Dáil Éireann: A cold place for women

– There are currently 27 female TDs (16% of 166 TDs), which is the highest number of women in the Dáil ever

– Only 95 women have been elected to Dáil Éireann in its history

– Just 15 women have sat at Cabinet

– Of the 4,745 Dáil seats occupied since 1918, only 262 have been held by women

(Source: Women for Election)

TDs were left stunned in 1992 when the then-taoiseach Albert Reynolds dismissed a heckle from Fine Gael’s Nora Owen with the remark: “That’s women for you!” His remark illustrates how Irish politics has traditionally been a cold place for women.

Fast forward 23 years to September 2015.

Fianna Fáil councillor Deirdre Heney’s reaction to the decision to add former minister Sean Haughey to the party ticket in Dublin Bay North was to claim “The old boys’ brigade is alive and kicking.”

On the same day, on the banks of the Shannon at Athlone’s Hodson Bay Hotel some 150km away, the mood was much more positive.

The non-partisan ‘Women for Election’ group, which was set-up to mentor women entering politics, ran a three-day ‘political campaign school’ for general election candidates.

How to plan your electoral strategy, a ‘canvassing master class’ and a talk from former tánaiste Mary Harney were among the presentations at the Equip 2015 conference.

Will gender quotas work?

Although we do not know the general election date, it already appears that more women than ever before will contest it.  Suzanne Collins, Director of Operations and Campaigns with Women for Election, says the political parties are all on course to meet the new requirement that 30% of candidates must be female.

She added that there has been “a trickle-down effect” where over 30% of the declared independent candidates are also female. This bodes well for women’s representation in the 32nd Dáil.

Equip 2015 aimed to address the challenges women face during their campaigns.  Among those on hand to give advice were seasoned political backroom figures including Frank Flannery, Fine Gael’s former Director of Organisation and Strategy, and James Wrynn, Labour’s former Director of Elections.

Expert advice for female candidates

The difficult first hurdle

“Getting selected can be the biggest hurdle for candidates.  Particularly if you are in a political party and need to come through a selection convention.  It can sometimes be a more difficult hurdle than getting the rest of the way,” claimed Mr Wrynn.

Go into the election with your eyes open

“Winning an election is not easy.  You need to be clear about why you are doing it and what you want to achieve.  It’s expensive and it’s also difficult.  Women face more challenges going into elections than men do, simply because they are coming from a different starting point and different backgrounds.” – Nan Sloan, Director of the UK Centre for Women & Democracy.

Navigating your constituency

James Wrynn believes that, “One of the biggest difficulties is the scale of the (Dáil) constituency compared to the local electoral area where you can normally canvass it once if not twice.  With a Dáil constituency you are not going to get around it all.  You have to plan it very carefully and you have to very methodical about the kind of work that you do.”

Initial challenge for women

Ms Sloane pointed out that “Women are less likely to have a background in politics to start off with.  They are more likely to have challenges around domestic commitments and personal circumstances.  They are likely to find it less easy to raise campaign funds and they have less experience of politics so they have more to learn on the job.”

Meet your constituents

You must meet the people.  Frank Flannery says “Every candidate, whether male or female, has to make their impression, get close to their local constituents and know what their needs are.  Whether you like it or not you have got to go to the doors, meet all your constituents, get them to know you, and be an agent for them to make their lives better. With that credibility a candidate can do very well.”

James Wrynn agrees and points out: “The biggest challenge is making the electorate familiar with your candidature.  Irish people tend to only vote for people they actually have met.  80% of people vote for a person that they have met.  It doesn’t mean if they meet you they will vote for you, but if they haven’t met you, you are in a much weaker position. Getting around the constituency is one of the most important tasks.”

Get a good team around you

“Get a very good team around you, particularly if you are a first time candidate. It’s a technical business, running a campaign, doing an effective canvass, getting your message out properly, so get some experienced people to help you. A campaign is a long, arduous, tiring business and you need all the help you can get.”- Frank Flannery

Managing campaign stress

Ms Sloane, the author of the 2014 Sex & Power report in the UK added, “First of all, do not spend so much time thinking about how stressful campaigning is and to enjoy it. You need to recognise that many of the challenges of the campaign are the same for men and women. You need to remember that the objective is to win and not just to go through the process. You should keep your eyes fixed on what you are trying to achieve rather the problems of trying to achieve it.”

Plan a campaign strategy

“Candidates need to establish a working group around them and assign different tasks. They need to do it well in advance. The day the election is called, pandemonium will break out. It’s too late at that stage so the advance planning is extremely important.” – Wrynn

Don’t just make up the numbers

“I think that it is very important in this next election that a lot of women are successful candidates, not just candidates. It is very important that women candidates are not seen as token candidates. Irish politics is capable of enormous improvement and one of the improvements will be to get a lot more women into the Dáil and that will bring better politics with it.” – Frank Flannery

Make yourself relevant

Flannery believes the biggest challenge for any candidate is to make yourself relevant. “If you are a new candidate going for the first time, you’ve got to get your message in there, make your mark, become known to the people, show you are an agent for change and somebody with good ideas for the future. That’s what candidates have to do and above else, not be just token members to make up their numbers.”

Views of Candidates

What’s the biggest challenge for a female candidate?

“Money is probably the biggest challenge facing female candidates. Generally women wouldn’t have as much money as men but they have a lot more issues on how they spend their money and they are more likely to be spending it on childcare and looking after their families…” – (Lorna Bogue, Greens, Cork South West)

“There is a very big issue here when the majority of the population are treated like a minority. People have just kind of come to accept the lack of female politicians as a norm and it shouldn’t be that way. I think the whole political landscape is missing a lot when you have that lack of female input.” – (Adrienne Wallace – People Before Profit, Carlow-Kilkenny)

“You have to have passion to be a politician. If you want to win you have to have fire in your belly and you have to have tunnel vision and perseverance.” – (Mary White – Fianna Fáil, Dublin Rathdown)

“It’s difficult for women entering a man’s world and it’s difficult for the man. If you are a bit of a feminist like I am, it does unsettle people when you speak up, speak out or challenge the status quo. That is very unsettling. On the lower end of that people are nice and they tolerate you and don’t think you will do well. On the upper end, people will actually strive to get you out of the equation if possible.” – (Anne Farrell – Renua, Galway-Roscommon)

“There are a lot of positives happening and there’s a huge emphasis on the anti-everything parties. There’s a lot of positivity out there and we need to get the recognition for that.” – (Pamela Kearns – Labour Dublin South West)