Saturday 24 August 2019

Shifting the balance of power

Even with the introduction of gender quotas, women make up less than a quarter of the Dáil. Kim Bielenberg attends a training day run by campaign group 'Women for Election' and asks if the momentum from the recent ­referendum will be enough to bridge the gender gap in Irish politics

In awe of those in the firing line: Former Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh and Claire Tighe during a Women for Election training day in Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney
In awe of those in the firing line: Former Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh and Claire Tighe during a Women for Election training day in Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney
Jennifer Whitmore
Aoibheann Mahon
Emer Higgins
Deirdre Kingston
Karey McHugh
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

At a training session in a Dublin hotel, women hoping to run for election are being taught how to "grip and grin". They are advised on the importance of making good eye contact, how to offer a handshake with a smile - and, above all, how to get to know the voters. They are told that it is a cardinal sin of politics to leave a doorstep without asking for the number-one vote.

The woman learn that in politics, the campaign is never over until you give up the game entirely. Whether you win or lose, the next campaign begins as soon as the votes are counted. It starts with a rigorous analysis of the results, and an examination of where a candidate was strong or weak.

This advice on campaign skills was being passed on as part of a recent training day organised by the campaign group Women for Election, which aims to boost female participation in politics.

The mood among the women taking part is buoyant after the recent abortion referendum result - and it is easy to forget in the comradely atmosphere that these are potential candidates from parties that are often bitter rivals.

Ciairín de Buis, chief executive of Women for Election, says there's been a distinct surge in interest among women hoping to stand since the recent referendum.

The training seminar was booked out days in advance, and de Buis partly attributes this to the abortion poll and the emergence of the #MeToo movement.

"Many women attending the training day were involved in the referendum campaign and developed a taste for politics.

"They could see the impact that women could have. After May 25, we saw a swell of interest from women, and experienced a booking rush. There are now some amazing and driven women keen to get on the ballot."

Ireland may have donned a liberal halo in the wake of the marriage equality and abortion referendums, but we remain low in the global league table for female representation in politics.

With women making up 22pc of the Dáil, we are only 75th in the world for female parliamentary membership.

Only 19 women have ever served as cabinet ministers in the Dáil's history, which now spans almost a century. And just 114 women have ever been elected - fewer than the number of men who sit in the current Dáil.

There are definite signs of change on the horizon, however, with a new surge of interest.

Training day

Among the women at the training day was the former Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh, who created a stir in 2014 when she revealed she was gay.

Walsh says her attendance today is down to a long-standing interest in learning more about politics.

"I was involved in both referendums (abortion and same-sex marriage). I want to educate myself about the frameworks involved in politics. I have been interested in Women for Election for some time, and then when this event popped up, I wanted to learn more."

Walsh reveals that she would like to stand for election at some point.

"I won't be running any time soon, but I am learning," she tells Review.

Walsh, who now runs an events company, tells me the training day has given her a lot of insight into public speaking. She draws parallels between her work as Rose of Tralee and that of a politician.

"You always learn from every engagement about how to start conversations and how to answer questions. I learned (at the training day) the basics of what you need to get things over the line."

Walsh says she met many TDs, councillors and mayors during her Rose days.

"Regardless of whether I agreed with their policies or not, I was in awe of people who put themselves in the firing line.

"I am a big advocate for getting off the couch and being vocal if you have an opinion. Whether you are a face on a poster, a campaign manager or you are out canvassing, the better it is for our communities."

The former Rose says she is also interested in raising youth issues and LGBT rights.

"I have been an ambassador for Plan Ireland and I was recently involved in their International Day against Transphobia, Homophobia and Biphobia."

During an afternoon session at the training day, the Labour Party activist Pat Montague takes would-be candidates through the nuts and bolts of running a campaign.

Many of the women in attendance want to climb on to the first rung of the political ladder as city or county councillors.

Aoibheann Mahon hopes to run for Fianna Fáil in Dublin next year's local elections.

