Over three weeks after the 2016 election we still do not have a government. The election was a historic one for a number of reasons, one of which was the election of 35 women, the highest number of women to ever be elected to the Dáil.
This record follows on from the previous record set in 2011, during the 31st sitting of the Dáil, when the people of Ireland elected 25 female TDs, although the outgoing Dáil had a high of 27 female TDs following two by-elections which saw Ruth Coppinger and Helen McEntee elected.
In the previous Dáil 16% of TDs were female. Today, following the results of the 2016 election, one in five TDs are female as women took 22.3% of the seats contested.
Suzanne Collins is director of operations and campaigns for Women for Election, a not-for-profit organisation whose mission is to inspire and equip women to succeed in politics. Collins spoke to The Circular and called the outcome of the election “an incredible result for women nationally in GE16”. She added that the success of women in this election nationally was “an indication of the potential of the positive change that can still happen.”
Ms. Collins also spoke about the gender quota legislation, which saw 163 female candidates contest the 2016 election, opposed to 86 female candidates in 2011. Ms. Collins stated that the legislation was successful in getting female candidates onto the ticket but it was the voters who were successful in getting them elected.
Passed in 2012, the 2016 general election was the first election in the States history where parties had to adhere to the Electoral Amendment (Political Funding) Bill under which gender quotas were introduced. Published by then Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan, this gender quota amendment had the primary aim of increasing the level of female participation in Irish politics, with 95 women having served in the Dáil in its history.
The legislation stated that women must account for 30% of the total electoral candidates in a political party for the 2016 general election. A party that failed to comply would have its state funding cut by half. The quota will be increased to 40% in the next seven years.
In the period leading up to the general election, gender quotas became a national issue with many coming out against the Bill and some questioning its legality. Most notable of these was Brian Mohan, a Fianna Fáil activist who challenged the constitutionality of the bill following his failure to contest his constituency’s selection convention for the general election. Mr. Mohan stated that members were instructed to choose the female candidate, Mary Fitzpatrick, so the party could be in compliance with the gender quota legislation. The case was dismissed by the High Court as the judge ruled Mr. Mohan had no legal standing to take the case.
The introduction of the gender quota legislation was also a divisive issue amongst those outside political circles. In an article written for the Irish Times in March 2015 academic and journalist Derek J. Byrne called the quotas an insult to female politicians, stating “gender quota solution is condescending to women and an insult to female politicians, past and present, who have reached some of the highest offices in the land through sheer hard work and merit without the need for any kind of concession from their male colleagues.”
While Irish Times columnist Una Mullally wrote in November 2015 that quotas were necessary, “There should be equal opportunity for everyone to succeed in the fields they wish to succeed in … Therefore, we have to come up with interventions to make things fairer for everyone. In areas that don’t self-regulate when it comes to equality of opportunity, quotas range from useful to necessary.”
Although a dominant and divisive issue throughout the general election campaign many have argued that gender quotas were not responsible for the higher number of women elected to the 32nd Dáil. The parties subject to gender quota legislation, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour, Sinn Féin, and AAA/PBP elected four more female TDs then they had done in the previous election, rising from 23 in 2011 to 27 in 2016.
Despite this Suzanne Collins praised the outcome of the general election, calling it an important first step in attempting to create a gender balance in Dáil Eireann.
Ms. Collins also reiterated the point being made by Women for Election that gender quotas needed to be implemented at local elections. “It is interesting that of the 18 newly elected female TDs, 16 of them are sitting councillors and two are Senators. This reinforces Women for Election’s call for a gender quota for selection at local government level.”
Ms. Collins and Women for Election believe this will help women become involved in local politics and eventually contest national elections, “it is essential to create a pipeline into politics and create a pool of strong viable candidates who can successfully contest national elections.”
Looking forward, Ms. Collins believes the women elected to the Dáil should continue to get as much support and training as necessary, “it is vital that women who were elected get the support and training they require to flourish because they will act as an encouragement to other women in around the country to step forward or stay in political life. Women for Election are excited about playing our part.”
Clare Daly is an Independent Socialist TD for Dublin North; she was first elected to the Dáil in February 2011. Daly retained her seat during the 2016 election; she spoke to The Circular about the record number of women elected to the Dáil. Ms. Daly stated that she was “absolutely delighted to see the record number of women elected, particularly the fact that a large number would appear to be young women, which is certainly a new departure on anything that has existed in Irish politics. Hopefully they will exercise their independence and opinions and not be cowed by the whip system.”
Ms. Daly also said that she hopes the election of so many women will encourage more women to become involved in politics, “it can be an important activator in encouraging other women to get involved by making it more ‘normal’.”