Claire McGing currently lectures political geography at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. She has published research nationally and internationally on gender in Irish politics, north and south. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Local elections are due to be held in the Republic of Ireland on Friday, May 23rd. Compared to the last contest in 2009 the electoral landscape is rather different: 774 town and borough council positions have been abolished and the number of county/city councillors has risen from 883 to 949. Constituency geographies have also been altered, with average district magnitude (number of seats per constituency) up from 5.2 to 6.9 seats.
Like every aspect of electoral democracy, it is important that these elections be analysed in light of gender. Despite the use of proportional representation (PR-STV) at local and national level, the south of the island has consistently lagged in terms of women’s representation. Presently, the lower house of the national parliament, Dáil Éireann, has only 25 women TDs (Dáil representatives) – a record high of 15%.
The local scale is little better, with women comprising around 17% of city and county councillors. This figure is worrying given the majority of TDs start their career in local politics, working up the electoral ‘pipeline’. Indeed, it has been found that local experience is even more significant for women than for men. Thus, to get more women elected to the Dáil, it is crucial they are selected to run for their local councils.
My own research suggests that conservative party cultures best explain women’s underrepresentation in ROI politics, not the electoral system nor the voters. Once women are on the ballot paper and incumbency is controlled for (as in most democracies incumbent candidates overall tend to poll higher than new names), they are as likely as men – in some cases even more likely – to win seats. Historically, political parties in a position to win multiple seats per constituency, mainly the ‘civil war’ Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, have tended to be the least likely to run women candidates.
The main left-wing parties, the Labour Party and Sinn Féin, have a better track record of nominating women members but have too fallen short of genuine parity in the past. This is why gender quota legislation enacted in 2012 by the Irish government was seen by the women’s movement as a considerable achievement. Modelled on quotas in Belgium and France, the Act requires political parties to run at least 30% women and 30% men candidates in future general elections, rising to 40% after seven years.
Failure to meet this will see a party lose one-half of its state funding drawn annually under the 1997 Electoral Act – quite a considerable sum. Although the legislation applies only to the Dáil, it was hoped that parties would voluntarily apply the model for the 2014 local elections as it would give them a healthy supply of seasoned women candidates for the next general election (due to be held no later than 2016). Higher district magnitudes were also expected to encourage more women candidates as this allows selectorates to nominate women without displacing too many incumbents or ‘favoured sons’.
So, 30 days ahead of polling, how does the field currently look? Overall, 17% of candidates (party and non-party) are female, the same as five years ago. There are considerable differences between political parties in the likelihood of selecting women. Fine Gael, who is currently the largest party at local level but can expect seats losses, is running 107 women (the highest number of any party), or 23%.
This is an increase of 5% on the 2009 level. Although some commentators, myself included, were optimistic about Fianna Fáil using their ‘green field pastures’ to promote new women nominees, the party’s performance has proved disappointing. Only 17% of their candidates are female, which is no statistical improvement on the last election.
As usual, left tickets are proving more gender-balanced. The Labour Party has had a one-third target for many years and 30% of their candidates are women (up 7%). The Sinn Féin figure is 32% (up 9%), while the Green Party’s is 31% (also up 9%).
After the election, a subsequent analysis of gender and electoral success will prove interesting. I would estimate that no more than one-fifth of councillors elected will be women, if even, though only time will tell.