The next election will be a game-changer for women
It was probably inevitable that it would end up in the courts. For the last year, there has been skin and hair flying at constituency level over the selection of candidates to be on the party ticket at the forthcoming election.
Skirmishes and skulduggery are par for the course at selection conventions. But this time a new ingredient has been added to the mix. For the first time the 'wimmin' are getting a leg-up by way of the 2012 gender quota legislation. To put it simply, parties are now required by law to ensure that 30pc of party candidates are women. If they fail to comply with this quota, they face a cut of 50pc to their state funding. The fear of losing out on funding has propelled parties to include women as candidates in the forthcoming election.
Some people aren't happy. Like it or not, more women means fewer men. And in some cases, male candidates who feel entitled and have sufficient support at conventions to be selected have had to be overlooked to make way for women in order to enable the party to comply with the gender quota. It may be unfair in individual cases, but it is the law and it is there for good reason.
For decades there has been debate about the merits or otherwise of gender quotas. All agreed in principle that there was a need for greater representation of women in politics. Yet despite good intentions, the voluntary system was not producing women on the ticket to contest elections. The figures for women TDs remained stubbornly low. Progress was glacial. Some affirmative action was required, even for a finite time, to allow women to break through the status quo, which saw female representation in politics here lower than in some third-world countries .
When I elected to the Dáil for the first time in 1992, I was one of 20 women out of a total of 166 TDs. And this was a high point in female representation. Frances Fitzgerald, now Minister for Justice, was elected for the first time at that election. She and I had previously served in the leadership of the Women's Political Association, a non-party organisation set up to encourage and support women to run for election.
The credo of our organisation was that our democracy was unfinished for as long as women were significantly absent from decision- and policy-making positions.
There was something fundamentally wrong and unrepresentative in a parliament and government dominated almost entirely by males, when women constituted over half the population.
Major decisions and policy were being formulated from a perspective which was primarily male. The female life experience, sensibility and priorities were being excluded - not deliberately, but by absence.
Some progress had been made in the 1980s under Garret FitzGerald, who encouraged a handful of Fine Gael liberal women to join and run for the party.
There were occasional widows and daughters of deceased TDs elected in by-elections. But in the main, there was a dead male weight in the Dáil. I recall going into the chamber when Mary Robinson was elected as the first woman President of Ireland in 1991 and was addressing the joint Houses of the Oireachtas.
Gay Mitchell, who was a fellow councillor on Dublin City Council, where I had been recently elected, got me a ticket into Leinster House. Looking down on the chamber from the visitors' gallery, I was struck by the sea of dark suits. A few splashes of colour signified the odd woman. Not much has changed in the last 25 years since that day. There are currently 27 women TDs (16pc). The Dáil has always been at least 84pc male.
The topic of female representation in politics was the subject of a report by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights in 2009, authored by Senator Ivana Bacik.
I was invited to give evidence, along with other former ministers Gemma Hussey and Niamh Breathnach. The committee found that the main reasons for the dearth of women in politics were the five 'Cs': childcare, cash, confidence, culture and candidate-selection procedures.
Mandatory positive action requiring parties to adopt gender quotas in their selection process was the main recommendation. It was stated to be the single most effective reform needed to encourage greater participation of women in politics. This would be a quota on parties, not the public. The quota would be the responsibility of the parties, to put forward women as well as men. The status quo meant that many constituencies had no women on the ticket. The change would give choice to the voter. Once on the ticket, women have to be duly elected by the people, based on their party policy and personal attributes.
There has always been opposition to positive action or quotas, whether it is in relation to race relations or women in politics. But sometimes equality of treatment has to be enforced in the public interest.
Opposition to gender quotas emanates not only from men; some women object to them, declaring that women should make it to the Dáil "on their own merit". Ironically, even elected women, notably from political dynasties, take this stance.
But those of us who came from the outside know the difficulties of breaking through to win a nomination, particularly in big parties. I was fortunate in that I joined a new and small party which had 'space' for me and indeed invited me in. But women in big established parties face direct and indirect obstacles to get on the ticket, given the influence of dominant males.
So the gender quotas are 'queering the pitch' in the body politic. Discomfort and upset in individual cases must be set against the unfairness of women's exclusion over many decades. An intervention was needed to address persistent under-representation.
The next election will be a game-changer and should see many more women TDs elected. As for the constitutional challenge, I expect the courts will be reluctant to encroach on the political territory of elections as determined by the Oireachtas, particularly when it comes to vindicating the long-delayed equality of opportunity for women in public life.