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Liz O’Donnell: Gender quotas are justified – women will still have to compete for votes and the electorate still makes its choice

The one-time Progressive Democrats politician on why the Irish General Election will be a game-changer for women in politics - but that doesn't mean some big names are safe...

by Liz O'Donnell | February 17, 2016

In an Irish General Election which is increasingly difficult to call, one thing is sure: it will be a game changer for women’s participation in national politics.

The figures for women elected to the Dail have been abysmal since the foundation of the State. The outgoing Dail had 27 women TDs. The dearth of women elected to each Dail has long been a concern, particularly when viewed in the context of women excelling in some professions like the law, medicine and academia.

In a properly-functioning democracy women should be participating in decision and policy-making which affects all our citizens. And it is not about so-called “women’s issues”. All issues are women’s issues, ranging from the economy, education, diplomacy and international affairs.

So why have women been so absent from the corridors of power even as Ireland modernised and became otherwise more equal?

The reason is quite simple. Politics is about the exercise of power. More women means fewer men. There is a finite number of seats in the Dail and, ultimately, where power is exercised in Cabinet. Although parties have paid lip service to women’s participation, the facts don’t lie. When I was elected to the Dail in 1992 there were 20 women. When I left 15 years later there were 25 in a Dail of 167. Women were advancing at snail’s pace. So some intervention was needed to make space for women.

Gender quotas are always controversial

The Government legislated in 2012 for a gender quota. Parties would lose their State funding if they did not ensure that at least a third of their General Election candidates were female. Gender quotas are always controversial in business and politics. Some women feel insulted by the notion of being a token candidate rather than being selected on merit. Some men object to them because they dislike to making way for a woman on gender grounds. And, to be fair, a quota is a blunt instrument but when set against decades of women being excluded from selection by parties, it can be justified as a legitimate short-term instrument of political reform.

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Women will still have to compete for votes. The electorate still makes its choice. The difference is that at last women will be on the ticket; voters will have a choice to vote for a woman. Candidate selection was identified as the number one obstacle facing aspiring female TDs. Too often they were just overlooked or used as “sweepers” for male colleagues, their votes transferring to the dominant male on the ticket. This time, a record 163 women are contesting the Irish General Election; it remains to be seen whether a critical mass of women will make it.

Joan Burton could lose her seat

Of course even high-profile women can lose their seats. Talk of Joan Burton losing out is not far-fetched given her constituency competition. Jan O’Sullivan too is not a shoo-in despite her status as Education Minister. Labour is in for a mugging if they remain stuck in single figures in the polls. And that will impact on all their candidates, regardless of gender. Mary Hanafin of Fianna Fáil commands loyal support in Dun Laoghaire and could make a comeback.

Lucinda Creighton, who performed well in the leaders’ debate on RTE, should be safe but that is down to personal appeal not her Renua party. The feisty women Independents such as Clare Daly and Social Democrat deputies Roisin Shortall and Catherine Murphy deserve to be re-elected for pure hard work.

In other European democracies where women make up over 30% or even 50% of parliamentarians, political life and policies are visibly changed. If elected, women have to prove themselves up to the task. It’s a tough world; not for the fainthearted and it has evolved to suit men with supportive wives. But some of our most able politicians have been women, assuming leadership in their respective parties and senior cabinet posts.

So despite all the brouhaha and a legal challenge, the quota will at last break the logjam in the system for women.

Liz O’Donnell is a former Progressive Democrats politician, who represented Dublin South as a TD from 1992 to 2007.

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