Tackling the normalisation of sexism in Irish political culture

Recent positive legislative change will hopefully encourage more Irish women into political life, but the laddish, sexist political culture which remains in the Dail must change if gender parity is to be fully achieved, argues Louise Hogan.

Louise Hogan
2 September 2013

The recent parliamentary debate on the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act illuminated the sexism which is rife in Irish politics in a number of ways. First, there was the exhaustingly extensive debate itself. The Act ensures the provision of a termination if the life of a pregnant woman is in danger. A law which ensures half the population's right to life saving healthcare should not be a controversial issue. But in Ireland, where the Constitution gives equal regard to the life of the unborn, it is. TD (Teachta Dala- Irish for MP) after TD stood to voice their opinion on the Act in sharp contrast to the usual, half empty parliamentary chambers. As the debate dragged on until 5am, the Dail (Parliament) bar remained open, serving alcohol and an incident which the Twitterati quickly dubbed 'lapgate' occurred. A male TD, Tom Barry, was seen to pull a female colleague, Aine Collins, onto his lap in the Dail Chambers and hold her there for a few seconds before releasing her with what appears to be a little pat on the behind.

Collins did not appear threatened, but this boorish behaviour, initially dismissed by a Fine Gael spokesperson as 'harmless horseplay' says a lot about Irish political culture.  A week later in an angry tirade in the Seanad, Senator David Norris accused TD Regina Doherty of 'speaking out of her fanny'- a vulgar slang term for vagina. The use of condescending, sexist language in the Upper House and the completely inappropriate behaviour in the Lower House demonstrates the normalisation of sexism in Irish political culture. 

Such innate sexism contributes to a wider political climate which deters women from seeking decision making positions. This is a serious problem for Irish society. Having more women in politics is not a question of appearing to be equal; it is the clearest way to ensure the rights and needs of women are given equal weight in Irish public policy. The 2012 national budget was dubbed 'anti-women' by opposition parties, as it seemed to hit women disproportionately hard with taxes introduced for maternity benefits and cutbacks to child allowance benefits and back to school provisions.

The lack of women in Irish politics is not merely an academic argument. With vital women's services such as domestic violence shelters facing closure  across the country despite a huge demand for such provisions, there is a real need for more women in Irish politics now, to ensure the rights of Irish women are protected equally as any mans. 

A 15% seat at the table

The 2011 general election saw the highest ever return of women to the Dail. However, in real numbers, this translates to a mere 25 out of 166 or 15%. This places Ireland well below the EU average and ranks the country in 88th position out of 142, in a table on women’s political representation. With only 86 female candidates standing for the 2011 election, compared to 480 male candidates, clearly there is an issue with political selection processes. In response to this, a number of independent groups have sprung up in the recent years, aiming to increase the number of women in politics.

The 5050 Group is a single issue advocacy group dedicated to equal representation of women by 2020. Co-founder Fiona Buckley, a lecturer in the Department of Government at University College Cork, told me the 5050 group came out of a 2010 conference examining women's political participation in Ireland. Former government Minister Gemma Hussey, speaking at the conference, called upon 'the next generation' to campaign for measures to improve the number of Irish women in politics. Against the backdrop of a worsening economic crisis and the IMF's arrival in Ireland severely testing the political system, Fiona and a group of others considered male dominance in politics meant women's abilities were being wasted, at a time when Ireland needed these talents most. Fiona continues ‘The existing evidence showed that, if left alone, the political system would not achieve gender parity for close to 370 years. Also considering the evidence from other European countries, legislative candidate selection processes seemed to be the only realistic way of getting more women into politics in a realistic time frame.’

Although Independent TDs play a significant role, the Irish political system is still dominated by the two main parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, and a number of smaller parties such as Labour. If female political representation is to be significantly increased, the parties much increase the number of women they put forward for election. The current Irish government agrees with this assessment, passing the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act in July 2012. The Act stipulates that 30% of candidates put forward for election by political parties in the next general election must be female, with the threshold rising to 40% seven years thereafter. Failure to comply will result in a loss of half the state funding which Irish political parties receive.

