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Earlier this month the Irish Parliament (or Dáil) made history. It passed a law which says that at each general election each political party must ensure that at least 30 percent (40 percent in seven years’ time) of its candidates are female or risk losing half of it state funding. It did so after some controversy, but remarkably little given what you might expect, and certainly much less than similar proposals would have attracted in the UK. Are there lessons here for the rest of the British Isles?
There are, but they’re not necessarily the obvious ones, and they say as much about what we need to do about improving our democracy as a whole as they do about the position of women in it.
The first question to ask is what triggered such a development in what is normally thought of as a fairly conservative society. The answer is that it took a combination of factors to persuade the political establishment that it needed to change. The first is the dire economic situation, which, in a number of countries, has brought people to consider what the effect of the absence of women has been on how both governments and major institutions work.
In some countries – most notably Iceland – there has been a significant change in the gender balance of public decision-makers, and when the Irish general election in 2011 failed to deliver any improvement in terms of women elected, the incoming government (Fine Gael and their coalition partner the Labour Party) decided that something could and would be done.
Secondly, the Irish were fortunate in that some of the groundwork had already been laid. Before the election the Minister for Equality, Integration and Human Rights – Green TD (or MP) Mary White – had been working on strategies to get more women in Irish politics, and, as part of this, had opened talks with and between the political parties.
After the election, the new Minister, Labour TD Kathleen Lynch, picked this work up and, with the support of her boss, Justice Minister Alan Shatter, built upon it. As a result, the proposals which emerged had all-party support, at least in part, because they were seen as the result of proactive work by all four of the largest parties, including the former governing party, Fianna Fáil. This is remarkable, given the bitterness with which much of Irish politics is conducted, but was undoubtedly key to achieving progress.
Thirdly, quotas were not proposed as stand-alone measures or as part of equalities legislation. They are in fact embedded in a law designed to resolve some of Ireland’s problems around the funding of political parties (in particular by limiting donations and making political parties publish detailed accounts), and compliance with them is a condition of receiving the full amount of state funding provided to parties by an earlier Act in 1997. Thus the issue of women’s representation has been discussed as part of a much wider debate about how Irish democracy should work, and not just as a ‘women’s issue’. The bill was moved and supported by male ministers and party leaders as much as by female, and although women campaigned forcefully to ensure that the measure was passed, it was also publicly and robustly supported by senior political men, including the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny.
Fourthly, the penalties to be applied for failing to comply are real and meaningful. Irish political parties receive significant state funding which is to be used for things such as running costs, overheads and training (though not election expenses). In 2010 political parties received €5.38 million; halving this would therefore hit them hard. Moreover, the penalty will be applied for the full five year term of the Dáil, meaning that the loss would be significant in the long term as well as the short. Experience with similar systems in Spain (36 percent women MPs) and Belgium (38 percent) suggests that serious penalties, seriously applied, work.
And finally, the issue of state funding of politics is not in itself controversial in Ireland, which means that the mechanisms for introducing and enforcing quotas were much more obvious there than they are in the UK. In Westminster the mere mention of state funding makes most politicians flinch nervously, but experience in France – where the gender parity legislation only began to bite once the penalties were increased – demonstrates that whether used as a carrot or a stick, state funding is by far the most effective way of controlling how parties behave.
The combination of these five elements – the economic crisis, cross-party agreement, mainstream legislation, effective penalties and significant state funding – created in Ireland the climate in which quotas could come into being. These are lessons we could learn from and adapt, but whether or not we will is another matter. The fact is that, when it comes to having a representative democracy, our collective squeamishness over political and constitutional change generally leaves us stranded in the wake of our neighbours. At the moment, the only western European countries with a worse gender balance in their legislatures than the UK (currently 22 percent of MPs are women) are Ireland (15 percent) and Italy (21 percent). Various factors including the reduction in the number of seats and fewer MPs retiring mean that the likelihood of a significant increase in women MPs at the 2015 general election is low. Meanwhile Italy has a general election next year and could conceivably overtake us then, and Ireland will almost certainly overtake us in 2016.
Unless, that is, we learn from their experience and decide to do something, not just about the diversity of our democracy, but about the whole nature of it. That would mean having proper, grown-up conversations about things like state funding of political parties and the development of cross-party agreements over constitutional issues (rather than the point-scoring we see at the moment). Otherwise in four years’ time we will find ourselves propping up the European league table with no hope of getting off it for decades.
The choice is entirely ours.
With talk of a government reshuffle approaching in the Autumn David Cameron has the chance to work towards fulfilling his promise that 1/3 ministers would be women by 2015. Sign our petition to make him keep his word…