Sinn Féin, the Labour Party, and the Social Democrats are all led by formidable women, and they were handed a golden opportunity to make their case to the public by an administration that is all at sea on one of the most important topics that affect ordinary citizens – the right to have a roof over their head.

The ban on “no fault” evictions expired last weekend and is expected to lead to thousands of householders being served with eviction notices by landlords.

Quick into the fray was Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald. Despite a rocky start to her tenure as leader of that party and the challenges of filling the shoes of an iconic Gerry Adams – she famously said, “I won't fill Gerry's shoes, but I brought my own shoes” – McDonald has grown in confidence and self-belief. 

Sinn Féin introduced a motion in the Dáil calling for the eviction ban to be extended until next year. In a strong parliamentary performance, she stated, “The government is scrambling all over the place but remains unable to answer the one fundamental question: where are people to go?”

It was a speech that struck a chord with people as the media has been full of distressing stories of people awaiting eviction, from pregnant women, elderly couples, and cancer patients. For a while, it looked as if the government would be under real pressure to win the vote, and they even lost one of their own members on the issue. However, at the end of the day, they cobbled a deal together with some independents and lived to fight another day. 

We've heard stories of children asking where they’ll have their birthday party if they must leave

How do you tell a child that their home isn’t their home anymore?

How can anyone have confidence in a government that does this to so many families? #WhereDoWeGo @MaryLouMcDonald

— Sinn Féin (@sinnfeinireland) March 31, 2023

All in all a good performance from McDonald, but the gloss was taken off the party somewhat by a divisive tweet put up by her spokesperson on housing who posted a picture of gardai who were edited in assisting at an eviction a la 1890.

Comparing the gardai to the dreaded and hated “peelers” was widely criticized and won no kudos for Sinn Féin among the floating voter.

No words needed (credit Mála Spíosraí)

— Eoin Ó Broin (@EOBroin) April 1, 2023

Next up was Labour Party leader Ivana Bacik, whose party put down a motion of no confidence in the government. Given that the issue they chose to base it on was the eviction ban it was always going to fail as it came just one week after the Sinn Féin proposal, and fail it did. 

In fact, there was a larger majority in favour of the government which really demonstrated how pointless the exercise was. There was a whiff of desperation from Bacik when at her party’s annual conference a fortnight ago she promised “a million homes” within 10 years. No serious commentator took that commitment seriously, and frankly, it looks like a rehash of promises the Labour Party in the UK made some years ago. 

That Bacik is under pressure to move the needle for her party is not in doubt. Previous leader Alan Kelly was forced to stand down when the party were at four percent in the opinion polls; latest polls last weekend show the party languishing at three percent. 

The Government’s performative anger is fooling no one.

The decision to lift the eviction ban was done with no data or projections for just how many people will be made homeless from April 1st.

The current conservative Government are failing the people of Ireland.

— The Labour Party (@labour) March 29, 2023

While she remains one of the most accomplished parliamentarians of her generation, Bacik still struggles to break through into public consciousness. She now has an additional problem to deal with, and that is Holly Cairns of the Social Democrats (SD).

A breakaway from the Labour Party, the SDs have made a good job of stealing their clothes. Left of center with a strong base in city areas, the party is poised, at seven percent in the polls, to leapfrog electorally over their estranged former colleagues. 

Cairns has been welcomed as a “breath of fresh air” by the media. Aged just 33, she represents a largely rural Cork constituency yet has made an impact in urban Ireland. While all is positive at the moment for her, and in a new opinion poll she was the most popular political leader, there is an air of intolerance surrounding her. 

For instance, she previously tweeted during the last papal interregnum that she would get an abortion for every minute of reporting given to the papal conclave. But then again, the current zeitgeist is to be anti-Catholic so maybe she is in tune with that. 

Time is running out for this government.

The people it has failed on housing have had enough.

They lost confidence in this government a long time ago and it isn't coming back.

— Holly Cairns TD (@HollyCairnsTD) March 29, 2023

We may therefore anticipate a lot of jockeying for positions in the lead-up to the next election, especially between Bacik and Cairns. It is now undoubtedly off the table for the two parties they lead to merge, contrary to earlier rumours. Labour's concerns about Cairns receiving too favorable media are hollow in light of the fact that Bacik had similar coverage upon becoming leader just a year ago.

Women have come a long way in Irish politics in the 109 years since Cumann Na Ban was founded on April 2, 1914 for Irish Republican women. An adjunct to the Irish Volunteers, they played a major role in the War of Independence and were involved in intelligence gathering, fundraising, and gun running. 

Despite their enormous contribution to independence, their input into formal party political politics was marginal in the new Irish state with the first female minister not appointed until 1972. Even today, the percentage of women TDs is only 23 percent, this despite positive discrimination measures which penalize parties that don’t have at least 30 percent female candidates, a figure that is due to rise to 40 percent at the next election.

Despite all that, even today there remains a glass ceiling for women in public life as, for instance, we await our first female Taoiseach. All three have had to deal, to various degrees, with misogyny and sexism in their ascent through the political ranks. 

That’s all changing, and while I cannot see myself supporting the parties they represent I wish them well for the future.

*This column first appeared in the April 5 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral. Michael O'Dowd is brothers with Niall O'Dowd, founder of the Irish Voice and IrishCentral.