous resistance to doing that,” O’Connor said. “We have a long road to go in relation to economic decisions, we still have very patriarchal structures there.”

While the pandemic highlighted gaps in the system, there were some positive steps in other areas, she said.

“In terms of violence against women and domestic violence in particular I think there was a better understanding and greater awareness,” she said.

“The State and the gardaí did come up with solutions to help manage the impact of restrictions on women experiencing domestic abuse so that was certainly positive.

“It shows that when people in government take an issue really seriously, they can come in quickly and provide investment and do the type of awareness that is needed – we need more of that.”

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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