Women's place in politics


THERE CAN be no disputing the fact that women are inadequately represented at many levels within our society. Considerable progress has been made since the emergence of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960s and the involvement of other organisations, such as the National Women’s Council. But much remains to be done if equality between the sexes is to become a reality. How that can be achieved is often a matter of contention.

A report from the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice concerning the low level of representation by women in Irish politics has generated sharp divisions over what should be done. While recognising the imbalance in Dáil representation, a majority of female TDs opposed the proposal that a temporary gender quota be set by all political parties for the selection of candidates. They took the view that a quota system was too blunt an instrument, would devalue their achievement of being elected to the Dáil on the same basis as male members, and would dilute the equality that arises from all TDs holding an identical electoral mandate.

Susan McKay of the National Women’s Council does not agree. She favours a quota system because “the main political parties have ruthlessly discriminated against women since the foundation of the State”. That is true. For decades, a requirement for female civil servants to retire on marriage reflected that pervasive attitude. But a rigid quota system for female politicians may not be the answer. Other elements of the Oireachtas report, which propose the creation of a female-friendly environment; shorter working hours and a recruitment drive at local level could be more effective in the long run.

Reforms are beginning to affect the nature of Irish politics. It is a slow and sporadic process. Breaking the link between local councils and the Oireachtas has clarified the distinct nature of the two positions. But local issues continue to dominate the lives of TDs to an unhealthy extent and will do so until the Dáil sits for a normal, working, five-day week. Modification of our system of proportional representation, with the introduction of a limited list system, has also been mooted. That would bring sweeping change.

Politics in Ireland has traditionally been a male preserve. But family tradition can also have an impact. One in five successful Dáil members come from a political background, but more than one-in-three successful women do so. Party selection and general election systems, combined with a defensive attitude by sitting TDs, has given us 23 women Dáil deputies or 13 per cent of the total. That is one of the lowest figures for female representation in the developed world and reflects badly on this democracy.

Political parties have begun to formally recognise the strengths and abilities of women and to welcome them into their organisations. That is owed, in no small way, to contributions made by Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese. The level of female representation in the Dáil is double what it was 30 years ago. To the discredit of the political system, however, it remains inadequate.