Sunday 22 September 2019

With Kenny failing to keep his promises, it's the boys' club in charge again

Taoiseach Enda Kenny with, right to left, Frances Fitzgerald, Heather Humphreys, Katherine Zappone and Mary Mitchell O’Connor. Fitzgerald was the only woman visible during government formation talks. Photo: @merrionstreet
Taoiseach Enda Kenny with, right to left, Frances Fitzgerald, Heather Humphreys, Katherine Zappone and Mary Mitchell O’Connor. Fitzgerald was the only woman visible during government formation talks. Photo: @merrionstreet

Niamh Gallagher

So, we have a Government. It took just over two months to arrange ourselves and get used to this new way of doing things: old rivals coming together, political consensus as the holy grail and Independents ruling the roost.

 If that is the price of stability we'll take it - or the politicians will, rather that than go back to the polls. Now we can actually concentrate on what is going to happen: what will the new Programme for Government deliver? How will the Dáil and committees contribute in this new environment? What can we expect from the politicians we elected back in February? 

And what did this election throw up that others have not? The number of Independents is one thing we've been talking about from the outset - their power has become clear in recent weeks and seen them emerge as king-makers.

But what about the other big shift - the number of women who ran and got elected. This election provided an extraordinary opportunity for female candidates, and one they grabbed with both hands. Women made up an unprecedented 30pc of all candidates on our ballot papers earlier this year. Voters cast over two million votes - or 26pc of first preferences - for women, and a record 35 women were returned to the Dáil, despite a reduction in the number of seats and nine of the outgoing female TDs losing their seats. Now, 22pc of all elected representatives are female, the highest proportion ever.

And yet, after the initial celebrations and obligatory plinth photographs, we have seen far too few of these women since they got elected. Fianna Fáil put together an all-male negotiating team for its talks with Fine Gael, never mind the fact that women make up more than half of the population and are directly affected by the policy decisions that were on the table, or that the party returned six women from zero last time, surely something to celebrate. The Independent grouping managed to forget to invite the only two women among its number - Katherine Zappone and Maureen O'Sullivan - to a critical meeting on the vote for Taoiseach.

Frances Fitzgerald was the exception, visible throughout the negotiations and central to decision-making, as evidenced by her new role as Tánaiste. Josepha Madigan too, though a first-timer, was included as part of the Fine Gael team.

Overall, however, the sense since the election has been that we are back to business as usual: decisions are made by the boys, with the women outside the door.

This is deeply disappointing. Fine Gael was the lead party in a Government that proposed the gender quota for selection and ensured it was passed by the Oireachtas. Last year, Enda Kenny made much of his intention to have an even mix of women and men as ministers in his new Cabinet, were he to be Taoiseach again. He was, and the wealth of women elected this time around meant there were plenty of women to choose from across the spectrum of skills, experience and expertise. Yet at Cabinet, of the 15 ministers, just four are women - 26pc.

Add the additional two seats held by the Chief Whip and the Attorney General, both women, and that brings the number to six, or 40pc. It is an improvement, and a welcome one, but it is not what was promised.

We know Cabinet ministers cannot be plucked from oblivion, as is evidenced by the calibre and experience of the women who have made it to the Cabinet table.

Frances Fitzgerald takes on the important role of Tánaiste, a well merited position, having steered the Department of Justice through significant challenges during the last Dáil. Heather Humphreys returns with the extended brief of Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaeltacht, a wide-ranging portfolio with a new cross-Government element in Rural Affairs, in which her experience to date will serve her well.

Mary Mitchell O'Connor takes on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. A determined politician, this post is an elevation and a chance for her to prove herself in an important economic brief. Katherine Zappone brings her experience working on issues of educational disadvantage, community development and childcare to the role of Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, and will be a good fit.

To have more women at Cabinet level, we need to start at local level by encouraging and supporting female candidates from the very beginning, by identifying women and encouraging them to play active roles within party structures, then run for city or county council elections. Once elected locally, those same women should be supported in building their profile and experience so that, when the time comes, they are well placed to contest nationally, and win. If they make that leap to the Dáil - as many of those who were elected councillors for the first time in 2014 did this time around - they should be allocated roles of influence: on committees or as opposition spokespeople, a chance to prove themselves and learn the ropes. Then, as time progresses, the woman who started as a councillor - like many of the men we see in senior roles today - is well placed for a Cabinet position.

The Taoiseach has an opportunity to start this process now. He did not keep his promise to appoint a gender-balanced Cabinet, but he can build the pipeline to make it easier next time. Committee chairs and vice-chairs will be appointed in the coming days and weeks. These are roles with power and profile and are an important platform for future leaders. In the last Dáil, just 10pc of committee chairs were female, this time it should be 50pc. In the Seanad too, the Taoiseach can use his influence to place women in roles where they can have an impact. In 2011, more than 50pc of his nominees were female, a precedent that should be followed.

These moves, though seemingly smaller and less significant than the big Cabinet appointments, would send a clear message of intent and build on the momentum generated by the gender quota - and they would begin the process of ensuring women's voices are at the centre of policy and political decisions over the course of the next Dáil.

Irish Independent

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