Geraldine Kennedy: Gender quotas alone will not ensure balance

Ireland ranks among countries such as North Korea for proportion of women in politics

Current and former female members of the Oireachtas in Leinster House. Photograph: Houses of the Oireachtas collection

People have long debated the reasons for the lack of women in Irish politics. This time, voters have a real choice to correct the gender imbalance, if they want to do so.

In 2011, Niamh Gallagher and Michelle O'Donnell-Keating set up Women for Election in 2011 to inspire, equip and mentor women to succeed in politics.

In Noel Whelan's recently published Tallyman's Campaign Handbook, they write that "Ireland has one of the worst records in the developed world on bringing women into politics".

The company Ireland keeps is questionable, ranking 86th out of 189 countries globally, alongside countries like Libya, Uzbekistan and North Korea.


In the European Union, Ireland ranks 24th out of the 28 EU states, even though Ireland recorded "the highest number ever" of women in the Dáil, taking 15 per cent of the seats.

This time, there are more women candidates standing in the 2016 general election than ever before in the history of the State – due largely, but not exclusively, to gender quotas.

The Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act, 2012 compels all political parties to field a minimum of 30 per cent women candidates for the first time in this election.

If they fail, they face the threat of losing half of their State funding.

The legislation, in fact, specifies that at least 30 per cent of candidates should be male and 30 per cent should be female.

Limit donations

This legal compulsion is serious for most parties given that the act also set out to limit political donations to agreed and transparent levels.

The donations politicians and political parties could receive were cut.

In Fianna Fáil’s case, it stood to lose up to €9 million if it did not comply with the new regime.

Most of the political parties and groupings, new or old, registered or unregistered, have complied to a greater or lesser extent with the gender quota.

There are 155 women candidates, more than ever before, standing in the 2016 general election out of a total of 506 declared to date.

The official closure of nominations will not happen until next Thursday, February 11th. There are 351 male candidates.

So, for the first time ever, the proportion of candidates breaks down 30.6 per cent women; 69.4 per cent men.

It is worth recording that 34 per cent of the candidates selected by the main eight political party groupings are women: 121 out of a total of 356.

Taking a closer look at the outcome of the selection conventions within parties is also an interesting exercise this time.

Fine Gael is fielding 88 candidates of which 27 are women (30.7 per cent) and 61 are men with 40 (out of 40) selection conventions completed;

Fianna Fáil is fielding 71 candidates of which 22 are women (31.4 per cent) and 49 are men with selection conventions completed;

Sinn Féin has selected 50 candidates of which 18 are women (36 per cent) and 32 are men with all conventions completed;

The Labour Party is running 36 candidates, less than the last election for reasons of political strategy, of which 13 are women (36.1 per cent) and 23 are men with all conventions completed;

The Green Party is fielding 40 candidates, of which 14 are women (35 per cent) are women and 26 are men with all conventions completed.


Renua Ireland is fielding 26 candidates of which 8 are women (30.17 per cent) and 18 are men with all conventions completed;

The Social Democrats are fielding 14 candidates of which six are women (42.9 per cent) and 8 are men.

The Anti Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit, following their amalgamation and registration as a political party on October 16th last, confirm that they are fielding 31 candidates of which 13 (41.9 per cent) are women and 18 are men.

A measure of the greater woman participation in this election campaign can be gleaned from the fact that 86 women (15.2 per cent) out of a total of 566 candidates contested the last general election in 2011.

Some 66 out of 351 candidates (18.8 per cent) selected by the political parties were women.

The breakdown was: Fine Gael 15.4 per cent, Labour 26.5 per cent, Fianna Fáil 14.7 per cent, Sinn Féin 19.5 per cent, Green Party 18.6 per cent, United Left Alliance 25 per cent and Independent/non-party 9.6 per cent.

A total of 25 women were elected in 2011, three more than in 2007 and 2002. It is the highest number of women ever elected in the history of the State.

And, the number has increased due to by-elections in the 31st Dáil. Helen McEntee won the byelection following her father, Shane McEntee's, death in Meath East; Ruth Coppinger replaced Patrick Nulty in Dublin West; Nicky McFadden, on her untimely death, was replaced by her sister, Gabrielle in Longford-Westmeath.

There are 27 women, the greatest number ever, in the outgoing Dáil.

Two of them, Olivia Mitchell (Fine Gael) and Sandra McLellan (Sinn Féin) are not seeking re-election. Ms Mitchell is retiring after a lengthy political career.


The woman gender quota is an unprecedented, if controversial, democratic experiment because, so far, the number of women selected or elected bears no relationship to the female proportion of the population.

The manner in which the parties dealt with the woman quota is also interesting.

Different parties did it in different ways, some causing great controversy, as in the unsuccessful challenge to the gender directive imposed by Fianna Fáil in the Dublin Central constituency.

By and large, the bigger parties went out of their way to try to avoid creating the phenomenon of “the quota woman” in this election.

The national executives of the main political parties reserve the right always to add candidates, male or female, on geographical, political experience and electability grounds.

When it comes to gender quota or gender directives, it appears that Fianna Fáil executed five; Fine Gael three; Labour none, and Sinn Féin one in Mayo, according to local reports.

But, it remains to be seen how voters will respond. They can’t say that they haven’t been given a choice in 2016.

Geraldine Kennedy is a former editor and political correspondent of The Irish Times and a former Progressive Democrats TD. Claire McGing is a lecturer in Political Geography in Maynooth University. She has undertaken major research on women's representation in politics.

Geraldine Kennedy

Geraldine Kennedy

Geraldine Kennedy was editor of The Irish Times from 2002 to 2011