In the halls of Leinster House, Constance Markievicz cuts a lonely figure as the only portrait of a female parliamentarian in the entire building.
When I pass her portrait, I often think this trailblazing woman would be horrified that the party she helped establish doesn’t have a single female TD today.
Electoral research shows once women get on the ballot paper they have the same chance of getting elected as their male counterparts. The problem is they don’t make it that far. While there are many reasons for this, the fact Irish politics is seen as “a job for the boys” plays a major part. Faced with constant images of our male-dominated parliament and government, is it any wonder most women never even consider that running for elected office is something they could do?
Other issues such as inadequate childcare provision, unsocial working hours and financial constraints also create barriers to greater female participation . But these are not unique to politics. They have also traditionally hindered female progression in the business world. However, smart companies such as Accenture recognised years ago that they had a problem with gender balance and have successfully addressed it.
Our political parties have long known a similar approach is needed to get more women into elected office. Such an approach was central to Fianna Fáil’s 2004 Gender Equality Action Plan.
It recommended extra supports, including training and mentoring, to encourage women to stand for election and help them to win.
If that plan had been implemented, I have no doubt Fianna Fáil would not have an all-male team in the Dáil. However, despite initial enthusiasm and promises of a brave new era for female participation, most of the 2004 plan was not delivered.
After the last election, there was much talk within Fianna Fáil about reform and renewal of our party. Greater female participation was to be a major part of that change.
Against this backdrop, the Taskforce to Improve Female Participation in Fianna Fáil , of which I was chair, developed a new action plan. We identified the 2014 local elections as a major opportunity for the party to improve our gender balance and set out a range of actions to achieve this.
To date, implementation of our plan has been patchy. The party has appointed a gender equality officer and provided training for some female candidates. We have also had considerable success in selecting strong female candidates to contest the local and European elections in Dublin. However, many other recommendations have not yet been delivered.
A group, tasked with receiving and supporting expressions of interest from potential female candidates, including female community leaders outside the party, was not set up in advance of party’s selection conventions.
The Women’s Conference, which was to bring female members together and encourage them to go forward as potential election candidates, was never held. And the Women’s Network, tasked with helping female candidates to build their canvass teams and raising money for their campaigns, was never established.
The implementation group, which was supposed to monitor the overall delivery of the plan and make sure every unit of the party is doing their part, was never put in place.
In light of this inaction, it is hardly surprising only 17 per cent of our local election candidates are female, far short of our target of 33 per cent. In Longford and Louth, we are not running a single female candidate in May’s elections. In five other counties, less than 10 per cent of our candidates are female. The really frustrating thing is that the party knew long before the local elections what needed to be done to prevent such an outcome, but didn’t do it.
Failing to get a single female TD elected in 2011 should have provided the impetus Fianna Fáil needed to finally take serious action to address its low rate of female participation. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to have been the case.