Last Thursday, 2 February 2012, something historic happened: there were more women in the Seanad than it could fit. The Dáil audio-visual room was packed with them, and the lobby too – anywhere you looked there were women – what was going on?! History, that’s what. At 11.50 Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government Phil Hogan, took the floor and presented the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill 2011. The Bill – as well as significantly reducing the limits for corporate donations to political parties and bringing a new transparency to how parties manage their financial affairs – will change the face of Irish politics by bringing in a candidate selection gender quota in advance of the next general election, expected in 2016, so that “when citizens consider our national Parliament, they should see something more akin to their own reflection looking back at them. This is not currently the case with 183 men and 43 women. That is hardly balanced representation.”
It is not, and the quota legislation is about changing that. It will force parties to ensure that 30% of candidates fielded at the general election are women, moving to 40% within seven years. If parties do not achieve this, their funding will be halved. Just 15% (86 of 566) of candidates that ran in the 2011 general election were women. Moving this to 30% is a big, but vital shift. Support from the chamber was almost unanimous.
With the exception of Senator Ronan Mullen, all of those who spoke were warm in their welcome for the changes, some of them – including Senators Averil Power and Cait Keane – admitted to being “reluctant” converts to quotas, but sure in their support now because “quotas work”. Senator Jillian van Turnhout noted that of a total of 1,620 Seanad seats filled between 1922 and 2009 only 9.3% have been by women. Senator Ivana Bacik, commended by all for her work on the 2010 Joint Oireachtas Committee report on women’s participation in politics, pointed to Belgium and Spain – countries with similar rankings to Ireland in terms of female political representation in the 1990s – who have soared ahead through the introduction of positive action measures. Senator Susan O’Keefe, speaking with passion and conviction, called on us to “grow up as a country”, outlining women’s roles across society and yet not in politics, reminding us that “we are missing from the place where we should be the most, and we are missing in numbers where we could contribute, make an impact and bring about a difference”.
Of course, there are weaknesses with the legislation: it does not apply to local elections and it puts no onus on parties to ensure that female candidates are viable or have a reasonable chance of success. But it is a huge step in the right direction, and Thursday, for that reason, was a truly historic day. What we saw then – our national House of Parliament crawling with women – will, we hope, soon not be such an unusual sight at all.