"I found the training useful in terms of learning how to build up confidence, financing a campaign, public speaking and how to deal with the media," the 25-year-old tells Review.

Montague tells the aspiring politicians that in Ireland, voters primarily choose a candidate rather than a party when they are in the polling booth. An RTÉ exit poll at the last election showed 53pc of voters believe the candidate is more important than the party when making their first preference vote.

"In Ireland, people tend to vote for candidates that they know and like," says Montague.

Also at the training session is senator and former city councillor Catherine Ardagh, who is running for Fianna Fáil at the next general election. According to her, getting to know voters is the most crucial part of electioneering. She calls it face-to-face marketing.

"At a local level, it is much more important than other factors such as social media," Ardagh says.

She cites the example of one of the country's most consistent vote-getters, Limerick TD Willie O'Dea, who knows a remarkable number of his constituents personally.

"The dream is to be like Willie, and get Willie's kind of vote," she says.

Ardagh started out campaigning on the doorstep with just one other person canvassing with her, her best friend. It's a topic touched on during the session when the up-and-coming politicians are advised to hire a "critical friend" as their campaign manager. They have to have their full trust, they're told, but at the same time offer critical advice when the candidate goes off kilter.

Political analysts are now starting to wonder what the effect of the recent referendum will be on female participation. At the last general election, gender quotas were introduced, requiring parties to ensure that 30pc of candidates are female. This led to an increase in the number of women in the Dáil to 35.

But there are still 16 constituencies - including four in Cork - where there is no female representation.

De Buis says the ultimate goal of Women for Election is to have 50-50 representation, and that the target at the next general election is to push the figure above 30pc.

She says the failure of women to be elected in Ireland is traditionally attributed to the five Cs - confidence, cash, candidate selection, culture and childcare.

"What we find is that women often don't have the confidence to put themselves forward, or feel they are not qualified, even though they are just as well qualified as men.

"If you are in a constituency where there are only male politicians, or if you grew up without a female TD in your area, it is hard to see yourself in that role."

One current Dáil incumbent who has found this kind of event useful in the past is Green Party deputy leader Catherine Martin. She attended a Women for Election training session prior to her standing for election.

"I met my campaign manager at a Women for Election event and she is still part of my team," she recalls.

Martin says her campaign to get elected was a David-and-Goliath battle that took four years.

"I decided that I would have to go to every door. I started out campaigning to be a councillor two-and-a-half years before the 2014 local elections, and started walking door to door.

"I had one person with me, and after I was elected as a councillor, I continued canvassing for the Dáil seat. By the time the general election came, one voter told me it was my fifth time going to her door."

On a typical Sunday, she could be out for five or six hours in the constituency attending events, and in recent days, was involved in a clean-up of the local suburb of Kilternan.

"My strategy of being out all of the time combines two things I love - walking and talking," she says. Although the election of 35 women in 2016 was an advance, Martin believes that it is not nearly enough.

"When I took my seat, I felt I was drowning in a sea of suits, and I felt that something had to be done about it," says the TD, who was a key instigator in setting up a women's caucus in the Oireachtas. The cross-party group has focused on issues such as parental leave, domestic violence, gender quotas in local elections and sexual harassment in the Oireachtas.

There is no doubt that the referendum campaign has awakened interest in politics, particularly among women, many of whom had never even voted before.

The political parties will be hoping that this interest will translate into a surge in participation among women.

Ardagh predicts that the referendum will lead to the election of more women from all political parties.

Martin is also hopeful.

"It would be an awful shame if we did not tap into the activism that we have seen in the last few months."


Six would-be candidates to watch

Jennifer Whitmore, Social Democrats

Jennifer Whitmore

Whitmore is one of a large contingent of female candidates running for the first time for the Social Democrats. Twelve out of the 20 candidates running for the party are women.

