An accepted democratic deficit

The following article was published at online news forum Dublin Observer and refers to the recent highlighting of the gender quota issue in the Dáil. You can read it here.

On a recent Saturday afternoon I sat and read the Irish Times. On page three of the Weekender supplement, my party colleague Olwyn Enright smiled back at me. The Deputy, having served the people of Laois/Offaly for the past eight years had come to the decision that her family commitments and the demands of being a rural deputy were incompatible. At 36, Deputy Enright is one of the youngest Fine Gael TD’s in Dáil Eireann and whilst the decision is entirely hers to make and not one that should be questioned, it does throw into stark relief the decisions faced by female members of the Oireachtas, those which in all likelihood are not being laboured over by their male counterparts.

In 2006, the Central Statistics Office found that there virtually the same number of women and men in Ireland. Perhaps it is about time that we, as a mature nation, realise that our beloved mothers, sisters, wives and daughters represent half the population and that like it or not they should be represented fairly and equally right across all levels of government. This democratic deficit can only be addressed when we begin to discuss and address why women chose not to go in to politics. Perhaps the judgement foisted upon women by their peers, their relatives, their neighbours, fellow party members and finally the electorate puts them off (when was the last time that a male political was ridiculed for his choice of outfit or his profile picture on facebook), or maybe the length and venues of some political meetings at grass routes level and in the Oireachtas itself (when coupled with a perceived role in our society as the main carer) prevents or discourages women from participating or engaging in politics.

With just 14% of TD’s in Dáil Eireann being women, is our society or our political system to blame? Or is our political system a reflection of our society and the role that it has carved for women. Is the type of support available in modern Ireland that allows a woman to make a choice without judgement or ridicule? I believe the statistics answer this question. In 2009, only 14% of TDs in Dáil Eireann were women, while they accounted for 34% of members of State Boards, 17% of members of local authorities and just 12% of members of regional authorities. The average representation in national parliaments for EU 27 countries was nearly 24% in 2009.

Our society has seen rapid changes in the last number of decades. These changes have lead to the old notions as to the roles that men and women play in our society being turned on their heads, often being discarded outright. What replaces these notions is key to the evolution of our society and indeed our political system. Key to this evolution is the question: why are there low numbers of female parliamentarians?

Political equality is essential for a properly functioning democracy. It is clear that women are not running for political office in the numbers necessary to begin to equalise this imbalance. We should, as a modern democracy encourage open debate on this issue both at party political and national level. If we want more than empty rhetoric then Irish society and we as individuals and indeed our political parties need to examine our own motivations and behaviours. Undoubtedly only a strong willed person would chose to enter politics and we are not short on strong willed women in this country, so what is putting them off politics?

While the Oireachtas has recommended the introduction of gender quotas or targets as a means to resolve this imbalance, it is clear that our political systems and method of voting may also need to be examined in order to truly level the playing field. While part of the resolution to this problem may lie with gender quotas, the political establishment must alter the means of candidate recruitment and selection in order to ensure that women are given the same opportunities as men. Perhaps the Irish people and the Dáil could consider the charter of International IDEA, a Swedish based democracy lobby group; “The pursuit of democracy is incomplete without policies, measures and practices that seek to reduce inequalities between men and women in all spheres of life.”

I believe that the time has come for us all to examine this issue in greater detail. A sea change in the Irish political system is needed if we are to have anything approaching equality.