The Irish Parliament (Oireachtas) includes the Dáil (lower House) and Seanad (Senate or upper House).
There are 158 members (TDs) in the Dáil, and 60 Senators in the Seanad. There are now 35 women out of 158 TDs in the Dáil (22%) and 19 women Senators (32%).
The figure of 35 women TDs places Ireland in 76th place in the world tables of women’s representation in the lower or single house of national parliaments (www.ipu.org). Ireland is placed 25th out of 28 in the EU. The percentage of women TDs increased from 16 per cent in the 2016 election, a very welcome shift in Irish politics towards a more representative parliament. The Dáil had previously remained at least 84% male.
Ireland’s ranking has worsened over the last two decades. In 1990, when Mary Robinson became Ireland’s first woman President, Ireland was at 37th position in the world rankings. Ireland’s position has worsened because we have never significantly increased the numbers of women elected – unlike other countries like Belgium and Spain which have introduced positive action measures.
Out of the 4,452 Dáil seats filled between 1918-2009, only 219 were filled by women (4.9%).
Out of the 1,620 Seanad seats filled between 1922-2009, only 151 of these were filled by women (9.3%).
In 1918 women achieved the right to vote in Ireland for the first time. In the general election of December 1918, Constance Markievicz was the first woman TD and MP elected. The year 2008 marked the 90th anniversary of this historic event. In December 2008 I organised an ‘Oireachtas Women’ event and invited all those women still living who had ever been elected TDs or Senators to attend the Dáil chamber for speeches and a photograph. Approximately 80 women attended - the Dáil was half-full of women for the first time ever.
In November 2009, I authored a report on ‘Women’s Participation in Politics’ for the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice. This Report found that the obstacles to women’s equal participation in politics can be described as ‘the five Cs’ – Cash, Childcare, Confidence, Culture and Candidate selection procedures.
A key recommendation in the Report was the introduction of positive action legislation to require political parties to select a minimum proportion of women candidates for each election (an electoral gender quota). This had been a Labour Women policy for some years, and informal quotas are in place within the Labour Party.
The Report and the quota recommendation was debated in the Seanad and also debated widely in the public arena. The National Women’s Council and NGOs like 50:50 by 2020 and Women for Election campaigned nationally for a gender quota.
The gender quota recommendation became part of the Programme for Government of the Fine Gael/Labour coalition elected in February 2011.
The Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill was introduced in the Seanad in February 2012, and became an Act in July 2012.
For the first time, the Act introduces an electoral gender quota into the Irish political system. Section 42 provides that any political party which does not have at least 30% of its candidates of each gender at the next General Election (February 26th 2016) will have its State funding cut by half. The quota rises to 40% seven years after the next General Election. This provision is likely to have a transformative effect on Irish politics.