Saturday 16 December 2017

Joan, Lucinda, Averil - could we ever have our own Iron Lady?

Fine Gael's European Affairs Minister Lucinda Creighton is favourite.
Fine Gael's European Affairs Minister Lucinda Creighton is favourite.
Joan Burton TD, Minister for Social Protection. Photo: Patrick Browne
Fianna Fail Senator Averil Power is a hot favourite for a prime position

Gabrielle Monaghan

Is Ireland ready for a female Prime Minister?

Two weeks after the last general election, readers of the New York Times were told Ireland had sworn in its first female Taoiseach. It was a false alarm, of course: the paper thought Enda Kenny was a woman.

But as the UK prepares for Margaret Thatcher's funeral, its first female prime minister, some question whether Ireland could ever have an Iron Lady of its own.

Female leaders are hardly a novelty in global politics; Germany, Australia, Iceland, Denmark, Argentina and Thailand all have a female prime minister. In the US, there is mounting speculation that Hillary Clinton will run for president in 2016.

After our next general election, also due in 2016, the odds of a woman being elected Taoiseach are 20-1, bookmakers Paddy Power calculated this week. But their odds lower dramatically for subsequent elections.

Fine Gael's European Affairs Minister Lucinda Creighton is favourite. Hot on her heels are high-profile Fianna Fáil senator Averil Power, Fine Gael MEP Mairéad McGuiness and newly elected FG TD for Meath East Helen McEntee.

Also in the running is Kate Feeney, a 27-year-old tax adviser and daughter of former Fianna Fáil senator Geraldine Feeney. She was elected president of ógra Fianna Fáil in February.

Nora Owen, the first female deputy leader of an Irish political party and a former FG Minister for Justice, predicts that it will be at least 2021 before a woman stands a chance of securing the position.

"There is no reason why any of the women couldn't be Taoiseach – apart from the pure practicality that one of them would have to be leader of the biggest party in government."

The status quo does not augur well for the future. While Mary Harney and Mary Coughlan both held the position of Tánaiste, and Harney was leader of the Progressive Democrats, no large Irish party has ever elected a woman as leader and there has never been a female Finance Minister. That certainly has not prevented Lucinda Creighton and Joan Burton from revealing ambitions to one day lead the country.

One person who recently worked with Burton said "she certainly has the intellectual ability, energy, enthusiasm, interest in people and appetite for hard work that the job of Taoiseach requires – even if the electoral numbers make the prospect of a Labour Taoiseach unlikely at the moment".

Nora Owen said: "Joan Burton would make a terrific Taoiseach, but that's never going to happen if Labour is the junior partner in a coalition. Labour might be in government after the next election but, going by the law of averages, they will lose seats.

"Frances Fitzgerald might also have a leadership battle in her pocket. I think she would edge out Lucinda, who is very right-wing."

It has often been argued that Scandinavian countries elected female prime ministers because parity between the sexes had already been a feature of most mainstream parties for years. While Owen believes electoral systems in countries such as Denmark made it easier for women there to achieve the highest office in the land, Ireland is making an effort to topple the old boys' club of Leinster House.

The Government legislated last year to halve funding to political parties if they fail to make sure that at least 30pc of their election candidates are women, a measure that will take effect in time for the next general election.

At present, women account for just 15pc of Dáil seats, the same proportion as North Korea and behind Rwanda. At this rate, the National Women's Council had estimated, it would take 370 years before half the Dáil was female.

No doubt Thatcher would have disapproved of quotas. While the grocer's daughter showed women everywhere it was possible to smash gender and class barriers to become the ultimate woman in a man's world, she had little interest in elevating the sisterhood, never mind promoting women to her cabinet table. When asked whether measures were needed to ensure more women got a seat in the House of Commons, Thatcher replied: "But no, a woman must rise through merit. There must be no discrimination."

Irish Independent

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