Will Burton get her wish of a gender-balanced Cabinet?

Analysis: Redressing balance now in the gift of the Labour leader

Joan Burton (centre) after her election as leader of the Labour Party in Dublin’s Mansion House. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times.

Joan Burton (centre) after her election as leader of the Labour Party in Dublin’s Mansion House. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times.


Tánaiste Joan Burton has rarely discussed her disappointment at being named Minister for Social Protection in 2011 when she wanted, and had been widely tipped, to get an economic ministry.

Labour’s newest leader dropped her guard a little “amongst women” on International Women’s Day back in 2012, however, when she suggested achieving a 50-50 gender balanced Cabinet was her real goal.

“People have speculated that I might have had a little disappointment this time last year, but actually my real disappointment on joining the Cabinet was that it wasn’t a Cabinet of 50-50,” she said.

Of the 17 people who usually sit around the Cabinet table, the number of woman can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Ms Burton, Fine Gael Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, the “super junior” Minister of State for housing Jan O’Sullivan of Labour and the first woman Attorney General Máire Whelan (also a Labour appointment) attend.

The appointment of more women is finally in Ms Burton’s gift. My sense is that she will want to promote women on merit without making a song and dance about it, leaving it up to political commentators to draw their own conclusions about her choices.

She could bring three new faces into Cabinet, including her deputy Alan Kelly. Minister of State for mental health Kathleen Lynch is widely regarded as deserving promotion from the junior ministerial ranks.

Ms O’Sullivan has been working away quietly but conscientiously below the radar on housing and planning.

The Kilkenny TD Ann Phelan, who proposed Ms Burton for the leadership and was pictured raising her arm aloft when victory was declared, could be in the running for a Minister of State position.

But would it be enough for a leader who has indicated she is so ambitious for women to succeed?

The plain fact is that the current crop of Labour Party TDs is male-dominated.

(Waterford TD Ciara Conway may have put herself out of the running with her pledge not to accept a ministerial position if elected deputy leader. She came fourth of four candidates in that contest.)

Of course, improving the Coalition Cabinet’s gender balance should not be solely the responsibilty of the Labour Party leader.

Fine Gael has not traditionally appeared to prioritise gender balance as an issue. When the party launched its manifesto in 2011 with six men on the platform, my colleague Kathy Sheridan branded it “the Macho Party”.

There are suggestions that Taoiseach Enda Kenny has taken subsequently taken the issue on board and that this will be reflected in his selection of Cabinet and junior ministerial personnel.

Meath deputy Regina Doherty is among the female names tipped for elevation later this week.

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