Gender quotas end up perverting democratic choice


The numbers of women in politics may be advanced by quotas but the result is always unfair and demeaning, writes SARAH CAREY

I’M AGAINST gender quotas for all sorts of reasons, but one is the unholy mess that can result when good intentions translate into practicalities. We know this because gender quotas already operate in Ireland and they are cursed wherever they apply.

The system for putting county councillors on to vocational education committees is a classic example of well-meaning legislation going horribly wrong when applied to real life. VECs are composed of nominees from various relevant bodies such as the county councils and the education sector.

A rule was introduced that women had to be nominated to a VEC in the same proportion as they were elected to a council. If 30 per cent of the county council was female and the council could put three people on the VEC, one of them had to be a woman. Unfortunately, someone should have inserted the term “at least” into the legislation.

In several counties, including Meath, Cavan, Kilkenny and Limerick, “too many” women were put on the VECs. For example, in Meath, one-third of the members elected were female but more than one-third of the nominees to the VEC were female. A farcical situation ensued when particularly qualified female councillors had to step down to allow token men take their place so the proportions could be maintained.

It wasn’t just petty bureaucracy. If men weren’t nominated, the committee wouldn’t be legally constituted and any decision it took could be challenged in the courts.

Another unforeseen conflict emerged in Kildare concerning nomination of members to something called “Cill Dara ar Aghaidh Teoranta” (It’s some sort of enterprise quango). The Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs that controls this body can reduce its funding unless 30 per cent of the members are women. Kildare County Council can only make three nominations so one has to be a woman.

Several women did run for election but only three were elected, none of whom were members of Fine Gael or Labour who in a local coalition controlled the council. As with Dáil committees, it’s not a winner-take-all system and nominations to coveted committees are divided between “government” and opposition. In this case, it meant that one of the three positions would go to an opposition candidate.

The FF-Independent group held all the women and consequently all the cards. They rather cleverly insisted on putting forward Cllr Seamie Moore as their man on the quango. The strategy meant that the “government” side of Fine Gael and Labour would be legally forced into nominating one of the women councillors even though they were all members of the opposition.

As Fine Gael councillor Tony O’Donnell complained at the time, the Fine Gael-Labour coalition had secured a mandate to enact their policies – not to appoint members of Fianna Fáil to positions of responsibility.

As he later observed on his blog: “We hold free and fair elections in Ireland, where men and women can put their names forward, and men and women get to make their selections. This is a fundamental truth at the heart of republican democracy. My mandate is no less valuable because I am a man, and no legislation should seek to frustrate my ability to represent my constituents on grounds as arbitrary as gender.”

You can’t really argue with that, can you?

Well you can, and you’d say that Fine Gael and Labour should have run more female candidates so they’d have a few to stick on committees and fulfil the quota obligations. But you can see how imposing quotas at conventions would result in precisely the same sort of rows.

Let’s say 40 per cent of each party’s nominees have to be female. How on earth would you regulate that? From local to national conventions there’d be one row after another as popular and well-qualified men were forced to stand down to let despised “quota” women take their place.

Some conventions could run early and get their male candidates on the list first, leaving other constituencies forced to run all female candidates even if they have male incumbents. Seats could be lost and quite conceivably governments formed because the democratic will of the party members and voters was thwarted by clumsy percentages.

By any stretch of the imagination I don’t see how this is a “more” democratic system. It’s the opposite – it’s a perversion of the system.

You might get more women in politics, but you’d also have everyone of sound mind cursing the system and ergo, the women. Now, what woman wants to succeed on this basis? Certainly none that I’d have any respect for.

The imposition of quotas ignores two other factors. One is that in the absence of any regulations, party political organisers already know that a women on the ticket is a huge boost and constantly scramble to enlist them.

The election of Neasa Childers to the European Parliament was a classic example of gender politics. As one analyst said at the time, this candidate emerged from nowhere and with no profile managed to get elected through a combination of “right party, right gender, right time”.

She was a presentable face on a poster and a vaguely recognisable surname. “Noel” Childers wouldn’t have had a chance.

However, despite the efforts of the backroom boys, women are reluctant to run for office. I’m frequently asked if I’ll run but I always say “No”. I’ll explain why next week.

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