Time To Elect First Woman Ceann Comhairle?

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Guest Post by Anthony O’Halloran 

On Thursday, March 10th an important opportunity will arise to change the gender landscape of Irish politics for the better. The first important constitutional obligation of the 32nd Dáil will be to elect the Ceann Comhairle. Most of the public commentary to date has focused on how the next Ceann Comhairle should be elected.

Election by secret ballot on March 10th, it is hoped will contribute to the outgoing cabinet enjoying less influence over which individual is appointed to this office. Given that the cabinet now enjoys, minority status in the new Dáil, a successful candidate will have to cultivate and ultimately enjoy cross- party and non-party appeal.

However, the matter of gender balance has been largely neglected in respect of the Ceann Comhairle’s election. Given that Irish parliamentary politics has been so male dominated, it is hardly surprising that no woman has ever held either the office of Ceann Comhairle or Leas – Cheann Comhairle.

Up to and including the 1977 election the number of women elected to each Dáil had remained in single digit figures. It is well known that Countess Markievicz was the sole woman elected to the first Dáil in 1919. What is less well known perhaps, is that Margaret Collins O’ Driscoll was the sole woman elected to the sixth Dáil in the second general election of 1927. Just two women were elected to the third, seventh and ninth Dáileanna respectively.

The 1981 election was the first occasion when double digits (eleven members) was reached. This translated into slightly under seven percent of the Dáil’s total membership. The figure dipped to single digits (eight members) for the last time in the first election of 1982.

Reaching twenty women in the 1992 election, the thirty-first Dáil reached a record high of twenty seven women members. Constituting sixteen per cent of total membership, this figure has been surpassed for the thirty- second Dáil. Thirty five women have been elected constituting twenty two per cent of total membership. This is a significant milestone as the one fifth threshold has been successfully breached. The thirty per cent gender balance rule in respect of candidate selection has clearly made a difference.

Regarding the election of speakers and deputy speakers, the Dáil compares very unfavourably to the three British assemblies. Two of the current three deputy speakers of the House of Commons are women. House rules demand that at least one man and one woman must be elected from across the four speakership positions. It should also be noted that the speakership of the Lords is currently held by Baroness D’Souza. Moreover, Betty Boothroyd held the speakership of the Commons from 1992 to 2000.

Rosemary Butler is the current Presiding Officer of the Welsh Assembly. Tricia Marwick holds the equivalent position in the Scottish Assembly. One of her two deputies is also a woman.

The Northern Ireland Assembly resembles its southern cousin. The speakership and three deputy speakerships are all held by men. Given that there are four positions available, this reflects very poorly on the current assembly.

At a minimum the office of Leas- Cheann Comhairle of the thirty- second Dáil should be filled by a woman. However, given that the country is just three years short of the Dáil’s centenary, it would be particularly appropriate if the Lower House elected its first woman Ceann Comhairle. Members should grasp this historic opportunity when they convene on March 10th.

The Upper House has already led the way, in this regard. Tras Honan was elected the first woman Cathaoirleach in 1982. Similarly, Evelyn Owens had been elected as the first woman Leas- Chathaoirleach in 1973.

So what considerations should shape the election of an incoming Ceann Comhairle? In this very fragmented thirty- second Dáil the disposition of the Ceann Comhairle will in my opinion be critical. Fairness, patience and calmness would be essential personal attributes. Any hint that the Ceann Comhairle is reverting to her previous allegiances will rightly diminish the House’s confidence in her ability to be impartial. Parliamentary experience might be a further consideration. Consequently, first time women members should probably be excluded from serious consideration for the obvious reason of a lack of experience.

Given that this the first time a Ceann Comhairle will be elected by secret ballot, the new Ceann Comhairle will enter the chair with a strong opening advantage. In contrast, the outgoing Ceann Comhairle Mr. Barrett who was de facto a cabinet choice not unreasonably commenced with a strong opening disadvantage from the opposition’s point of view.

Nevertheless, presiding over Dáil Éireann will still test the skills of the fairest of chairpersons. In reality, the Ceann Comhairle of the day faces one major and inescapable challenge namely that the chamber is intrinsically adversarial and partisan

Anyone who has held the position of chairperson of either a small community organisation or a large national organisation knows how onerous the task chairing a meeting can be. Even the fairest of chairpersons can unintentionally alienate some members on the floor. This is particularly the case when the chairperson is trying to chair a divided floor. In reality, the Ceann Comhairle is chairing a permanently divided floor.

On 28th May, 1985 the late Oliver J. Flanagan made a contribution in the Dáil on the importance of the parliamentary question as an accountability device. In his contribution he recalled the following incident ‘I can recall one occasion when the late Mrs Redmond drove from the Curragh to deal with questions she had on the Order Paper. Unfortunately, she had forgotten her headgear. She consulted with General Mulcahy as to whether she should enter the Chamber without having her head suitably covered to address the questions, and he replied, “No; it would not be proper.”’

Readers will be relieved to know that Mrs. Redmond was not deterred by General Mulcahy’s reply. Deputy Flanagan continued ‘I can recall Mrs. Redmond going across in haste to Brown Thomas where she purchased what I can describe as a most becoming little hat from Senator Ned Maguire and returning to appear in the Chamber in proper dress.’

One wonders if General Richard Mulcahy could have envisaged Mrs. Bridget Redmond occupying the Ceann Comhairle’s Chair with or without her hat. Unlikely, I suspect.

Dr Anthony O’ Halloran is author of The Dáil in the 21st Century published by Mercier Press, Cork.

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