Why we need binding quotas for female election candidates

Opinion: Power’s article amounted to a scathing rebuke of her own party

‘The strategies suggested by Averil Power and her task force failed to work, it was because they were not even tried.  Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

‘The strategies suggested by Averil Power and her task force failed to work, it was because they were not even tried. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Sat, Apr 12, 2014, 00:01

Two weeks ago the researchers and producers behind Vincent Browne’s new monthly TV show The People’s Debate put more than 150 women into a studio for a special programme on gender issues. The debate was at times unwieldy – as is the presenter’s style – but the variety of articulate female voices was stunning.

The fact that so many diverse and knowledgeable women had been gathered in one TV studio was itself remarkable and put a lie to the suggestion oft made by programme makers that they can’t find female contributors on some topics.

Putting together an all-female programme like that required the TV3 researchers to think outside the box. They had to set aside their contact sheet of usual suspects and instead had to reach out to a more diverse range of organisations, publications and academic institution seeking new female voices.

Many of the new voices in studio also came forward following appeals by Browne on earlier programmes asking women to apply to be part of the special debate. Finding women for active political participation and to be election candidates is similarly difficult. It too requires innovative effort.

In my youth I was secretary of the Fianna Fáil national women’s committee. There was no women’s officer at party headquarters at the time, so as youth office I was also given the task of co-ordinating the internal party effort to improve female participation.

Heady days
Those were heady days. It was just after the 1992 election when a record-breaking 20 women won seats in Dáil Éireann. Mary Robinson had been elected president two years earlier. It was assumed that women’s representation in local and national government was on the verge of a large breakthrough.

Encouraging greater female participation in Fianna Fáil was hard work, as it is in all political parties. The task was to slowly change a party culture where women were often seen as great secretaries of cumainn or comhairles but seldom let become the chair. The idea was to inspire women to be active in politics by raising the profile of female members in all party activities, and not only in the sense of inserting a woman in a colourful suit into an otherwise all male photograph. The job required touring the country, setting up women groups in each constituency. It involved organising provincial conferences specifically for female members. It meant identifying and training female candidates for the 1994 local elections, shepherding them through male-dominated selection convention or seeking to persuade national officers to add them to local tickets.

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