A Brief Study of Women’s Participation in Irish Politics, using a comparative approach

The issue of citizenship, citizenship rights and responsibilities is the concern of every modern state.  As I compose this piece in 2012, there are currently two states governing four Irish provinces with a combined population of just under 6.5 million citizens on one island. One of these states actively excluded communities, leading to a lack of equality and the denial of citizenship rights including civil, political, social and cultural. A lot of work has been undertaken to improve citizenship rights including;

  • Civil – which relate to freedom of the person, freedom of speech, thought and faith. Freedom to own property and the right to justice.
  • Political – the right to participate in political processes including voting in elections.
  • Social – the right to live a civilised life with the right to economic welfare and security
  • Cultural – recognition of national and ethnic diversity including special rights for representation.

Differentiated citizenship is applicable to different groups, including women. The recent role of women in Irish politics famously began with the election of Countess Markievicz in 1918 to Parliament in London. She did not take up her seat and concentrated her efforts in forming the first Dáil. It was following a long campaign (thanks to Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington and supporters), in 1918, Women over the age of 30 who owned property were given the right to vote and later in 1922, all women over the age of 21 got the vote (1928 in Britain after the violent suffrage campaign). Through citizenship and rights such as the right to vote, the state acknowledges it’s responsibility to those citizens who become, in an ideal system, active participants, influencing public discourse.

If we look at some of our neighbours in Europe it becomes clear that the inclusion of women in the Dáil in the early 20th century was ahead of its time, especially in contrast to France, which only gave women the vote in 1944. The Nordic countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland) were and are largely involved in a more active citizenship, with Denmark giving women the right to vote in 1915 without the need for the violent suffrage movement. Theses countries have put gender equality at the fore of their political goals, incorporating at various stages quota systems to encourage more female participation. Interestingly, in Denmark, it was at the request of young female party members that the quota system was abandoned as it had served it’s purpose with the Nordic countries such as Sweden, topping the tables until 2003 when Rwanda over took Sweden with almost 49% female parliament members.

The most recent Women in Parliament study in October 2012 maps the percentage participation of women in parliaments across the world. As you would expect countries like Sweden are near the top (fourth at 44.7%), Rwanda has stayed at the top spot at 56.3% with Andorra and Cuba close behind. But what of Irish women in politics, surely with such a crucial role from the beginning, gender equality wouldn’t even need to be worked at, and it hasn’t been!. Although women did not get the vote in France until 22 years after Irish women, France sits 38th with 26.9% female participation. The Republic of Ireland is way down the list, sitting at 91st position (15.1%).  So by comparing these figures what do we learn?

By using a comparative approach we can look at how government policy, over time, improves gender equality . Comparison of various systems and policies and their results may help us to understand how the modern state can recognise diversity and actively encourage integration through participation. France, a fellow republic, passed a constitutional amendment in 1999 and an electorial law in 2000 regulating the proportion of women candidates in local, regional and European elections.Of course there were objections to this form of parity, mainly through worries that it would lead to  the under representation of other ethnic groups.

Comparing countries and policies does have limitations, and every state operates within its own specific parameters, but by comparing empirical research we can pick up worrying trends of inequality, mapping them over time and analysing whether policy changes have any effect. In Ireland, however , with gender quotas only coming on line in the near future, it appears that Ireland has become at least 20 years behind some of our neighbours in addressing the specific issue of gender inequality and female under representation in the Oireachtas. This is a worrying situation, especially if you consider that women outnumber men by 43, 864 overall in this state (2011 census).

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