More needed to tackle women's Dáil under-representation

 

OPINION:Only 91 women have been elected to the the Dáil, writes SUSAN McKAY

HALF OF the Irish people are women. Last week, an 85 per cent male Government produced a budget which will lead to the impoverishment of thousands of Irish women and children, and which imposed a crippling 35 per cent cut to State funding for the National Women’s Council of Ireland.

“Difficult decisions are never easy,” as our Taoiseach so memorably said in his pre-budget state-of-the-nation address. Indeed – but they are a hell of a lot easier to implement when the voices of those who might speak out against them are excluded, and the organisations which advocate for them disempowered.

Change, however, is coming. Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan yesterday published the Electoral Amendment Political Funding Bill 2011. This will require parties to ensure at least 30 per cent of the candidates they put forward for election are women. Failure to comply will lead to State funding being halved.

The National Women’s Council welcomes the Bill, and commends the Minister. We have been campaigning for such legislation for decades, following a long tradition going back to the Irish Suffrage Society in the 1870s.

Exactly 100 years ago in December 1911, a British government enacted a Bill allowing women in Ireland to stand for election to local authorities. Women over 30 got the vote in 1918 and full suffrage was introduced in 1928. Yet only 91 women have ever been elected to the Dáil.

The general election saw no women TDs elected in 21 of the 43 constituencies. This was not surprising. Just 15 per cent of Fine Gael candidates were women, compared with 26 per cent in Labour. The main parties ran no women in the majority of constituencies. The Dáil is 22nd out of 27 EU countries in terms of female representation, and 76th in the Inter-Parliamentary Union league table.

So will the legislation work? International evidence is encouraging, though it may take several elections to see change and 30 per cent is unambitious.

However, a huge amount of work must be done to get women who truly represent the diversity of Irish society involved in politics. Most TDs start out in local politics, where this legislation will not apply – just 17 per cent of councillors are women. The budget also saw swingeing cuts to the already-underfunded local women’s groups and networks in which many working-class women find their political voices.

Women earn less than men – and getting into politics is expensive. Women do most of the caring work in Irish society – we have abysmally low State support for childcare and the budget will see low-paid care workers lose jobs and the slack taken up by unpaid women at home.

Gender equality isn’t just good for women – it is good for society and for the economy. It will only work to bring about a fairer and more equal society, however, if deep gender inequalities which hold women back are tackled, and if women, once elected, take responsibilities to other women seriously. Those few currently in the citadel might start by protesting against the strong anti-equality aspects of the new Government’s first budget.


Susan McKay is chief executive of the National Women’s Council of Ireland which represents more than 160 women’s groups and organisations

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