It’s important to start by recognising the spirit in which today’s conference has been held. For the last few years all parties have been working together to discuss gender equality in politics in an open and constructive way. The dialogue started by Mary White has been continued by Kathleen Lynch and I think we should thank them and the officials of the Department of Justice for their work. We should also acknowledge the all-party report which was published in the last Dáil by a committee chaired by my colleague Brendan Kennealy.
The situation today is that this issue has been studied at length and we are all agreed that there is a serious and sustained problem. In fact, I think the evidence of last year’s election is that it is a systemic problem which requires radical action or nothing will change.
The last significant increase in female representation in Dáil Éireann was twenty years ago. In 1992 there were 23 female TDs returned. Today there are 25 female TDs. Across that time, female representation within parties has gone up and down but the overall picture has remained essentially unchanged and in some cases got worse.
The first meeting of my party in 1926 was convened and chaired by a female TD, Constance Markiewicz – yet last year none of our female candidates were successful. Fifteen years ago there were three female members of Cabinet, today there are two. Today there is no female leader of a Dáil party.
There are many areas in wider society where it is possible to point to sustained progress in gender representation – albeit rarely, progress which has been fast or deep enough. In contrast, there is no area of political representation where it is credible to claim progress.
In the 80’s and 90’s the general feeling was that the big thing that was needed was a turnover in Dáil membership – that time would almost inevitably deliver major advances. Yet in 2011 50% of the membership of the Dáil changed in one fell swoop and female representation increased by exactly one out of 166.
The dramatic under-representation of half of the population in our government, in our national parliament and in our councils distorts our political culture and it can only be tackled by being willing to overturn long-established practices.
There are many things which need to be done but the two most important concern how we elect our representatives and to how we select candidates.
In other countries major advances in gender equity was enabled by the electoral system. Some countries were simply able to increase the number of women in electable positions on their lists. In others the existence of safe party seats meant that you could achieve progress through controlling nominations. Neither option is available here. There are no party lists and there are no safe seats.
Our electoral system makes it extremely difficult to break a cycle of unbalanced representation. As we saw last year, a historic level of changed essentially repeated the traditional patterns of representation. The party labels have changed but Dáil Éireann today is demographically unchanged.
I believe we have to make our electoral system more balanced if we want a more balanced outcome. My preference would be for a combination of local constituencies and a balancing national list. This would deliver real progress in gender and wider social balance. It would also give us a national politics more focused on national issues.
My party has already said that we want the Constitutional Convention to be allowed to make radical proposals in relation to the electoral system.
There also has to be a change to how candidates are selected. When parties grow to being competitive throughout the country they consistently show the same pattern in the recruitment of candidates. If a person has held an established position within a significant community organisation they are far more likely to be selected. This is for the obvious reason that the two most important reasons for choosing a candidate are that you have met them and you believe they will look after the area because of their past community activity.
The imbalance in gender representation in many community organisations is significant and it has a knock-on effect on the strength of different candidates during elections. If parties want to address this they have to change the selection procedures. The debate about quotas has been going on as long people have been debating the underrepresentation of women. There are many arguments against and many of the most eloquent speakers against quotas have been women who have succeeded in the current system. However, the fact is that the alternative to quotas is to continue with an approach which gives us a deeply distorted politics.
The current system has not worked and it will not work. If you want progress in balanced representation there is no alternative to some form of gender quota. Within the current electoral system parties can’t decide who is elected but they can decide who is up for election.
The Electoral Amendment Bill which will link party funding to gender balance in candidate lists tin the next general election was being drafted under the last government. We continue to strongly support it and are looking at ways to strengthen it further during its passage through the Oireachtas.
I don’t want to wait until 2016,so Fianna Fáil will be operating a gender balance requirement for the 2014 local elections. We will put in place a series of supports to identify and assist women who wish to stand in those elections.
To have a chance, these candidates will have to be given more time and more central supports to establish themselves. I’m determined that this will happen.
Within the party itself, our revised rules will increase gender balance requirements in officer positions. Every unit of the organisation will be obliged to respect a series of guidelines about being gender-sensitive in the rules and activities.
I believe we need to reinvigorate party political activism in this country. We need parties which are led by a more diverse and active membership base. This is an essential part of delivering a more balanced representation.
For forty years there have been reports about promoting gender equality in Irish public life. There are many areas where there has been real progress but political representation is not one of them.
This can change in the next five years if we turn the consensus that is here today into a consensus on radical action.
Being a Politician can be very challenging but also very rewarding. We all need to ensure that women are encouraged to achieve their full potential in political life. Fianna Fáil will play its part in doing this.