Wednesday 11 December 2019

FF party activist's challenge to gender quota laws opens in High Court

A challenge by a Fianna Fail party activist to the constitutionality of new electoral laws on gender quotas has opened at the High Court.

Brian Mohan claims he was told by his party that gender quotas are a “fact of life” and Fianna Fail must comply with them. 

Mr Mohan’s argument is not with his party but with laws making the funding of political parties conditional on meeting gender quotas for candidates, the court heard.

The challenge concerns the Electoral (Political Funding) Act 2012. It provides that political parties will lose half of their central exchequer funding unless 30 per cent of their candidates in the next two general elections are female.  All of the parties have said they will meet the gender quota.

Michael McDowell SC, for Mr Mohan, argued today the Oireachtas  is not entitled to try and use State funding in the hope of ensuring more women candidates in general elections.

If there was such a general power, the State could be entitled to tell parties they must meet age criteria or their candidates must include a certain number of people from various ethnic minorities, he said.

Under the Constitution, it is the people who decide who should be their rulers and the Oireachtas cannot intervene with decisions about who should contest elections, he said.

Mr Mohan had hoped to be selected to run for FF in the Dublin Central constituency but a directive from the party's national constituency commission instructing only one woman candidate could be selected in that constituency stymied his ambition, Mr Justice David Keane heard.

Mary Fitzpatrick, who with Mr Mohan sought the nomination, was ultimately selected in October 2015 to contest the election for Fianna Fail. A third candidate who initially sought a nomination, Denise McMurrough , withdrew in protest at the gender stipulation, the court was told.

The court also heard, by summer 2015, of 47 Fianna Fail candidates selected by 31 constituencies, only ten were women, leaving Fianna Fail well short of meeting the gender quota target required to secure funding for political parties. 

Mr McDowell  said that situation lead to a process of consultation within Fianna Fail involving TDs and senior members of the party organisation. Mr Mohan was told gender quotas are a fact of life, Fianna Fail had to comply with them and only one candidate could be selected in Dublin Central and that had to be a woman. 

Counsel said it was true Fianna Fail had not opposed the gender quota legislation when it was going through the Oireachtas and that then FF Senator Averil Power had welcomed it, while also noting there was considerable opposition to it within the party.  However, it was also the case no decision was ever made by the Fianna Fail party to adopt gender quotas, he said.

The challenge is against Ireland and the Attorney General who dispute the claims and also argue Mr Mohan’s real dispute is with his party. The legislation in question relates to the funding of political parties and no political party had made a complaint about it, the State contends.

Opening the case, Mr McDowell said his client is a 30 year old building operative from Beaumont, Dublin, now pursuing a degree in Contemporary Culture and Society at Dublin City University, including the study of politics. Mr Mohan attended court today after completing exams earlier.

Counsel said Mr Mohan was a member of a “staunch” Fianna Fail family who joined the party at age 16.  He is a member of the Con Colbert cumann in Dublin Central and chair of the Comhairle Dail Ceanntar or constituency executive council.

Counsel said there is a fund of €5.4m available for political parties.  Under the 2012 Act, a “new norm” was created which establishes a goal of 40 per cent male and female candidates in the totality of the number of candidates fielded by any party, he said.

That meant, at the forthcoming general election, there was a transitional target figure where there must be 30 per cent female and male candidates and, seven years down the line, that figure must be 40 per cent, he said.

The Act provided funding for parties would be reduced by 50 per cent unless parties met the required targets, he said. 

The 2012 Act amended previous legislation which allocated funding in accordance with the percentage of votes obtained by particular parties, he said. This was not a grant to encourage parties to improve the number of female candidates but rather a “huge reduction” in funding for those parties who did not meet the relevant gender quotas.

The case continues.

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