The 2016 election was the first to be beholden to the gender quota and flanked by the referenda of marriage quality and repeal, it elected more women to Leinster House than ever before. In the results February of 2020, Maeve McTaggart muses upon why it matters that the changing tide of political representation has been quelled to a ripple.
“I was a gender quota candidate,” said Josepha Madigan following the 2016 election. It was the first where at least thirty percent of the total number of candidates run by each party were to be women, and funding sanctions forced compliance. Every major party hit the quota, returning a historic (and humble) thirty-five women to the 32nd Dáil. The forty percent increase on female representation in Leinster House since 2011 saw Dublin Rathdown candidate Josepha Madigan become a Fine Gael TD and the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. She was just the 19th woman in the history of the state to be a cabinet minister and yet, on Sunday February 9th – Count Day of the 2020 General Election – she waited eight counts before salvaging a seat which had become so uncertain. And she was one of the lucky ones. “Female politicians are the major casualties in the general election,” read news headlines following the elimination of a multitude of female ministers and TDs from their respective counts in the days that followed our Saturday election. Zappone, Coppinger, Mitchell O’Connor, Chambers, Byrne, O’Connell – where are all the women, and are we leaving them behind?
The representation of women in politics has always been Ireland’s Achilles heel on the international stage, failing to reach the EU average so often that even the United Nations have issued a wrist slap on more than one occasion. The electorate has always been enamoured with the ‘local man’ who deals in constituency favours and capitalises on his eternal cycle of incumbency. From local office to national representative, the Irish electoral system has created a pipeline through which men find easiest to fit – twice more likely to already hold office than women, possessing more access to the resources which facilitate a campaign than women – Irish politics had never tried to correct this endemic failing to make space for women in our elections until 2016. Perhaps prematurely, the success of the introduction of the gender quota implied a changing tide in Irish politics. 163 candidates of 551 nation-wide were women, thirty-five going on to make up 22% of the 32nd Dáil and six to sit as cabinet ministers on the Fine Gael frontbench.
Where one half of the public are disproportionately excluded from decision-making at the highest level, largely invisible to the section of the electorate looking to have their lived experiences reflected in policy, a state cannot arguably be truly equal. “No amount of thought or sympathy, no matter how careful or honest,” wrote Anne Phillips, “can jump the barriers of experience.” For the composition of the Dáil to be 78% male, there is a stark gender imbalance – over representation versus under representation. The importance of the visibility of Marys like Robinson, McAleese and Lou McDonald in Irish government is not undermined by this argument, but emphasised. The electorate has shown researchers it is indifferent to gender, that it is the gendered legacies of parties which bind them to the tradition of male candidates – favourability and projected successes systematically linked to criteria male aspirants are more likely to meet – implying equal representation would be achieved as soon as there are women to fill the seats (sure look at the Marys!). But when election results say the opposite, what then?
There were many big-name casualties of #GE2020, and while those of particular political affiliations were the first, it is easy to see the hope of equal representation as the second. Despite a record-breaking number of female candidates running for election in 2020, the number of seats filled by women rose to just 36 – a one percent increase. It is a stagnation which is disheartening and “missed opportunity” for gender equality according to Women for Election chief executive Ciairín de Buis, where many constituencies are now without a female representative. To get lost in the ‘what-about’-ism of Mary Lou McDonald’s success as party leader and ignore that parties like Fine Gael took the 30% quota as a target rather than a minimum requirement, is tempting but dangerous. The country voted to grant women bodily autonomy in 2018, yet failed to fully realise the necessity of female authority in 2020. There are more questions to ask after our recent election than that of government formation post-Sinn Féin shake-up, and we need to get answering them.