Reflections on women’s representation in Irish electoral politics – new research and fruitful avenues of inquiry

This blog posts marks a symposium recently published in Irish Political Studies: ‘Gender and Political Change in the Republic of Ireland: Sites of Progress and Contestation’, edited by Dr. Lisa Keenan and Dr. Claire McGing.

Lisa Keenan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Trinity College Dublin (TCD). She researches on gender and politics, and politics in the Republic of Ireland.

Claire McGing is a member of the senior management team at the Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT), where she has strategic oversight of equality, diversity and inclusion. Her primary research is on gender politics and electoral politics in Ireland.

This year’s International Women’s Day (IWD) comes as Ireland’s Decade of Centenaries draws to a close. Initiated in 2012, the aim of the initiative was to commemorate a hugely transformative period in Irish history, which covered pivotal events such as the 1913 Lockout, the 1916 Rising, the expansion of suffrage rights, the sitting of the first Dáil, the establishment of the Irish Free State, and the Civil War. For the women of Ireland, this period of upheaval offered opportunities to engage in political activism and brought about important changes in their status. In 1918, a limited constituency of women was given the right to vote for the first time. Two women ran as candidates in that year’s general election in Ireland, with Constance Markievicz becoming the first woman to win a seat to win a seat in the British parliament. The following year, she went on to sit in the first Dáil and was appointed Minister for Labour (which included responsibility for Social Welfare), becoming the second female minister in the world.

But Markievicz’s early success was made all the more remarkable by how women saw themselves relegated to the margins once more in the post-revolutionary era. While a small number of women were elected to Dáil Éireann in the early years of the Free State, most were relatives of men who had died while in office; these women did little to push for gender equality. Irish women’s position at the margins of public life was cemented by terms of the 1937 Constitution, against which a number of feminist activists and women’s campaign groups had unsuccessfully campaigned.

It is not until 1979 that Ireland saw a second woman appointed to cabinet, until 1981 that the number of seats held by women rose to double-digits, and until 1992 that women made up more than a tenth of TDs. And it was only with the intervention of a candidate gender quota that the share of women TDs pushed above its plateau of 12 to 15 percent, where it had languished for more than two decades.

For those who seek to draw attention to the contributions of women in politics in Ireland, the comparative absence of women from frontline electoral politics has given rise to a tendency to focus on a handful of remarkable women who have made their mark on political life. In addition, the importance of the Dáil, coupled with the ongoing struggle for women’s representation in that chamber, has ensured that the gender composition of the lower house has endured as the primary indicator of women’s position in Irish politics more broadly.

We know, however, that though what happens in national electoral politics has a tendency to suck up a lot of the oxygen, it gives only a partial view of where politics happens and, more broadly, what it means to do politics. Our recent symposium in Irish Political Studies, contributes to our understanding of the gendered nature of politics that happens elsewhere, away from the national spotlight.

Keenan and McElroy’s article investigates the question of whether encouragement to run for office is gendered. Using an original survey of candidates who ran in the 2019 Irish local elections, they find that women who run do so having received more encouragement to put themselves forwards as candidates, and having received encouragement from particular sources (elected politicians, spouses, family members). These results suggest that the calculation around whether to run for office is different for men and women. Understanding these differences is crucial for understanding how best to increase the supply of female candidates for local office.

McGing’s article examines the factors which both enable and constrain the establishment and operation of caucuses for women councillors in local government in Ireland. She finds that gender consciousness, a high level of interest, and support from a dedicated secretariat are among the factors that enable a women’s caucus to be established. However, the setting up of a caucus is only one step towards facilitating the cooperation of elected women from across the political spectrum – and the extent to which these groupings have an ‘impact’. McGing argues that there is no guarantee that, once established, caucuses will constitute feminist or intersectional spaces.

Finally, Field considers the opportunity that deliberative democratic institutions represent for the achievement of gender equality in the Republic of Ireland. He assesses the involvement of women in key deliberative mini-publics since 2011, examining the extent to which they have been able to influence these processes to deliver so-called ‘woman-friendly’ outcomes.      

As the title of our introduction to the symposium suggests, Irish democracy remains ‘unfinished’ so long as women are underrepresented at different levels across the system. Collectively, the three articles in this symposium contribute to our understanding of women’s participation and representation in political life 100 years after the Free State was first established. In different ways, they draw attention to sites where this understanding is as yet underdeveloped and where there exist potentially fruitful areas of inquiry to explore both the descriptive and substantive representation of women and how they interact. 

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