Saturday 1 October 2016

Niamh Gallagher: Women at the heart of a Dail power shift

Niamh Gallagher

Published 29/08/2015 | 02:30

Women are making a big impact in Leinster House. and many more are on the way: from left.. Senator Cait Keane,Senator Imelda Henry,Mary Mitchell O'Connor,TD,Senator Kathryn Reilly,Frances Fitzgerald,TD,the Minister for Children, Stylist Sonya Lennon,Senat
Women are making a big impact in Leinster House. and many more are on the way: from left.. Senator Cait Keane,Senator Imelda Henry,Mary Mitchell O'Connor,TD,Senator Kathryn Reilly,Frances Fitzgerald,TD,the Minister for Children, Stylist Sonya Lennon,Senat

Progress! There will be more women contesting the upcoming general election than contested the last one. Now, just months (who knows how many) from the election, 285 candidates have declared and 92 of them are women, that's 32pc. In 2011, 566 candidates ran and just 86 of them were women, a meagre 15pc. So things are getting better.

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And we're not all the way there yet. Based on figures from the 2007 and 2011 elections, at least 200 more candidates will emerge, bringing the overall number of candidates contesting our trimmed-down 158 seat Dáil to about 500. This tallies with where things are at for the parties, who, with the exception of Sinn Féin, are still working their way through local selection conventions. That, along with the number of independents still expected to announce, means the number of female candidates looks set to reach a record high demonstrating that - actually - women want to run for politics.

That might seem obvious, but in the early days of Women for Election, it was the single myth we had to bust. "Women aren't interested in politics" certain party representatives told us - "Women don't want to run: we've looked and we can't find them." Amazing how a quota for selection - and one that means losing half your State funding should you fail to meet it - focuses the mind. All of a sudden those women aren't so hard to find after all, or if they are, certain people are doing a very good job searching.

So who are these 92 women, where have they come from and where are they contesting?

By and large they are experienced political players. Of those selected by larger parties, 87pc already hold elected office at local or national level. Add to that the women who have contested elections before (but are not currently elected) and that figure reaches 93pc. Within smaller parties and independents 84pc of those declared are either elected, or have run for local or national office.

These women are not electoral novices or sweepers, brought in to fill the quota. Dáil incumbents, like Regina Doherty, Catherine Murphy, Joan Burton and Mary Lou McDonald are among the number, as are Councillors Anne Marie Dermody, Lisa Chambers, Rose Conway Walsh and Pamela Kearns; and Senators Averil Power, Catherine Noone, Mary White and Katherine Zappone.

These are women of conviction and of talent, just as able to fight this election campaign as their male counterparts, to win seats, and make their contribution as elected representatives in the 32nd Dáil.

This shouldn't come as a surprise, and yet it might, because when talk started about a gender quota there was much concern about 'the token woman', a figure expected to emerge at selection conventions all over the country; be magic-ed onto the ballot paper and fail miserably to get elected, due to her status as a token, a woman, or both.

But our political parties - and the women within them - are too smart for that. They are in it to win. They won't field women for the sake of it, or split their vote by running too many candidates. They will - as evidenced by those selected - seek and find those most likely to win a precious seat.

So where will the winners be in this election? Of the 92 women declared so far 36 - more than one-in-three - are contesting the Dublin constituencies, in line with the trend evidenced in last year's local elections that saw women run in greater numbers in Dublin and urban centres. After Dublin, Cork has seven declared female candidates, as does Galway. Other counties range between one and five, with just two of the constituencies where candidates have declared with no women on the ticket: Cork North Central and Limerick County. No constituency boasts more women running than men, yet.

In party terms it is still too early to say who is best in class. The only party certain to meet the quota is Sinn Féin: 38pc of its candidates are female with just one selection convention to go. Others are just over half way through conventions and the numbers change constantly. Right now, according to political geographer Adrian Kavanagh, Fine Gael have selected 48 candidates, of whom 31pc are female, Labour have selected 27, of whom 44pc are female and Fianna Fail have selected 44, of whom 22pc are female. Party strategists are poring over these figures, knowing that a percentage point error could have disastrous financial implications: on current figures, failing to reach the 30pc gender quota would see Fine Gael lose more than €1 million in State funding, with Labour and Fianna Fail losing approximately half a million a-piece.

With these numbers in play it is clear that the parties will meet the quota and, judging by selections to date, they will do so by fielding capable, competent female candidates. This election is important for that reason, it has pushed parties to move from rhetoric to reality - from talking about supporting women, to actually backing them to run and get elected.

Parties are not the only ones playing their part. Between September 7 and 9, Women for Election will run EQUIP: a three-day residential campaign school for female candidates and campaign managers. Bringing together national and international experts, EQUIP will work with women of all parties and independents to cover every aspect of their campaign from building a team to raising funds, preparing for media to reading polls. Leaving EQUIP, candidates will be prepared for the many and varied challenges of a general election campaign.

Already, before it even happens this election will break records with the number of women on the ticket. Let's make it historic afterwards, and celebrate the largest number of women ever walking through the gates of Leinster House as TDs. Now that would be progress.

 

Irish Independent

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