Friday 22 November 2019

No sense sticking to jaded ard fheis formula when voters want change

Taoiseach Enda Kenny speaking at the Fine Gael ard fheis at the RDS in Dublin on Friday
Taoiseach Enda Kenny speaking at the Fine Gael ard fheis at the RDS in Dublin on Friday

Liz O'Donnell

I was never keen on party conferences or in the Irish context ard fheiseanna. The flushed faces and enthusiasm of delegates; the build- up of expectation to the televised leader's address, choreographed and timed to the second to climax on the RTE News at 9pm.

The whole thing is phoney and, in the main, dictated by public relations and party handlers. Everything spontaneous and passionate has been sacrificed for a pre-packaged presentation. Will any party change the script of these annual gigs?

Last weekend's Fine Gael Ard Fheis followed the same jaded formula. Seminars and plenary sessions on key topics during the day to showcase celebrity ministers and deputies, and maximising TV exposure of local and European election candidates.

The truth is that once an election is in the air nothing of any substance will be said for fear of alienating voters. The tyranny of the electorate is at play.

The women wear bright colours to stand out from the dull suits of male colleagues. Like poppies in a field, it works visually. But these days it is fashionable for the male leadership of parties to boast about the numbers of women candidates they will be fielding in the local elections in May. Not before time, measures have been introduced to get more women on the party ticket. They still have to slug it out and compete with their male colleagues for votes but at least they are in the race and not on the sidelines or abused as "sweepers", which was their lot for decades.

It is a fact that the percentage of women in the Dail has never exceeded 15.8pc, a pathetically low figure for a modern European democracy. As Joan Burton pointed out this week, only 14 women have been appointed to the Cabinet's 197 positions since the foundation of the State. When I was first elected in 1992, for example, I was one of 22 women out of 166 deputies; today there are just 26. So the figures are stubbornly low.

The surprising thing is that in a survey of female TDs carried out by journalist Mary Minihan in 2010, a majority were opposed to gender quotas. Lucinda Creighton originally opposed her party's gender quota proposals and senior Fianna Fail women did likewise, claiming that such measures patronised women and that people should be elected on merit not gender. Many of those women opposing quotas came from political dynasties.

But in the end the advocates for gender quotas won out. Greater participation of women was not happening by chance; special measures were needed to break the log-jam. This came in the form of long overdue legislation introduced by this Coalition. In fairness, the Labour Party in the UK and Ireland have long favoured gender quotas, culminating in the spectacular election of over 100 women to parliament in the first Blair government in 1997. They were memorably titled "Blair's Babes", a classic British piece of media misogyny.

Quotas have been proven to work particularly in the Scandinavian countries, where well over the critical mass of a third of women in parliament has been achieved. Politics has become feminised with noticeable changes to policy formulation and decision making in those countries. Nor are women corralled into 'women's issues' or so-called 'caring ministries' like education and childcare.

All issues are women's issues, from the economy to the environment and conflict resolution. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany effectively is the most powerful European leader in modern politics as demonstrated during the financial crisis and this week by her mediation between Russia and the US on the Crimean crisis.

Our country is in recovery and rehabilitation with many trusted institutions suffering reputational damage. There is little tolerance for baloney. There is a demand for ministers to be straight-talking and not populist. They don't want or expect the Taoiseach's ard fheis speech simply to genuflect to every vested interest and lobby group accompanied by the usual partisan swipe at the Opposition.

Why praise the Fianna Fail leader in the Dail for raising the dossier of claims of garda misconduct and yet a week later deride "anyone who plays politics with these issues" when rabble rousing party delegates at the ard fheis? It was either in the public interest to raise it or it was not. One cannot have it both ways when playing to different galleries.

Being consistent matters. Three years into term, this Coalition has done well, given the awesome challenges they inherited. But devoting a week of Dail time to trumpet their own achievements is ill-judged.

Trust in politics is at an all-time low; cynicism is rife. Voters are scanning the skies for genuine change, not the same old production in a glossy brochure, repackaged with women thrown in for colour.

Irish Independent

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