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


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.

Mary Wallace, then a TD for Meath, ably chaired the Fianna Fáil women’s committee and developed a strategy the ultimate objective of which was to render all of the party’s internal women-only groupings unnecessary within five years by mainstreaming greater levels of female involvement. The Wallace strategy generated some buzz and brought to the fore a number of impressive female activists, many of whom went on to be councillors, Senators or TDs. Overall, however, the improvement in female participation was marginal and the targeted efforts to enhance it further were not sustained.

I was interested, therefore, last year when a party task group chaired by Senator Averil Power published another strategy plan which again identified useful internal mechanisms to maximise the number of female candidates in this year’s local election. Her plan set a target that a third of Fianna Fáil candidates in the local elections would be female. The party failed to achieve this target, however – barely reaching half of it. The reason wasn’t because the strategies suggested by Power and her task force failed to work, it was because they were not even tried.

This month Power wrote an article on this page which amounted to a scathing rebuke of her own party. A co-ordination group she suggested be established to approach women inside and out of the party to run in the local elections was never even set up. A women’s conference designed to bring female member together to encourage putting themselves forward wasn’t held. A new internal support network was never established.

While Fianna Fáil’s failure in this respect is the most prominent, especially with that party’s self-professed need for renewal, none of the political parties should be patting themselves on the back. The candidate line-up for the local elections in six weeks is again a stark indictment of our male-dominated political system. Some 314 female candidates contested the city and county elections in 2009, 17 per cent of all candidates. Only 404 of the 1,774 candidates declared for next month’s local elections are female, a derisory 23 per cent.

Twenty years ago a small minority on Wallace’s Fianna Fáil women’s group argued for quotas for female candidates to be written into party rules. My own view was that quotes should be introduced only as a last resort. Now more than two decades later it is clear we are at the point of last resort. Parties need to impose binding quotas, not just targets for female candidate selection.

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