Guest post from Lisa Keenan and Gail McElroy, Trinity College, Dublin. This blog presents the arguments from a paper published in Irish Political Studies by the authors. Free access to the paper is available for the month of January here.
In 2016, the Republic of Ireland joined over 100 countries world-wide that use gender quotas at election time. The Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2011, passed in 2012, forced parties to nominate women to at least thirty per cent of their total candidacies, otherwise they would have to forgo half of their state funding for the next full parliamentary term. Faced with the prospect of this hefty loss, not surprisingly, all of the political parties managed to meet the quota requirement, though it was a greater struggle for some (notably Fianna Fáil) than others.
The debate in the Oireachtas at the time of the passage of the legislation clearly reveals that the measure was unpopular with significant elements within the established political parties and indeed the legislation was, notably, introduced without a significant demand for it amongst the general populace. Using data from a series of original surveys of citizens (the Irish National Election Study 2011), professionals (the Political Attitudes and Experiences Survey 2013) and local election candidates (the Comparative Candidate Study 2014) we explore who was most supportive of the quota.
Overall, we found that support for the quota in Ireland, prior to its implementation, was not especially high amongst political elites or members of the general public. A majority of respondents either opposed the introduction of the quota or report having low levels of support for it (especially when explicitly asked about it). Being a woman and self-identifying as a feminist were the two best predictors of backing the measure. Both of these findings were anticipated and are in line with results from research in other countries. Interestingly, we did not find consistent results with respect to left-right self-placement or party identification. Amongst professionals with the highest propensity to vote for Fianna Fáil we witness the lowest levels of support for the quota but this hostility was not mirrored in the views of the average Fianna Fáil voter or, indeed, the party’s local election candidates. We also found that supporting left-wing parties (Sinn Féin, Labour) predicted support for the measure only amongst professionals (dentists, doctors, teachers, lawyers etc.) Finally, a belief that women’s underrepresentation in politics arises due to a lack of opportunities created for them by political parties are also consistently found to matter.
Prior to 2016, when the quota came into effect, there was clearly not a great deal of enthusiasm for the measure, other than with women and, especially, those who self identify as feminists – male or female. However, research elsewhere has demonstrated that the implementation of a quota, for even a brief period of time, can have lasting effects on the attitudes of political parties and voters to such measures and examining the data from 2016 suggests Ireland is no different in this respect.
While, regrettably, there was no National Election Study in 2016, attitudes to gender quotas were assessed in the RTÉ Exit Poll and also in a mini post election study conducted jointly by three of the universities (TCD, QUB and UCD). When citizens were again asked about their level of support for the quota in the immediate aftermath of the February election, we find that support is much less polarized and overall the general public is much more positively disposed to the concept. Most importantly, the gap in support between men and women, almost, disappears. Interestingly, however, as the figure below demonstrates, there is a still a very sharp gender differences in support amongst those who ran for office. Using data from the Comparative Candidate Study 2016 we find that female candidates are much more likely than men to strongly support the quota, while for men attitudes remain much more mixed.