Women's limited role in politics highlights defective system

 

Parties must address lack of significant female representation in parliament, writes GARRET FITZGERALD

THE RECENT announcement by two women TDs that they would withdraw from politics at the next election has led to renewed discussion of the very limited role that women play in Irish politics.

Between 1977 and 1992, the percentage of Dáil seats held by women increased at a snail’s pace from 5 per cent to 12 per cent. In the past 15 years, this “progress” has virtually halted – the number of women TDs increasing by only two, from 20 to 22. This was only partially compensated by a doubling in the number of women Senators from 5 to 11 – 18 per cent of the Seanad’s membership.

The first phase of this very slow process took place in 1981 and 1982. Since the end of the 1960s, a vibrant women’s movement had considerable success in raising awareness about the lack of female involvement in politics and policy-making. A number of the movement’s leaders had became prominent public figures, but there was reluctance on their part to get involved with politics.

Thus in the mid-1970s, during a Late Late Showdedicated to the women’s movement, their main spokeswoman, Mary Kenny, warned against engagement with party politics. The absurdity of this stance, when the only way change can be effected is through the political system, prompted me to drive at once to RTÉ and walk into the studio, to the fury of the 20 women there, who had been assured by Gay Byrne that they would have the programme to themselves. Understandably but quite unfairly, they assumed he was responsible for me turning up!

But the message resonated and several years later, when I became leader of Fine Gael, a number of the movement’s leaders accepted my offer to provide a vehicle for some of their members to enter the system.

In 1981, with the aid of an enthusiastically pro-feminist Fine Gael party organiser, Peter Prendergast, a dozen women were elected to the Oireachtas on the Fine Gael ticket, and within 18 months there were nine in the Dáil and five in the Seanad, as well as one in the cabinet, and another a junior minister.

In 1987, the foundation of the Progressive Democrats, between one-third and one-half of whose TDs were always women, further boosted the process, followed a decade later by Fianna Fáil, who since then have had a dozen women in their Oireachtas party.

In 2002, the Labour Party, which until then had never had more than three women in its parliamentary party, increased that figure to the point where seven of their Dáil party, or just one-third, have since been women. So, with 22 women TDs today, supplemented by 11 women Senators, there has been some progress. But it is desperately slow progress, which has effectively halted since 1992. This is partly because in its 2002 meltdown, Fine Gael lost about three-quarters of its women Oireachtas members, which had the effect of offsetting the increase in Labour’s female parliamentary party membership.

Why has the increase in women politicians been so slow?

Many other democracies overcome this problem through list systems, which enable their political parties to boost female membership by placing women candidates high on their lists.

But unless and until we reform our electoral system to introduce some element of a list system, this route to a gender-balanced parliament is not open to us.

Instead, if our parties wish to promote the role of women in politics, they have to push female candidates through constituency election conventions, or intervene to add their names to those selected at these meetings. This would often have to be done in the face of strenuous local resistance.

I know from experience how difficult this can be, and how much will depend on a combination of strong commitments to increase the number of women politicians in parliament and exceptional skill in defusing local opposition. It is striking that so little has been done to create conditions in Leinster House that would be more conducive to women politicians.

An obstacle used to be the “dual mandate”, which for many TDs involved dual membership of the Oireachtas and local councils. The removal of this dual role should have cleared the way for the Oireachtas to meet from Monday to Friday during normal working hours.

But five-eighths of Oireachtas members live beyond commuting distance to Dublin and prefer to confine parliamentary attendance to between 2.30pm on Tuesday and 5pm on Thursday. This enables them to work for re-election in their constituency from Friday to Monday. But this short stay in Dublin necessitates night sittings until 8.30pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

This does not suit many women, especially those with children. At present, almost three-fifths of all women Oireachtas members live within commuting distance of Leinster House but under one-third of their male counterparts do.

Thus, on this key issue, the interests of most female and male representatives diverge, and the disparity of almost five to one between their numbers makes it difficult to effect a change in the way the Oireachtas works. It is important to remove all obstacles to increased participation by women in the Oireachtas.

My experience of the influx of women to the Fine Gael party in 1981 and 1982 was entirely positive. They brought to their work new talents which greatly improved the quality of policy-making and legislation.

Our party system, lacking significant female input, is bound to be incomplete and defective. I hope a new impetus to tackling this issue can emerge in all our political parties.

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