There was some significant resistance to the implementation of quotas within the political establishment, including from high profile female politicians. Labour TD Joanna Truffy spoke against quotas, stating 'Gender quotas are anti-democratic. They are based on the idea that voters can't be trusted.' This view is disingenuous however, negating the fact that the root problem lies not with voters but with the candidate selection process and the wider political culture.  Constituents cannot vote for female candidates if they are not put forward. International research has consistently identified five key barriers to women in politics, known as the five Cs: confidence, childcare, cash, culture and candidate selection. An independent Oireachtas (Irish House of Parliament) committee convened in 2009 supports this view, pointing out simple remedies which would remove such barriers such as reforming the long hours culture of parliamentary politics and introducing simple technology such as remote voting.

Tuam Town Councillor Sally Ann Flanagan, Ireland's youngest elected Mayor and Tuam's first female Mayor, comments on how disappointing it is to hear female politicians speak against quotas ‘I get very frustrated when I hear female politicians speak out against the gender quotas. I know that everyone has the right to their own opinion but I also believe that female representatives should be helping each other out! I admire the work done by Mary O'Rourke and Deputy Lucinda Creighton (who since voted in favour) but when they spoke against them I felt that they did not understand the true difficulties women face.’ Fiona Buckley points out 'I understand where they are coming from. I would love to believe that women’s representation will increase organically over time. However, the evidence suggests this is not the case. Ireland’s rate of women’s political representation is stubbornly ‘stuck’ at 12 – 15% since the 1980s. If candidate selection was simply a question of merit and ability, then women would be in politics in abundance.'

Broadly however, the limited introduction of quotas enjoys cross party support and political parties are now launching campaigns to entice more women to join them. Fianna Fail, currently the opposition party who had been in government from 1987 until 2011, recently launched its Gender Equality Action Plan. The Plan includes the establishment of a new support network for female members and candidates and also requires each constituency office to draw up its own plans to boost female participation locally. The Labour Party has a sub-section called Labour Women which has long campaigned for the increase of women in Irish political life but the two largest Irish political parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, have traditionally sought candidates from gendered pools such as unions, local councils, etc. The new legislation is forcing them to actively recruit more women candidates.

An important issue political parties must consider, which is often overlooked, is geography. Extremely long working days makes commuting difficult for TDs and the majority of political representatives spend a few days a week in Dublin. This is extremely difficult for many male TDs but is often ever harder for prospective female TDs, with women in Ireland largely being the primary care givers in families. Analysing the 23 female TDs elected in 2007, Claire McGing found that 69% were representing constituencies in the urbanised east of the country. Town Councillor Sally Ann Flanagan comments 'If you are in an urban area it is much easier for a woman to get on the ticket and likewise if you are from a political dynasty but if you are a woman from rural Ireland it is very different.'

Outside of political parties, groups such as the National Women's Council of Ireland (NWCI) and Women for Election are putting in place practical supports to encourage more Irish women into politics. Eoin Murray, Co-ordinator of the NWCI's Women in Decision Making Project, told me 'One of the problems of Irish politics is that women, of all ages, don’t see politics as a career choice.' The NWCI has established a Young Women's Political Caucus, focused on young women involved in local politics, aiming to 'build solidarity between young women politicians, to help them understand that their experiences, good and bad, are often common ones, not simply individual. We also want these inspirational women to motivate the next generation of young women to enter politics.'

50.50 is not a dream; it’s fair 

Many lobbying organisations, such as the 50.50 Group and academics such as Claire McGing, are still pushing for the introduction of full parliamentary quotas, pointing to their success in other European countries. Although recent positive legislative changes will hopefully entice more Irish women into political life, the laddish, sexist political culture which remains must change. Institutional procedures which exclude women, the use of sexist language and the obliviousness to boorish behaviour must all be stopped. With Irish women being more likely  to hold higher level qualifications than men, our political system is missing out on a wealth of talent. The lack of women in the decision making process also means many issues which predominantly affect women are sidelined, such as the imminent closure of women's and children refuges. Other issues, such as a woman's access to life saving healthcare, are debated and determined largely by men, many of whom seem to fail to grasp the seriousness of the policies they determine. In a televised discussion on the issue of abortion to save the life of the mother, Fine Gael TD Peter Matthews speaking against the legislation, denied such measures were vital, glibly commenting 'we're all going to end up dead anyway.'

If we want issues affecting women paid more attention to, we must demand more women are involved in the political process. Equal gender representation is not a farfetched dream, it is an attainable goal which we can all help achieve by demanding more from our public representatives.


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