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Ireland Government's women trouble - why we badly need new gender quota

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Irish female politicians past and present
Last week while browsing this website I came across an op-ed from our esteemed political analyst, Patrick Roberts, about his displeasure that gender quotas will be introduced in the next election. And I could not have disagreed with him more.

In theory, I get why quotas might be discomforting, even to avowed feminists. There’s a danger it codifies rather than breaks down the glass ceiling, merely giving women in politics a slightly larger cordon than they already have.

But a 30% quota shouldn’t be seen as the solution, but as the introduction of a bare minimum of standards. At the minute, there is a pathetic dearth of women in the Dáil, and an even more pathetic dearth of candidates. Only three constituencies had five women candidates running (none had more than that) and some constituencies had no women running in them at all. Unless you think women are physiologically less able to run for and hold elected office (i.e. insane), that means the current system is failing them badly.

There are all sorts of reasons why there haven’t been enough women in politics over the years, fundamental to them all though was a default patriarchy, a patriarchy that thanks to the 1937 Constitution has been both followed in the breach and the observance. But past practice and policy is no justification to perpetuate it, and in modern times it’s simply not acceptable to call for anyone to call for a fair race when you have a head start of miles.

The thing is, people can say they’re all for equality until their hair turns blue but it requires people to do something about it to actually achieve it. As it stands, political parties are not doing enough to shake off their just-for-the-lads mentality and seek out women candidates, women who are put off by the system as it stands and have taken their much-needed skills elsewhere. And even the ones that are in the political system are in a pitiful minority in the top jobs: three out of fifteen full cabinet ministers and four out of fifteen is a risible number in 2012.

But it’s not just a case of upping the numbers for the sake of it, we badly need the views and expertise of a wide range of people at government level and we only do ourselves a disservice by not listening to them. It’s absolute lunacy that half the voting public don’t even account for a quarter of the representation.
Not that the drive for equality should end with women, it’s just as vital that people of different cultures and creeds and classes participate in the political process and shape it to wider benefit. That requires a level of diversity and outreach that some may find unsettling or PC gone mad or what have you, but if the political system shook itself out of its’ monolithic torpor in the first place the question of quotas wouldn’t need to be broached at all.

In the landmark British sitcom Yes Prime Minister, when an idea very similar to this was proposed at a civil service meeting, all the (male) heads of department wholeheartedly agreed with the idea but one by one suggested problems implementing it. The Foreign Office couldn’t appoint women ambassadors to Arab countries, the Home Office wasn’t suitable because women couldn’t run prisons, Employment was a no-go because of the difficult to manage, burly trade unionists and Defence was out because a woman wasn’t really suitable to run security or rough it with Admirals. As sure as art imitates life, hegemony will always put up a fight, but they’re on the wrong side of this one.

Having traipsed up and down the country as a youth worker, I’ve done projects with a great many fantastic young women, young women who if they were so inclined could go right to the top of the political ladder. A lot of them come from constituencies where women were all but non-existent on the ballot paper, and so the question we have to ask ourself is, will we stand for another generation of talented young woman having obstacle and stymie thrown their way? Quotas aren’t perfect and they aren’t a solution, but we need political parties finding these young women, and we need them too. Our future depends on them. 

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