Rising through the ranks? Women as Irish party members and GE11 candidates

By Claire McGing (John and Pat Hume scholar and Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences scholar (IRCHSS), NUI Maynooth)

Studies of political recruitment in liberal democracies show the importance of active party membership as a formal and/or informal requirement in enhancing the chances of an aspirant being successful in the selection process. In systems of decentralised candidate selection (such as in Ireland), longtime party members can develop a strong network of fellow party activists who will in turn vote for them at the convention stage and mobilise other members to do the same. A long history of party activism can also be a considerable advantage when the selection procedure is instead at the hands of the party elite.

Party membership figures can thus provide some interesting insights into the lack of women in electoral politics. Table 1 below compares the percentage of women party members of the four main Irish political parties to their percentage of women candidates in the 2011 general election (also illustrated in figure 1). Some interesting variations exist between the parties. The largest gap emerged between female members and candidates of Fine Gael. Strikingly, while 42% of their membership is female, they comprised just 15% of candidates in February. With a 19% gap, a discernible difference can also be seen in the Fianna Fáil figures. The situation is more positive for Labour, where women account for 10% more members than candidates. In comparison to the rest, Sinn Féin women members appear to be considerably more successful is rising through the party ranks, with a difference of just 4% emerging.



% Members

% Candidates

% Difference

Fianna Fáil



– 19

Fine Gael



– 27




– 10

Sinn Féin



– 4

Table 1: Percentage of Irish female party members and candidates in GE11. Figures taken from Buckley and McGing (2011, forthcoming).

Contrary to what some believe, these figures illustrate that women are present in the local echelons of political parties. Of course, membership figures alone only tell half the story and the extent to which women are less active as party members or less likely to hold positions at a branch or constituency level also needs to be explored. However, the data does illustrate that women are less likely than men to rise up from the membership ranks to the ballot paper, and that this is a particularly significant for both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

Further research should explore why women are more reluctant about putting themselves forward for a nomination, and/or whether they are less likely than male members to be encouraged by the ‘gatekeepers’ at the grassroots level to run. Some studies suggest that women, for a variety of reasons, are less confident about nurturing and pursuing a political career. Alongside the gender quota legislation proposed by Minister Phil Hogan, mentoring programmes, whereby talented female party activists are matched up with female deputies or senators to ‘learn the ropes’, may help in building up their confidence levels.

7 thoughts on “Rising through the ranks? Women as Irish party members and GE11 candidates

  1. Surely it makes sense in doing analysis of trends of membership versus candidate selection that analysis would be done by also looking at what the situation is for new candidates by stripping out incumbents? I find this notion, and it is a recurrent one, that each election is a blank slate where candidate selection is concerned a worrying one. I believe the last time I pointed this out that it resulted in unearthing the fact that men and women stood equal chances of being elected in the local elections.

  2. Claire,

    Have you done any analysis re the percentage of women that were coopted since the election of TDs and Senators? In my party the percentage seemed quite high, these women coming forward of their own volition, and I will try to get the percentage for you. The mayor and deputy mayor just elected for my county are both women, elected by their men and women peers, this being something that is happening with increasing regularity in comparison with times gone by, in local authorities throughout the country. I think this kind of progress needs more acknowledgement because if after all as you suggest mentoring is one of the ways to achieve more women in politics why play down the progress by women that is happening on the ground for women that put their name on a ballot paper and take the risk of being selected or not selected. If anything the constant reference to the low percentages, the 5 c’s etc. may put women off when there is a very positive women running for election held by both the electorate and in my view by members in political parties,. Many countries too have achieved progress without gender quotas, or only voluntary gender quotas that are not implimented by all parties. So maybe the debate on the means to achieve more participation by women in politics and elections needs to be more inclusive of different points of views on how to achieve progress. I do believe however that the fact the issue is being debated is a good thing in making voters and parties and men and women more aware of the issue.

      • Gender quotas have been identified as an important contributor to changes in women’s political representation in Western Europe. They act as a process of change and a facilitator of women’s political inclusion. They give women access to power structures and the ability to participate in the agenda-setting process. As it may take decades before all social, cultural and political barriers preventing equal representation of women are eradicated, many view quotas as a ‘kick-start’ in the process of getting more women elected to parliament. Introducing quota provisions in politics has been considered a legitimate equal opportunity measure in many countries. If you look at Belgium for example, they had participation rates of 12.7% in 1995 – similar to ours and after the introduction of legal gender quotas, that rate had improved to 35.3% in 2007 – while we are at 15%.. Gender quotas do not preclude other strategies being used. Mentoring is a very important element in any business and politics is no different. I think most people agree that the gender imbalance in the Dail needs to change. Gender quotas at candidate selection encourage political parties to pay attention to this issue as opposed to paying lip service to it.

  3. At the recent Countess Markievicz school, launched in Dublin on June 4th Arni Hole, Director General in the Royal Ministry of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion, addressed the school on the Norwegian experience. Her presentation can be viewed at http://countessmarkievicz.wordpress.com
    She told me privately at lunch that we are 35 years behind Norway. The conversation and debate on the day was the same debate and conversation held in Norway 35years ago!

    This is alarming.Unless and until drastic action is taken no amount of tinkering with the present system will bridge that gap.

    No matter how many women have been elected, Joanna, the fact remains that Countess Markievicz was a Cabinet Minister in Ireland’s 1919 Government and in 2011 we have 2 female Cabinet Ministers. The present system has not delivered for women.

    Susan Lynch, in Women in Business in last Friday’s Irish Times, wrote about the poor level of women at the top in directorships and non-executive directorships of private and semi private companies.

    MelanieVerwoerd,Executive Director of Unicef Ireland, wrote in last Saturday’s Irish Daily Mail on “Apartheid in the Dáil”. She wrote about the emergence of women in South Arica under the leadership of Nelson Mandela.

    Quota systems are only one way of increasing womens participation in public life to reflect the fact that we are now greater than 50% of the population. Many more strategies are needed, including ensuring that the media is fair to women in how they are reflected in panel discuassions.

    I agree whole heartedly with Joanna is that the debate is good and I believe that it is only a matter of time before we move beyond debate to affirmative action.

  4. I can’t understand why women’s organisations and supporters of a more even mix of representatives are not doing more to encourage all women to join a political party and use their vote when candidate selection comes around. It is true that if nothing is done, change won’t happen; but women can easily make this change happen very quickly. Quotas are the lazy way and, perhaps, just another manifestation of the ‘because we’re worth it’ syndrome. I’m not convinced by the 5 Cs because most women are in their thirties by the time they take on domestic responsibilities and they would need to be involved in politics long before this if they are serious about it. I don’t know what age Lucy Keaveney is, but we were having these discussions thirty five years ago. Did you ever hear of the Women’s Political Association, Lucy? There’s no point in having the conversation with Arni Hole, Melanie Woerword, Ivana Bacik, Susan McCann etc. and writing in the Irish Times – you need to have it with the young women in secondary school and college. Neither of my daughters (30 and 20, nor their friends) have ever been approached by any women’s organisation about becoming politically aware. Please stop these endless talking shops with like-minded people and get all women interested. When I see this, I will think again about quotas.Ivana Bacik – the mother of the 5Cs – has been singularly unsuccessful in her electoral forays to date.
    I admire Joan Burton, Joanna Tuffy, Mary O’Rourke and women who have gone out and done it. Young women need more role models like them, but my daughters had never heard of them until I suggested they vote for Joan Burton – I know, the patriarchy making choices for women again.

    • Given that you not convinced by the 5Cs I’d be interested to know if you divided childcare 50:50 for your now 20 and 30 year old daughters?

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