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Medb Ruane: What about gender, Enda -- and the rest of you Dail dinosaurs?

The gene pool of Irish politics was rarely as limited as on Valentine's Day, when the five party leaders debated on RTÉ. All men, all from a Roman Catholic background, all eager to diagnose the country's woes.

How, I wondered, can people cut from the same cloth tackle the depth of change and innovation needed to turn the country round? So I decided to look for an indicator outside of what they say about fiscal and economic policies, something that measures their capacity to take on new ideas and reform the system in response.

Yes, let's talk about gender. It's past time -- and it's not new. It's a good stress test for other areas because they've had years to make reform.

The focus in Election 2011 is so fixed on the economy that gender, like age and social class, has been overlooked. This masks a downward trend which sees a lesser proportion of female candidates standing next Friday than for years -- only 86 women out of a total of 566 candidates. Voters in four constituencies will face an all-male ballot paper while, overall, there are 15 females for every 100 males.

Women candidates look unusual because there are so few. They don't fit the standard image, which makes it harder to be selected or elected. Go no further than Bertie Ahern's constituency to see how dysfunctionally this culture works. On the male side, we meet Cyprian Brady, Ahern's constituency secretary, who won his Dáil seat in 2007 with only 939 first preferences and a huge whoosh of transfers from Ahern. On the female side, we greet Mary Fitzpatrick, a popular local councillor, who woke up on election morning 2007 to hear that the Taoiseach had urged voters to give him a Number One and Brady a Number Two. She outpolled Brady on first preferences but didn't get elected because of Himself.

Gender imbalance worsened during Ahern's three terms, not that it was good before. Two successive female Presidents symbolised an improvement that didn't happen in fact. Mary Harney's appointment as the first female Tánaiste gave the illusion that women had finally made it, when in fact the numerical situation in Cabinet was almost as bad as in the first Dáil, where at least they'd the excuse that women had only recently won the vote.

The second female Tánaiste arguably worsened the situation. If you discussed gender quotas or talked about getting more women into politics, you'd be challenged with silly questions such as "Why vote for a woman just because she's a woman?" (I don't) or, pointedly, "Would you vote for Mary Coughlan?" I'm afraid that's a 'no' too.

The issue isn't about voting for a woman as such, then. I can imagine no circumstances in which I'd tick a box against the names Sarah Palin, Theresa May, Beverly Cooper Flynn. I would simply like a balanced choice -- and that's not available. I would like to respect and loathe female politicians in exactly the same way as the rest.

Then came TD Olwyn Enright's resignation for family reasons. By this stage, a joint Oireachtas report had identified five Cs that discouraged women from entering and staying in national politics -- cash, culture, confidence, childcare and candidate selection. But no one did a darn thing to change 'em.

I've become converted to gender quotas, for both sexes, as a result. Challenges are hot and heavy there too. "Are you saying that politicians shouldn't be elected on merit?" Yes, the recent Dáil was certainly a shining example of how merit rewards itself.

Women TDs who don't support gender quotas gall me because I hear their claims about how they've got there (even when they're from dynastic networks) as extremely egotistic. "Look how special I am," it sounds to me. I imagine them kicking the ladder out from under everyone else.

My question is: how can the leaders and their parties change Ireland's position in the world if they can't change themselves? How can they reform the system in any real way when they've failed on this long-term issue?

Kenny, Gilmore , Martin, Gormley and Adams have welcomed women from the teeth out but none has shown leadership. Prof Kathleen Lynch of UCD pointed out this week on TV3 that her survey of political party websites found that women were hardly mentioned: and the bigger the party, the less female profile. Dr Claire McGing's study last year showed that if you divide the country anatomically "at present just under 50% of Irish women have no female TD to represent them, whereas 100pc of men have a male TD to represent them."

Democracy isn't about anatomy but it does involve creating an assembly that bears some resemblance to society outside, with experience of its slings and fortunes. Women representatives may be as likely to do the right thing, or not, as their male peers once they reach critical mass.

But getting there is the first step and the auguries aren't favourable. Even the much-heralded Democracy Now was notable for its surprisingly conservative approach to gender, going on the basis of the people they approached.

You may be thinking 'she's off again', as Joe Higgins observed snidely to Vincent Browne when he encountered his constituency opponent Joan Burton. But Ireland currently occupies 104th position in the world gender politics rating, an independent, empirically- measured stress test. I'd prefer to see Ireland in the Top 10 on every global ranking, other than poverty. It's a pity the system won't give me the chance.

Indo Review