With the final results of the Irish general election now in, Leah Culhane considers the impact of gender quotas on male over-representation within the lower house.
Following the onset of Ireland’s deep financial crisis, the dominating focus in the last two elections has been the need for substantive change. The ‘earthquake’ election of 2011 arguably marked a drastic shift in Irish politics, with Fianna Fáil – the party that dominated the state for almost 80 years – losing most of its Dáil seats. The 2016 election allowed voters to pass verdict on their chosen alternative: austerity under a Fine Gael/Labour coalition government. As the final votes have been transferred and counted, international media attention has focused on why the coalition failed to secure a return to office.
A prominent but under-reported feature of the Irish election, however, has been the extent to which the 32nd Dáil has changed in terms of its gender composition. As part of a broader agenda for political change, The Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012 obliged political parties to put no less than 30% male or female candidates on party tickets, or risk losing state funding. For the first time, the 2016 election attempted to challenge male over-representation and give voters a more balanced slate in terms of gender.
This was welcome news for feminist activists, particularly those who had worked within and outside parties to push its introduction. The candidate recruitment and selection process had been pinpointed as a major barrier to female candidates entering formal politics with gendered conceptions of merit, incumbency and local patronage preventing new women from breaking into Dáil Éireann. Consequently, only 25 out of the 166 seats (15%) in Dáil Éireann were occupied by women after the last election, with this figure rising to 26 following 2014 by-elections.
The introduction of the new legislation was met by controversies and even court cases. Owing to the highly localised and democratised nature of the selection process, party headquarters were accused of robbing party members of their right to select their candidates. Although parties needed to employ some centralized powers to allow women access to the ticket – through the addition of candidates and the use of party directives which specified that a constituency must choose a woman – such mechanisms have long been used to ensure geographical spread and have gone largely without criticism.
The most pressing question now is whether the gender quota has succeeded. The answer depends on how success is measured. With each of the main parties fulfilling the quota requirements, the new legislation achieved its rudimentary purpose and almost doubled the number of women who ran for election.
In the 2011 general election, only 86 (15.2%) of the 566 election candidates were female. Following the new legislation, overall female candidacy levels have risen to 29.6%, with a record number of 163 women contesting the election – almost double that of 2011.
The four main parties actually exceeded the quota, with the more left-wing parties predictably faring better than those of the centre right. Sinn Féin ran 38% female candidates (up from 19.5%) with the Irish Labour Party running 36% (up from 26.5% in 2011). Some 31% of Fianna Fáil’s candidates were female, up from a mere 14% in2011. Fine Gael ran 30.7% female candidates, up from 15.4%.
But there is a distinct difference between getting women selected and getting women elected. Prior to the election, accusations were made that some parties would fail to uphold the ‘true spirit’ of the quota and instead opt to run women in ‘unwinnable seats’, namely constituencies where the party had little support, or where there was already one or more strong (usually male) incumbent.
Such subversion is easily facilitated by Ireland’s PR-STV electoral system. With constituencies ranging from three seats to five seats, the potential for women to run without threatening or replacing an existing male incumbent means the quota could be easily filled ‘on paper’ without offering a real challenge to masculinized party cultures or male over-representation.
Overall, female representation has risen to 22.2% of TDs (members of the lower house), with a historically unprecedented 3 5 women now taking their place in Dáil Éireann. Intra-party figures are, however, quite distinct. Fianna Fáil has gone from zero to six women TDs and Sinn Féin has tripled the number of its female TDs – from two to six. The number of elected women within Fine Gael and Labour has not increased. Having traditionally employed informal intra-party gender targets, Labour boasted the most gender balanced slate prior to the election, but has now returned only two female representatives, with five sitting female TDs losing out. Fine Gael has lost three female incumbents. When the downward trajectory of both parties is considered, women hold a higher percentage of each of the parties overall seats than in 2011.
Women now make up 22% of FG TDs compared to 14.5% after the last election. Some 28.6% of Labour TDs are now female, up from21.6%. Women now hold 26.1%(up from 14.3%) of Sinn Féin’s seats and 13.6% of Fianna Fáil seats. Several non- incumbent females were elected, which is a positive sign for those interested in evaluating party efforts.
It can therefore be argued that the quota has significantly altered gender patterns of representation within political parties (to varying extents), even if a 30% quota has not translated into 30% female representation.
Others might argue that the true measure of success will be the extent to which these results have an impact on policy outcomes more broadly. It is hazardous however to suggest that this should be the true purpose of the new rule, considering that female representatives are ideologically diverse and cannot be expected to automatically represent feminist interests. With the quota set to rise to 40% in the next general election and with a number of first time female representatives gaining name recognition from this election, the potential for further increases looks positive.