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We need more women in politics, but quotas are not the answer

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Constance Markievicz, the first woman elected to the House of Commons (Sinn Féin)

Constance Markievicz, the first woman elected to the House of Commons (Sinn Féin)

Constance Markievicz, the first woman elected to the House of Commons (Sinn Féin)

The ballot papers were barely counted this week when newly crowned UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn found himself at the centre of a "petticoat power" controversy.

The maverick left-wing politician had no time to revel in his stunning leadership election victory, but instead found himself in female hot water for not appointing women to his top shadow cabinet posts.

Party MP Diana Johnson even took to Twitter to chastise her new leader for "old-fashioned male- dominated Labour politics". Not a great start for Jeremy.

With a general election around the corner here in Ireland, petticoat power is also very much in focus, with the issue of women in politics exercising all political parties.

This will be the first general election in which gender quotas will apply by law. Under the Electoral Amendment Political Funding Act, political parties have to run a minimum of 30pc women candidates or risk a significant funding cut. That quota will rise to 40pc in seven years' time.

Most selection conventions have at this stage taken place and parties are doing well in meeting the female candidate quota rule. Labour has approximately 44pc women candidates selected, Sinn Féin 38pc, and Fine Gael 31pc.

A glaring exception, however, is Fianna Fáil, which currently has no female party members in the Dáil. It is under serious pressure, with just 22pc of female candidates selected to date - though the party is insisting it will reach its target.

This poor showing is despite the fact the party last year established a women's Dáil candidate recruitment group, the "Markievicz Commission", named after the iconic 1916 revolutionary leader.

Indeed, Fianna Fáil women candidates will be put through their paces at an election "bootcamp" next month, one element of the party's roll-out of activities arising from the Markievicz Commission Report. It's not your typical bootcamp with physical endurance courses, but rather workshops on the skills required to win political campaigns.

How patronising is that? To gather all the lady candidates together for special instruction on how to succeed in an election campaign. Equality how are you - this immediately divides them from the boys. The fact is, gender quotas are condescending. They don't get anyone elected. They will not change the culture. They are discriminatory, as candidates are ruled out on grounds of gender. They also give party headquarters more control over candidate selection.

Quotas mean there is a huge danger that candidates will be run on the basis of gender and not their ability to do a good job.

I think they are an insult to the female politicians who have made it to the top through sheer ability, talent and hard work and not through any concession from quotas or male colleagues.

I fully agree with Labour Party TD, Joanne Tuffy, who was not popular with her female Dáil colleagues when she penned an opinion piece a few years ago arguing that gender quotas are in fact anti-democratic, as they impose candidates and therefore bypass the voter's right to decide.

Women, just like men, should be chosen on the basis of their qualities, their policies and their ability to serve constituents.

Some who argue for quotas claim that women don't win selection conventions. Where is the evidence for this? Deirdre Heney won the Fianna Fáil selection convention in Dublin Bay North recently, surprisingly beating former TD Sean Haughey in the process.

Mind you, that did not stop the party leadership imposing the beaten Haughey anyway, controversially adding him to the ticket last week. So much for gender quotas in this instance. Haughey will probably get elected.

Heney hit out strongly at this decision and did the predictable female moan in an ill-judged RTÉ Radio interview, grumbling that the "old boys' brigade is alive and kicking".

Instead of using the airtime to tell people of her policies and how she would instigate change if elected, she bleated on, claiming friendship with Fianna Fáil party leader Micheál Martin was the reason Haughey was added. It was cringe-making listening.

If we genuinely want to attract more women into political life, token gestures like gender quotas are not the answer. We need to address the barriers that prevent women going forward for selection in the first place. One of the biggest barriers is childcare, which is wrongly regarded as a woman's issue. It is a male issue also and equality in relation to parental leave would be a start.

There are other steps that can be taken to increase the numbers of women in politics. Serious effort should be made to encourage fuller participation by all citizens in politics. Through this, more women will become active in parties at grassroots level, and then more women candidates would emerge over time. In all this talk of petticoat politics, let's not forget the great female talent we have in Irish political life. Our Tánaiste is a woman and leader of her party. The Attorney General is a woman. Women hold two of the top positions in our Justice system - Frances Fitzgerald is an extremely able Justice Minister and Nóirín O'Sullivan is the Garda Commissioner.

And we can go way back in our history to be reminded of inspirational women in politics, including Constance Markievicz herself, Fianna Fáil's figurehead for its current female candidate drive.

Her portrait hangs in Leinster House, serving as a reminder that powerful and intelligent women influenced the development of the Irish State. And let's not forget women are still there, influencing and playing an important role today.

Irish Independent