Saturday 25 February 2017

Whether elected or not, women were the winners

Niamh Gallagher

Fianna Fail's Fiona O'Loughlin was elected in Kildare South. Photo: Damien Eagers
Fianna Fail's Fiona O'Loughlin was elected in Kildare South. Photo: Damien Eagers

Women have been a big part of the story of this election from the outset. The scenes that played out on Saturday night into Sunday morning - as victorious women were raised on shoulders and bounced with celebratory vigour - were set in motion long before the election was called, or even considered.

The commitment to increasing the number of women contesting elections was made back in 2011, as Fine Gael and Labour negotiated the nuances of their joint Programme for Government.

Since then, the gender quota - introduced as part of the Electoral Reform (Political Funding) Act 2012 and requiring that 30pc of party candidates are women, or parties will lose half of their State funding - has had significant influence on party planning and candidate selection strategies.

In the end, after limited fuss, all parties reached the quota. Some fared better than others, with Labour, Sinn Féin, The Social Democrats, AAAPBP and the Green Party fielding more than 35pc female candidates, and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael running 31pc apiece.

The result was impressive: 163 women in the field, 30pc of all candidates, an almost doubling of the 86 who contested in 2011. And the results (with some counts ongoing) are positive.

There will be between 32 and 36 women returned to the 32nd Dáil, making up between 20pc and 23pc of all TDs - a 20pc jump on our previous figure. Three constituencies have seen their first woman ever elected: Cork South West (Margaret Murphy O'Mahony, FF); Kildare South (Fiona O'Loughlin, FF); and Imelda Munster (Louth, SF). The Cavan part of the Cavan-Monaghan constituency looks set to join this group following a battle for the last seat between Fianna Fáil's Niamh Smyth and Sinn Féin's Kathryn Reilly.

Three three-seaters - Dublin Central, Dublin Rathdown and Meath East - have majority female representation, with two women and one man in each.

Of the votes, 26pc of first preferences were cast for women. Dun Laoghaire clocked the highest proportion at 61pc, and Donegal and Meath West the lowest, at 3pc. Overall, in 18 of 38 constituencies, more than 30pc of the first preference vote was for women. We are equally as likely to cast our ballot for a woman as a man. But women are not protected from electoral trends affecting parties and the number elected was, naturally, affected by the huge drop in support for Labour - who lost some strong performers.

Traditionally a party that promotes women, 21pc of Labour's 33 TDs were female. This weekend, all but two of those seven lost their seats.

Labour is not the only party that will have a changed dynamic within its parliamentary party when it meets for the first time next week.

Fianna Fáil - who, after the exit of Averil Power, had just Senator Mary White within their much-diminished number - now look like having about seven women among the 40-plus TDs that will represent them in the Dáil.

Fine Gael, though it lost Áine Collins in Cork and Gabrielle McFadden in Longford-Westmeath, gained new female TDs in Josepha Madigan, Maria Bailey, Kate O'Connell and, potentially, (recount pending) Anne-Marie Dermody.

Sinn Féin was a party with a strong female voice in the last Dáil in Mary Lou McDonald. But she was joined last time around by just one other - Sandra McLellan. This time, the female contingent is bolstered with at least four other incoming TDs - Kathleen Funchion, Carol Nolan, Imelda Munster and either or both of Kathryn Reilly and Louise O'Reilly.

Among smaller parties and Independents, the two female leaders of the Social Democrats - Roisin Shortall and Catherine Murphy - topped their respective polls and were returned.

Meanwhile, the Greens gained a seat with Deputy Leader Catherine Martin. Independents Joan Collins and Clare Daly were comfortably returned, Ruth Coppinger took a seat for AAAPBP and, depending on the recount in Dublin South West, Katherine Zappone may join the ranks of Independents at the expense of Fine Gael's Anne-Marie Dermody.

But aside from the parties and the personalities, these results show three things.

Firstly, removing the candidate selection barrier via the gender quota created an environment where numerous capable, competent, committed and ambitious women put themselves forward for selection and election, and were, in large part, successful.

Secondly, regardless of the mechanism - selected at convention, selected based on a party directive, added to a ticket - women, once selected, have as good a chance at getting elected as their male counterparts.

And thirdly, we are only at the beginning of this journey. Just over 20pc of newly-elected TDs are women.

That is progress - but it is still nowhere near where we need to be to see a real impact on the process of politics and policy outcomes.

Irish Independent

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