Saturday 17 March 2018

Poll position: will women make the big breakthrough?

There will be more females standing on February 26 than in any previous election and they'll be expected to deliver the votes.

Woman to woman: Fine Gael candidate Maura Hopkins canvassing in Boyle, Co Roscommon, this week. Photo Brian Farrell
Woman to woman: Fine Gael candidate Maura Hopkins canvassing in Boyle, Co Roscommon, this week. Photo Brian Farrell
Posters for some of the record number of women who will contest the election on February 26.
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Campaigners for gender equality in politics hope that this will be the election when women make the great leap forward. Could it be the first poll where female politicians move towards parity with men when it comes to running the country?

A record number of women will contest the General Election on February 26, and if a good proportion of them succeed, the face of Irish politics has the potential to be transformed.

The brown benches of the Dáil may no longer be the preserve of row upon row of grey and navy suits when the house reconvenes on March 10.

Largely as a result of the gender quotas, 30pc of those running in the election on February 26 will be women. The measure to increase the number of women may be one of the most radical of the outgoing Government. But it has not come without bitterness and acrimony; and questions have been asked about whether some "gender quota candidates" were added to tickets without any fighting chance of success.

Although the final figures will not be available until nominations close next week, the number of female candidates is expected to have doubled since the last General Election. In that 2011 poll, only 15pc of the candidates were female, and women took just 15pc of the seats.

That placed us way down the international league table for representation of women in the national parliament, at number 88.

As Senator Averil Power, the Fianna Fáil defector who is standing as an Independent in Dublin Bay North, puts it: "If you look at the figures for female representation in parliament, we are among the worst - we are way behind parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.

"I would have liked if we could have changed Irish politics and made it more representative without quotas, but that hasn't happened. I believe they are a necessary evil."

Claire McGing, lecturer in political geography at NUI Maynooth, says quotas were necessary because the big parties have traditionally been slow to put women on the ballot paper.

"This will be a huge election for women," says McGing. "This is the first time that voters will have a significant number of women on most ballot papers."

Some fusty political outposts of male dominance have firmly held out against the gender-neutral tide.

By the middle of this week, there were no women standing in the constituency of County Limerick - and only one woman standing in Meath West.

On the other hand, women in South Dublin are much more likely to put their hats in the ring, or have their names put forward by parties.

The majority of the candidates in Dún Laoghaire and Dublin Rathdown are women, while Dublin South West has the highest number of female candidates on the ticket with seven.

The implementation of gender quotas has forced the parties to push up their female numbers, or face the loss of half of their State funding.

All the main parties have complied with the rules, and Sinn Féin and Labour have the highest proportion of women, running with 36pc.

"While other parties were struggling to even find women to put forward, our female candidates are there to contest winnable seats - not as token add-ons," says Sinn Féin spokeswoman Aoife Darmody.

If it secures a seat in Government, Sinn Féin wants to move towards 50-50 gender quotas.

Suzanne Collins of the non-party campaign group Women for Election says the introduction of the quota in parties has also had a ripple effect among Independents.

"More women are standing as Independents, even though they are obviously not covered by the gender-quota rules," says Collins, whose group has held regular bootcamps for female candidates.

"There are more women on air and in local newspapers talking about the election, and that changes the tone of the campaign."

Optimistic advocates of gender quotas will hope that if 30pc of the candidates are women, women will smash all previous records - and win 30pc of the seats. But it is unlikely to work out that way, according to political geographer McGing.

Because many of the female candidates are standing for the first time, they are likely to be at a disadvantage.

"Voters do not discriminate on the grounds of gender, but they do discriminate on the basis of who they know," says McGing.

"Incumbents are at an advantage. That's why I wouldn't be optimistic that women will win 30pc of the seats. Research internationally would suggest that it takes two or three electoral cycles before you see a significant shift in the make-up of parliaments. The incumbency factor is huge."

Party selection conventions by their nature have always caused rancour, but in some cases this has been heightened by the necessity to put women on the ticket, with inevitable accusations of "gendermandering".There was uproar in Fianna Fáil late last year when the party head office ruled that the candidate for Longford would have to be a woman, Connie Gerety Quinn.

One of the candidates, who lost out, Pat O'Rourke, said after the selection convention that he'd never seen anger like it, with members shouting, stamping, and people roaring: "We want our say."

In court this week, aspiring male candidate Brian Mohan failed in his case against the State after Fianna Fáil directed its sole General ­Election candidate in the Dublin Central constituency had to be a woman, and Mary Fitzpatrick was selected.

Anecdotally, there are some reports of women being asked on the doorstep whether they are a "real candidate" or a "token woman candidate".

But McGing doubts whether voters really know or care how candidates are selected by the parties.

"I don't think there will be any kind of anti-quota woman factor, but we will only see on February 26.

"When you look at the profiles of the women who have been added, most, if not all of them, are strong candidates in their own right. A lot of them are councillors or past Dáil election candidates."

Former minister Mary O'Rourke staunchly opposes gender quotas, regarding them as a blunt instrument. But she is keen for more women in Fianna Fáil to succeed and has recently been touring the country advising candidates on how to run their campaigns.

"When a woman is running in a constituency, the other candidate can be quite territorial.

"I won't call them bullies, but you have to lay down the law, and make sure you are not browbeaten," she says.

O'Rourke says many of the young candidates are of a high calibre, and full of bright ideas about what they want to do in the Dáil.

"A lot of them have been successful in local elections and that can be bare-knuckled. So, they have been blooded."

On the Fine Gael side, there are several ambitious young female candidates with hopes of winning such as Maura Hopkins in Roscommon-Galway. The faith placed in her by her party was shown when she was asked to introduce the Taoiseach at the Ard Fheis a fortnight ago.

"I would support gender quotas, because it is important to get more women involved and putting their names forward," says the occupational therapist, who graduated from Trinity College.

"I was selected as a candidate at the convention on merit. I don't want to put my name forward as a woman, but as a person who can work hard for the people I represent if I am elected."

If men feel aggrieved that in some cases they are losing out, supporters of gender quotas believe there have always been quotas of one type or another in politics.

"The notion that quotas have suddenly made the selection of candidates undemocratic is naive, because candidates get picked by parties for all sorts of reasons," says Senator Power.

"We have a tradition of sons inheriting for no other reason than they share the same surname, sports people with no previous community involvement, and there have always been geographical quotas."

Although she baulks at the idea of "token candidates", Power believes some of the parties have implemented the quotas in a cynical fashion.

"The parties should have engaged with women with strong community involvement and encouraged them to run from three years back, so that they could be electable.

"But some of the parties have added candidates in the past few weeks and that is crazy, because three or four weeks before an election you don't have a hope of winning.

"It does a disservice to the women concerned."

A quarter of a century ago, in an era when gender roles were more defined, the newly-elected President Mary Robinson talked of the women of Ireland "who instead of rocking the cradle rocked the system".

In many ways her hopes were dashed, and the number of women in the Dáil remained stubbornly low - but on February 26, women have the opportunity to rock the system again.

Indo Review

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News