By Claire McGing, Lecturer in Political Geography & Irish Research Council Scholar, NUI Maynooth
This week (July 30th), Fianna Fáil published the party’s new Gender Equality Action Plan 2013-2018. In a foreword by the party leader, Micheal Martin TD, it is noted that the under-representation of women in Irish politics “is a systematic problem, which requires radical action or nothing will change. It can only be tackled through a willingness to overturn long-established practices”.
Following the disastrous 2011 general election, the party failed to secure any women TDs, and later saw just two women elected to the Seanad in Averil Power and Mary White. At present, only 6 per cent of the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party is female. Strikingly, women actually account for just over one-third of the party’s card-carrying members, illustrating a large gap in their prospects of office-holding.
While no major party in Dáil Éireann can boast parity within its ranks, or even anywhere near it, Fianna Fáil probably has more reasons than most to give serious consideration to gender representation at this time. As is evident across numerous party systems, periods of electoral crises and party re-organisation often spur a heightened interest in women’s representation, at least for a short while (Childs and Webb, 2012; Krook, 2009; Lovenduski, 2012; McGing, 2013). When parties are required to re-evaluate themselves, ‘critical actors’ (who are often women party members, though not always) can use this space to push their claims for equality, and such processes are evident at present in Fianna Fáil. For their part, if they respond, party elites will be largely pragmatic – new female faces might give parties a ‘fresh’ look and court an increased (women’s) vote. Fianna Fáil, of course, is well aware of its long relationship with the female electorate. Over the years, and for various reasons, women have proven themselves loyal voters to the ‘Soldiers of Destiny’, sometimes more so than men. In certain elections (such as 1977 and 2007), some analysts argue females have been the ‘play-makers’ of the party’s vote. Even when Fianna Fáil declines in popular support, polls suggest women ‘float back’ to them sooner than men. Indeed, the party’s re-emergence as the country’s most popular party in the polls is largely due to women (The impact on female voters of high levels of parliamentary opposition to the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill 2013, though, remains to be seen).
The new report recognises the various barriers to women’s representation (covered elsewhere on this blog) and makes ten headline recommendations. Proposals, all of which have the approval of the leadership, are largely rhetorical and promotional in scope, and include the establishment of a National Women’s Network (with National Executive-level representation in future), training, mentoring and fundraising for aspirant and selected women candidates, and the recruitment of a Gender Equality Officer (which has been hugely beneficial in the Labour Party). Of particular importance is a plan to ensure 33 per cent (as a “minimum figure”) of the party’s Local Area Representatives appointed before the 2014 local elections will be female (though not necessarily candidates, but we can assume most LARs will come through local conventions successfully). Following the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012, which obliges parties to run at least 30 per cent women candidates and 30 per cent men candidates in future general elections or else lose half of their annual funding from the state (the threshold will rise to 40 per cent after 7 years), Fianna Fáil (and other parties) know it is crucial that more women are elected to local government to ensure a healthy ‘pool’ of Dáil candidates. Local politics is hugely important for women. Research undertaken by Fiona Buckley (UCC) and I, for example, shows that when women enter the electoral ‘pipeline’ through local government service, they are statistically more likely than men to win a Dáil seat. Fianna Fáil has, in many respects, ‘green field pastures’, free for female candidacy. Following the 2009 and 2011 contests, the party has numerous electoral areas with no incumbent representatives at all.
This gender action plan is not the first produced by a political party in Ireland, nor is it Fianna Fáil’s first. This time, however, the electoral landscape is very different. The party knows that a comprehensive gender strategy forms an important part of its internal renewal and electoral fortunes. Moreover, failure to run enough women candidates in the next general election will see the party take a heavy hit financially – after events of the last few years, can they afford not to meet the quota? Those interested in this issue eagerly await selections for 2014. In Fianna Fáil, at least, it may prove a break with the status quo and the start of something new. Watch this space…
You can find a podcast of Senator Averil Power (Chairperson of the Taskforce) and I discussing the action plan in more detail on RTE’s Drivetime (1 hour and 15 minutes in) here.