Sunday 23 October 2016

Much done, a lot more to do, for the election of women

Niamh Gallagher

Published 02/01/2016 | 02:30

Some of the women elected to Leinster House posing in a picture organised by Ivana Bacik in 2008
Some of the women elected to Leinster House posing in a picture organised by Ivana Bacik in 2008

Numbers. It's easy to get lost behind them. Just 16pc of those elected to the current Dáil are women. That's low - 27 out of 166. It sounds bad. But is it bad enough to get us jumping up and down to change it? Are there better ways to imagine what this number really means? Of course there are. A picture tells a thousand words. The photograph above - coordinated by Senator Ivana Bacik and taken back in 2008 - of the women, still living, who had held seats in the Dáil or Seanad, is striking. Those women, lined up in the Dáil chamber, make a tiny group; they don't even fill half the room. Their beaming smiles and colourful ensembles cannot make up for their paltry number. And this little group captures all of those women who have ever held public office in our country. Looking at that photo is shocking.

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Consider then the number 15: the number of players on a rugby team, about half a primary school class on current numbers, a fairly standard number to have around the table on Christmas Day, and - believe it or not - the number of women who have ever, in the history of our State, sat at Cabinet.

It's tiny. And yet we had a good start as a fledgling nation. In 1919, Ireland was a leader, with Countess Markievicz being appointed Minister for Labour and becoming the first woman to hold ministerial office in Ireland (naturally) and in Europe. She held her position for two parliaments.

But that good start was as slow one. It was 60 years - 60 years! - before another woman was appointed to Cabinet on our little island. In 1979, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn (pictured right) became Aire na Gaeltachta, or Minister for the Gaeltacht, and joined her male colleagues around the Cabinet table. In the following years, Eileen Desmond, Gemma Hussey and Mary O'Rourke all held Cabinet positions. But it was 1993, with the appointment of Niamh Bhreathnach as Minister for Education, that two women sat together at Cabinet.

Since then, Nora Owen, Sile de Valera, Mary Harney, Mary Coughlan, Mary Hanafin, Joan Burton, Frances Fitzgerald, Heather Humphreys and Jan O'Sullivan have all made the trip to the Phoenix Park to receive their ministerial seal. Now, with four ministers and a female Attorney General around the Cabinet table, we have the highest number of women ever contributing to the decisions that shape our lives and our country.

So, should we celebrate the fact that in the past four years the number of female ministers in the history of the State has gone from 11 to 15, or should we be open-mouthed in horror that the number is still - despite progress - so low?

For me, it's a bit of both. It feels like now, finally, we are progressing. The election early next year will see more women than ever before contesting, a result of the 30pc gender quota at party selection level and the consistent and targeted focus on putting measures in place to support female candidates by groups like Women for Election and political parties alike. The commitment to the quota has demonstrated that our governing parties are determined to drive this change using a mechanism that is proved to work.

But what after the election? How do we make sure that the momentum gathered over the past few years is maintained? How can we be certain that next time we will see more women again, and more women in positions of influence, contest? How can we get that figure of 15 up and up and up so that it is no longer quite so shocking?

There are ways, and all party leaders should be thinking about them now. To increase women's representation, we need a strong pipeline of candidates at local and national level and we need women in positions of power at each stage within the political process. Parties can do simple things to make that happen.

After the election, there will be council seats left vacant as victorious councillors trod the well-worn path to the Dáil as newly-elected TDs. Party leaders should ensure, in co-opting new councillors, that 50pc are female. Likewise, in planning for the 2019 local elections (far away for you and I but not so for the aspiring councillor), parties should commit to implementing a 30pc gender quota at selection, mirroring the process that happens at general election.

But the real chance to make radical change lies with our incoming Taoiseach. He - as looking at current party leadership and election polls it can but be a he - should start with a strong statement of intent by, like his Canadian colleague Justin Trudeau, appointing a balanced Cabinet of half men, half women.

The same principle should apply in the appointment of chairs and vice-chairs of committees, and his nominations to the Seanad.

These changes would signal real change. They would be something to celebrate for a new year. And if our new leader needs inspiration, he should look at that 2008 photo and remind himself that, if we really area a modern democracy, we need more than a rugby team of women making the big decisions over nearly 100 years.

Irish Independent

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