The returned emigrant, who lived in Australia for a decade, was a political advisor to Wicklow TD Stephen Donnelly and helped set up the new party in 2015 before Donnelly left to join Fianna Fáil.

When Whitmore was in Australia, she worked in government on water, energy and environmental policy.

She was elected as an independent ­councillor in 2014 with the highest female vote in the country.

"Simply put, I became involved in politics to effect change. I believe that our governance systems have failed us - that we need to completely review how we engage with communities, how and where we direct our resources, how we govern."


Karey McHugh, Independent

Karey McHugh

Karey won a seat first time out in the local ­elections in 2014 when she was just 24, and is the youngest member of Galway County Council.

"I did an awful lot of work on the ground to get elected and we came up with innovative ways to campaign that other candidates were not using.

"We tailored some of the leaflets towards some of the nationalities in the area - including Hungarians and Poles. One of the aspects I focused on was need for diversity of age and gender on the council. Women are ­under-represented - there are 39 members and only five women.

"In the long term I would not rule out running for the Dáil, but I wouldn't put myself forward until I feel like I am an expert in the field."


Emer Higgins, Fine Gael

Emer Higgins

Higgins will be a Fine Gael candidate in the next election in Dublin Mid West, and is already on Dublin city council. She works for a multinational company.

"I've been involved in politics since school and college. Ultimately, everybody who is involved, no matter what party they are in, wants to make a positive difference. My first foray into politics was in the students' union council in UCD. During the referendum ­campaign, it was great to see so many people who had no interest in politics, or people from different parties, all coming together.

"I did a Women for Election programme and found it useful. It was great to create a bond with other women who have the same interest, and it also exposes women without experience to the cut and thrust of politics.

"When you are standing first it can be scary. You have to get to know that if people are rude or slam the door in your face, it's nothing personal."


Deirdre Kingston, Labour

Deirdre Kingston

Deirdre is running for the first time as a Labour candidate in Dún Laoghaire. She has already been elected as a county councillor and works in communications for the Irish Cancer Society.

"I became involved in politics when I saw the difficulties young people were encountering in the financial crash. I moved away at that time and came back looking for work.

"I was very keen to see my own generation represented. When I ran in 2014, there was a lot of hostility to Labour because we were in government, but I managed to get elected. The big issue here is the lack of affordable housing and that affects myself and my husband.

"The referendum campaign was incredible because it was driven by women - there was a fantastic group coming together in my area."


Aoibheann Mahon, Fianna Fáil

Aoibheann Mahon

Mahon is the chair of Ógra Fianna Fáil in Dublin Bay North, and hopes to run as a council candidate in next year's local elections. She works for the Irish Aviation Authority.

"Politics is in my family, and my dad is a councillor. I got involved because I want to help people and be the voice of those who don't have a voice. It's important young people get involved in politics. When people say they are not interested in politics, I ask them if they travel by bus or pay tax, because everything comes back to politics.

"The reason I like Fianna Fáil is that they welcome everybody, no matter what their socio-economic background is. I've worked on election campaigns for Paul McAuliffe, Sean Haughey and Mary Fitzpatrick - everything from canvassing to fundraising to dropping leaflets.

"Eventually, I would love to go on to become a TD - and when I was a girl, I said I wanted to be the first female Taoiseach."


Mairéad Farrell, Sinn Féin

Mairéad, who works in finance, is the Sinn Féin candidate for Galway West in the next general election. She is a niece of Mairéad Farrell, one of the IRA members shot by the British SAS in Gibraltar 30 years ago.

"I have been a member of Sinn Féin since I was 18. I did my Leaving Cert in 2008, when the economic crisis happened.

"For me, Sinn Féin is looking to create a society of equals. Housing in Galway City is at complete crisis point. We have not seen houses built in Galway over the past two governments.

"I was involved in the referendum campaign in Galway. I saw an awful lot of women campaigning who had not been active in politics before. It really showed them the power of their political activity."

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