McDowell case lacks substance
Sir -- Surprise, surprise. Former PD leader Michael McDowell believes that a proposed gender quota law is unconstitutional. As one of the very few elected women politicians in Ireland, I read his article (Sunday Independent, November 20, 2011), with interest. As always, he argues his ideological position with energy -- but without substance. He suggests that Eamon Gilmore has promised to publish a bill designed to encourage political parties to nominate women candidates. In fact, Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan has, in line with commitments in the Programme for Government, already published the heads of a bill the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill 2011, which will make particular funding levels for political parties contingent on the party achieving a certain minimum percentage (30 per cent) of candidates of each gender in the next General Election. This is an entirely modest and reasonable proposal, similar to legislation introduced in over 100 countries internationally. Experience has shown that without some sort of temporary positive action measure like this, the level of women's representation in politics will not improve. Ireland is no exception. The Dail has always been at least 85 per cent male -- we rank at 79th place in the international listings of women's parliamentary representation, well below the EU average. We have never improved that position -- in fact our ranking has fallen nearly 40 places since 1990. Clearly, some positive steps need to be taken to address the unrepresentative nature of our parliament. In 2009, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice adopted a report I had written which found that this sort of law is one vital measure to ensure greater choice for voters and ultimately greater equality of representation.
Michael McDowell fails to cite any substantive constitutional ground on which this law could be challenged, suggesting only that it might breach the freedom of association. However, this right is very restrictively framed in the Constitution, which specifies that laws may be enacted for the regulation and control in the public interest of its exercise. In other words, even if the legislation were to be challenged, a very strong defence of its adoption in the public interest could be made, based on the facts.
Further, as Mr McDowell himself acknowledges, there is no reference to the 'political party' as an institution in the Constitution.