IN 2019, Ireland marks 120 years since its first local elections in 1899. This year also commemorates the first time women were granted the right to vote and stand in an election in Ireland.
In her book Local Government In Nineteenth-Century Ireland, Virginia Crossman notes that local government was the scene for some early successes by the Irish suffragist movement, with the first elections in 1899 returning 31 women district councillors and 85 women as poor law guardians.
Despite these early achievements, the social conservatism that pervaded Irish political culture and society for much of the 20th century stymied women’s access into public life. By 1974, just 6% of the seats in local councils were held my women.
In the most recent local elections in 2014, women won 21% of the seats, which was a record high for women’s political representation at the local level in Ireland.
However, it is nowhere near gender parity, and places Ireland well below the EU28 average of 32% for female representation in local politics.
In acknowledgement of this, a special cabinet meeting on International Women’s Day in March agreed new measures to address the gender imbalance of local councils and promote women’s candidacy at the 2019 local elections.
These measures include a new funding scheme to incentivise political parties to increase their proportion of female candidates. Specifically, a fund of €500,000 is being made available to be shared among political parties who achieve a minimum of 30% female candidates or show a positive trend in that direction since the last local elections.
Other measures include providing capacity building and campaign training for women candidates, with a particular focus on women in rural areas.
The Government’s measures to promote greater gender equality in local government are welcome, particularly given the importance of local government experience for women’s electoral prospects at the national level.
Localism is an important aspect of Irish politics and the Irish National Election Study and exit polls on election day consistently find that ‘localness’ and the ability to look after the needs of one’s constituency are key considerations in voter decision-making.
Furthermore, local government experience is considered vital if one is to put oneself forward for candidate selection at the national level. It provides individuals with the opportunity to develop key resources such as local support networks, campaign skills, name recognition and experience of holding elected office.
In 2016, some 83% of the 35 female TDs elected to Dáil Éireann were councillors at some stage in their political careers. Thus, local government is a significant springboard for women wishing to run for Dáil elections.
So, have the Government’s measures had any affect? Adrian Kavanagh, a political geographer based in Maynooth University, calculates that there are 560 women contesting the local elections on May 24, a proportion of 28% of the total candidates. This is an increase on the 2014 local elections, when 440 (21.6%) of the candidates were women. Across Cork city and county, 55 women will run for election, up from 36 in 2014.
Reviewing the gender profile of party candidates reveals a number of trends, namely, newer political parties, and those of a leftist hue tend to select women candidates in higher proportions than parties on the centre-right and more long-term in existence.
In 2019, two political parties have selected a majority of women candidates — People Before Profit (59.2%) and Social Democrats (55.2%). Other gender-balanced tickets include Solidarity (47.4%), the Green Party (43.9%), the Workers’ Party (42.9%) and Labour (40.5%).
Conversely, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael register the lowest proportions of women candidates, selecting just 29% and 21.2% respectively. However, these figures represent an improvement on where the political parties were in 2014. Then, Fine Gael selected 23% women candidates while Fianna Fáil selected just 17%.
The advancements in 2019, though very modest, should still ensure that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will benefit from the newly announced funding scheme, even though both parties fall short of the 30% threshold of female candidates.
In terms of the geographical spread of candidates, Adrian Kavanagh finds that women account for 35% of candidates in urban electoral areas but just 23% of candidates selected to contest rural constituencies. The urban/rural gender gap continues.
Candidate selection for the upcoming local elections demonstrates that the Government’s incentive measures are having a positive impact, but party and geographical variations remain.
These variations could be addressed through a tightening up of the current scheme to specify that just those political parties who select a minimum of 30% women candidates are eligible for funding. It would essentially act like the quota law at the national level.
A move to a local government quota would bring Ireland into line with other countries that have adopted gender quotas in recent years, the majority of whom apply gender quotas at the local level in addition to the national level.
The dual approach guarantees a supply of female candidates from local level, with proven track records, electoral experience and name recognition, to contest elections at the national level.
It also obliges the grassroots levels of political parties to address the issue of women’s political under-representation, challenging them to assess the gender profile of their own branches and compelling them to engage in more activities to recruit and maintain women members. This can contribute to minimising the geographical variations.
In 1903, the motto ‘Deeds not Words’ was adopted by Emmeline Pankhurst as the slogan of the Women’s Social and Political Union. It remains as relevant today as it did in the early years of the 20th century.
Some 120 years after women first contested local elections in Ireland, women’s political representation at local level remains lows. However, the Government’s action or deed to initiate a funding scheme is a step in the right direction to address this gender imbalance. But it should be seen as the start, rather than the end, of a process of change to feminise party structures and candidate selections.