A bill has been passed by the Seanad this past week which, if ratified by the Dáil, will introduce gender quotas into Irish politics. The bill requires either gender to be represented by at least 30% of a party’s candidates in a general election. This is set to be raised to 40% within seven years. Parties that do not comply with these enforced quotas will have their State funding cut significantly.
The Seanad is fairly useless at the best of times, having been invented by Bertie Ahern in the late 90’s purely as an excuse to keep David Norris busy so he’d stop bothering everyone at the water cooler with meandering stories about James Joyce. With this proposed change to electoral practises the upper house shows itself to be embarrassingly antiquated and wholly ignorant of any kind of progressive politics in promoting an absurdly limited and simplistic policy of affirmative action. This pathetic attempt at legislation makes two specious assumptions: firstly, that there is a problem with the present situation and secondly, that this proposal will act as the solution.
Conveniently, this decision by the Seanad came just days after International Women’s Day was celebrated. It is difficult to imagine now of course, but there was a time, before the inaugural Women’s Day, when people could appreciate the achievements of women throughout the whole year, or indeed over the course of some, or even many years. God be with the dark days before tokenistic gestures and patronising nonsense shook some sense into us all.
It should also be pointed out that, seeing as this year has but three hundred and sixty-six days, and that the number of causes worthy of remembrance and adulation far exceeds this figure, the eighth of March was also International Uncles Day, International Adopted Orphans Day, International Raccoon Day, International Cat Day, International Dog Day, International CatDog Day, International Day for International Days of Commemoration, and International Day for Sentences that Have Gone on Far Too Long Now at This Stage.
One of the most vocal proponents of this new legislation has been the 50/50 Group, which advocates a 50/50 split between men and women in Irish politics by the year 2020. This target is referred to on their website as ‘Equal Political Representation’. Of course anyone with a basic understanding of the word ‘equal’, or even the phrase ‘common sense’, will realise that this situation would be by no means equitable.
Leaving aside for a moment the undemocratic systems that would have to be implemented to force such a ratio (beginning with ridiculous bills like this one), let’s examine the idea of a truly equal and representative political body. Numbers would be split practically down the middle along gender lines, as suggested, but what of the many other divisions within our society? To be truly equal would necessitate a certain amount of black candidates as well as white; Chinese and Polish as well as indigenous Irish; gay, bisexual and transgender as well as straight; candidates chosen to represent different religious beliefs, disabilities, and countless other categories of candidate, all in order to appear ‘equal’.
At the moment there are twenty-five female TDs in the Dáil, as well as 18 female Senators. Many more women ran unsuccessfully in the last election, and even more campaigned to be chosen by their relative parties for the ballot. There have been many mutterings about the reluctance of the patriarchal politicos to nominate female candidates for election within the parties, but this is a matter for the parties themselves. It should come as no surprise to people that stagnant, traditionalist parties like Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are implicitly old-fashioned in their views. Any woman, or man for that matter, who doesn’t want to run for a party with these attitudes is free to run as an independent, or to set up their own party.
Interestingly, the fact that women are in the minority in politics is almost exclusively seen as a negative thing. Certainly when it comes to decision-making on topics of national interest, it is important for women to have their voice heard, but this could be said of any sectional interest group, and is the reason why our politicians are accountable to the constituents that they represent.
But when examining the reasons for such marginal representation in the political sphere, there is an argument for women taking a certain amount of solace, and even pride, in their meagre numbers. Politics is far from the noble service it is made out to be. More often than not, especially on a national scale, it is ego-driven, primitive chest-beating; a cacophony of small men with loud voices, wielding instruments of war and economy like a toddler would his favourite toys. In an Irish context, most politicians fall breathtakingly short of even a veneer of competence in most of their endeavours. Many are educated but few are intelligent. The majority of our representatives essentially comprise an old boys’ club of tired hacks who play out petty squabbles while the rest of us look on with a mixture of sympathy and vague disgust.
Politics is very much the construct of men, embodying and in turn magnifying all of our foibles and weaknesses on a grand stage. If I were one among the supposedly marginalised Irish women, I for one would be heartened by such a stark reality.