Wednesday 11 December 2019

We have fewer women in parliament than some parts of sub-Saharan Africa: this has to change

Rumour has it Ivana Bacik could be parachuted into the Cabinet by Joan Burton. Photo: El Keegan
Rumour has it Ivana Bacik could be parachuted into the Cabinet by Joan Burton. Photo: El Keegan

Dearbhail MacDonald

The rumour mill is in overdrive that Labour senator Ivana Bacik will be 'parachuted' from the Seanad to a comfy seat at the Cabinet table by her new party leader, Joan Burton.

The nomination of a member of the Seanad with no mandate from the electorate to serve in the Dail has been greeted with the type of horror, hysteria and trolling on social media that, happily, you don't see replicated in the offline world too often.

It would certainly be a radical move if the Government promoted the barrister and former Reid Professor of Criminal Law at Trinity College Dublin to its ranks.

But it would not be unprecedented.

Jim Dooge, the climate change pioneer who died four years ago, was promoted in 1981 by then Taoiseach FitzGerald as Minister for Foreign Affairs to that short-lived, little loved Fine Gael-led government.

The howls of a lack of a democratic mandate rings hollow, for me, in an electoral system that treats backbenchers as automatons or sheep and cedes political influence away from the Oireachtas to an entirely unelected elite of advisers and external overlords.

The promotion of Ms Bacik (declaration of interest, I'm a former pupil), would see the appointment of a competent, articulate legislator to the inner sanctum of the State's decision-making processes, such as they are. It would also address the chronic lack of women at the heart of Government and in political life generally.

It is an inescapable fact that it is Tanaiste Joan Burton and not Taoiseach Enda Kenny, that is pushing for more inclusion of women in the long-awaited Cabinet reshuffle.

As well as Ms Bacik, front-runners for elevation include Labour junior minister Kathleen Lynch.

But it is notable that no sisters are being seriously touted from the Fine Gael camp for senior ministerial office.

The Taoiseach admittedly relies heavily on Senior Counsel Maire Whelan, the country's first female Attorney General, herself a member of Cabinet in part due to her Labour party heritage.

Former children's minister Frances Fitzgerald has recently been promoted to the Cabinet, but only after the departure of Justice Minister Alan Shatter who – for all his faults – was arguably the greatest feminist in this Government.

Countess Markievicz broke the mould in 1918 when she became the first woman to be elected to Dail Eireann.

But in the near century since the Republican was appointed minister for labour, the representation of women in politics – despite the dramatic social transformation in Irish society – has never reached a critical mass. Or even got close to it: the last General Election saw only 25 female TDs elected to the Dail.

There are few topics that divide women (and men) more than issues such as pregnancy, childcare, glass ceilings and our lack of representation in public and commercial life – despite constituting 50pc of the population.

My bookshelves at home groan under the weight of conflicting messages about how I should lean in, man up, learn to play golf, 'be a B.I.T.C.H' (being in total control of herself), opt out and whatever else you're having.

And it is almost next to impossible to address how to resolve the impasse in a country such as Ireland that has fewer women in parliament than parts of sub Saharan Africa.

But address it we must.

It goes without saying that any person, male or female, should be elevated to high political office on merit.

That is non negotiable – and any woman worth her salt will tell you tokenism is the enemy of female progress.

But after that, do we need radical measures to increase the participation of women?

The scales of justice should, in my view, be tipped heavily in favour of positive discrimination in favour of women and other minorities – imagine, 50pc of the population are a political minority – whose voices are not heard in our society.

Ten years ago, I would have baulked at the notion of quotas for women in politics.

Now I see them as a necessary if temporary stop-gap – say, compulsory for three or four electoral cycles – to embed a culture that is truly supportive of our contribution in politics and public life.

Diane Abbott, the former British Labour MP – and the first black woman elected to the House of Commons – had a theory about women in politics.

Maybe, she once mused, it is because politics is so important, that it is the last arena men are prepared to give up.

I tend to agree and that is why sincere leadership from the Taoiseach is vital to ensure that he is head of a Government that truly represents all of its people.

Dearbhail McDonald is associate editor and a committee member of Women on Air, the voluntary network that helps women gain the skills and confidence to go on radio and television.

Irish Independent

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