• Frances Fitzgerald

Is there a way forward? - Women in politics

If every woman currently on the government benches received a senior Ministry or Minister of State position it would still only represent 37% of government (13/35) - even then hardly a critical mass. This stark figure clearly illustrates that within the government parties the pool of women available to serve is too small. A problem since the foundation of the state given that in total, we have only had 22 women appointed to cabinet.

As of February 2020, we have 22.5% female representation in Dáil – far from a representative democracy. During my time as a cabinet Minister, I first worked with Joan Burton and a superb female Attorney General, Máire Whelan. In the following years I saw the number of women in cabinet double from two to four in 2014 and then to five in 2016 and now stands at six including Super Juniors. I saw clearly how the increased female representation around the cabinet table made a difference – topics discussed, priorities and mindsets changed.

Does it matter that nearly 80% of our representatives in the Dáil are male? The political parties must now run 30% of female candidates, a positive action strategy. It has worked in so far that all of our parties had to ensure that 30% of women were on the ticket but it did not translate into winnable seats for those women. It was also extremely difficult for political parties to meet this quota. So, clearly quotas on their own do not solve the problem.

Why is it difficult to get more women to stand for election? What has been the actual experience of the women selected? We need to re-examine a system where women end-up contesting unwinnable seats, often being token candidates, and runner ups in our PR system. The next set of actions taken to increase the number of women must achieve real results. Women must not be selected in constituencies only to fill a quota or offered unwinnable seats! There has to be a shift in political parties’ determination and priorities to ensure meaningful and true equality can occur.

We have many women who choose public service in their communities, that are leaders in their own right but decide not to move into the political arena. Perhaps the brutality and adversarial nature of politics is a disincentive for many women and indeed men to get involved.

Where does power reside in modern politics? Are women at the highest level of decision making within the party structures? Where to from here and does it matter?

Absolutely yes it does. Later this year the Citizens’ Assembly on gender equality will report on a wide-ranging number of topics including women’s participation in public life. Recommendations which all political parties must address.

The history of our political system is patriarchal and sexist (much like the Catholic Church) and of course everyday sexism must be continually challenged in politics.

Childcare, culture, confidence, cash and candidate selection (the 5 C’s) are the long-standing obstacles facing women who want to enter political life. These obstacles are not just ones that persist in the political bubble of Leinster House but in all areas of public life. We see that women are not equally represented on boards, in business, in A.I, research and IT due to the 5 C’s even though many great strides have been made in recent years.

We urgently need an in depth and proper analysis of the experience of all women who run for election (successful and unsuccessful). The discussion and action to date has been far too abstract.

When I was Minister for Justice (2014-2017) all senior positions within our justice system including An Garda Síochána were held by women for the first time in the history of the State, a remarkable achievement. Continuity in such representations is the next task as all of these positions were occupied by male incumbents immediately after - Garda Commissioner, Chief Justice, the Attorney General and Minister for Justice.

A truly representative and diverse democracy is essential for our society. It’s true that on the international stage Ireland is seen as a progressive, equal and advanced democracy with women such as Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese exemplifying this image. We are seeing a vast change in the make-up of Irish politics – unfortunately we are not yet seeing enough women being elected to the Dáil.

The credibility of politics in Ireland depends on addressing these issues.


Frances Fitzgerald is a member of the European Parliament for the Dublin constituency, EPP Group Coordinator for the Women’s & Gender Equality Committee, formerTánaiste and Minister for Justice (2014-2017).

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