Political decisions made that affect women are made overwhelmingly by men and nowhere more so than in our Parliament. For that reason, it is a hugely significant development that this government is set to introduce legislation to bring a system of gender balance for General Elections. It is badly needed.
Today, the statistics in relation to Ireland’s numbers of women parliamentarians are a cause for concern. For instance, for every one woman in the Dáil there are eight men! In total, there are 22 women members out of a possible 166 TDs, which is one of the lowest percentages across Europe.
Sub-Saharan African countries, with 18.8% of women in parliament, are ahead of Ireland in terms of representation of women. We have made little progress towards the UN goal of 30% female representation in national parliaments. At the rate we are going, it will take 370 years for the percentage of women in the Dáil to reach 50%.
The lack of female politicians at the level of policy and law making in Ireland is an example of the difficulties many women face in accessing employment in general. The working of our parliament with both its social and family unfriendly working hours, is such that it works against women with young children – an issue that all working women in Ireland can relate to.
The participation of women in decision and policy making is crucial in order to highlight the issues that secure women’s general position within society. The inclusion of women’s perspectives into government policies and programmes means that issues such as childcare, equality in the workplace, the health care coverage needs of midlife and older women, social welfare, pension reform, retirement security for women, home care, long term care, housing and domestic violence can be dealt with properly.
However, despite the small percentage of women in politics in Ireland over the years, I believe the influence and contributions made by these women far outweigh their numbers.
Mary Robinson revolutionised the role of the President in Ireland, raised the profile of “Mna na h-Eireann” both nationally and internationally and successfully went on to one of the most important roles in the UN.
Mary McAleese, our recent President of Ireland, continues to prove that the role of women can positively influence Irish Society.
Indeed, a former Labour TD and a Cork woman, Eileen Desmond will always be remembered as one of the most outstanding women members ever produced by our Parliament.
She became the first woman to be appointed to a senior Cabinet position since Countess Markievicz, and many thousands of unemployed people and people living on pensions will remember that her relatively short tenure in that office was marked by her compassion and achievements in representing people on lower incomes.
I am a member of one political party that almost uniquely, has one-third female representation, but I would like to see more women in the Labour Party itself and in all the other political parties.
The Labour Party has for many years committed itself to providing a solution to the problem of gender disparity through similar solutions.
This promise has been outlined in both the 2007 and 2011 Labour Election Manifesto.
In Opposition, I published a Bill to encourage and incentivise political parties to select women for elections.
The proposed changes in legislation as stated in the Bill we are discussing this evening will include a cut in funding from the State to political parties that do not have 30% female and 30% male candidates at the next general election.
After 7 years this will increase to 40% and while it only applies to general elections, this change of culture will hopefully extend to local elections on a voluntary basis within each political party.
The Labour Party is committed to creating a more transparent and equal political system and the amendments to this Bill reflect many of the changes Labour have been advocating for many years.
This legislation will bring Ireland into line with many of our European neighbours. Five Member States, Belgium, France, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain, have legislative quotas for general election candidates. 14 Member States have voluntary quotas.
The passing of this Bill will also make Ireland compliant with a European Parliament Resolution, which recommends countries in the EU to increase their gender balance among electoral candidates.
Overall, gender parity is not just a gender issue; it is ultimately a societal issue and is one of just a series of reforms that can be introduced to improve and enhance a more balanced political system.