Gender Quota legislation: Challenges and opportunities

Adrian Kavanagh, 19th July 2012

The passing of gender quota legislation in the Dail today, linking the state funding of political parties to a requirement that female candidates will account for at least 30% of those parties’ total number of candidates, is a notable achievement and a timely one, given the desperately low levels of female candidatures as highlighted by previous posts relating to this topic on this site. But it does not fully solve the problem of low levels of female representation at national or local levels, although it is without a key first step in this process, as a number of challenges are posed in relation to the effective implementation of such quotas by the different political parties. 

One of these challenges was the decision by the Constituency Commission to reduce the number of Dail seat numbers by eight, in light of the government’s decision to reduce such numbers as highlighted in the 2011 Electoral Act. This means that any increased number of female candidates will ultimately be vying for a smaller number of Dail seats. It also poses some hard decisions for a number of the political parties, but especially Fine Gael. On the one hand the parties may feel the need to reduce candidate numbers at the next election in light of reduction in Dail seat numbers from 166 to 158, but on the other hand gender quota provisions will require these parties to run a significantly higher number of female candidates. The former scenario may not earn favour amongst political parties, but it is worth noting that there are a number of recent cases where parties managed to gain/retain seats despite apparently “running too many candidates” as evident in the cases such as Fine Gael in Galway East (2007/2011), Labour in Galway East (2011), the Progressive Democrats in Galway West (2002/2007) and Fianna Fail in Laois-Offaly in 2011 (the party did lose a seat here, but the decision to run three candidates instead of two was instrumental in Fianna Fail holding two of their seats in that elections). The latter scenario would either be requiring parties to run larger numbers of candidates in total for a smaller number of seats, or else may require these parties to reduce their number of male candidates either by blocking the candidatures of male aspirants or possibly by means of the de-selection of male incumbents.  This, in turn, could lead to a significant increase in the number of gene pool independents at the next election, as disaffected male candidates, who feel they have been unfairly blocked at party selection conventions due to the gender quota, may opt to run as independent candidates and could ultimately go on to defeat the female official party candidate in the general election contest, especially if the political context of the next general election is favourable towards independent candidates. Thus, one knock on effect of the legislation may be to increase the number of male independent candidates at the next election, over and above the already skewed proportion of males amongst the independent candidate ranks at the last general election.

Against this, one other knock on effect of the recent Constituency Commission report is that this does offer opportunity spaces for female candidates to compete successfully for seats in the newly enlarged (amalgamated) constituencies (such as Dublin Bay North, Donegal, Kerry and Tipperary) or in constituencies that effectively gained seats in these boundary redrawals (such as Offaly and Dublin Fingal). Evidence from the last local elections showed instances where new female candidates were able to emerge with significant levels of success in local electoral areas that had gained seats, as indeed was the case with the three Dublin Inner City constituencies. Against that, the loss of seats by certain constituencies (such as Dublin Rathdown (the old Dublin South) and Dublin South Central) will pose significant challenges for female aspirants and female incumbents (as indeed for male aspirants and incumbents) contesting these constituencies.

Another worry is that political parties may simply run a number of female candidates as paper candidates in order to bring up the party’s percentage of female candidates above the 30% level. In the case of the smaller parties this may amount to these parties running a large number of female candidates in constituencies where they feel they have little chance of winning seats, e.g. Sinn Fein running female candidates in Dun Laoghaire and Dublin Rathdown (although admittedly Sinn Fein did run a female candidate, Sorcha Nic Cormaic, in the old Dublin South), the Green Party running female candidates in rural constituencies. The same thing could also apply in the case of Labour with regards to a number of constituencies in the Connacht-Ulster region, or indeed other constituencies in rural Ireland such as the new Offaly constituency. In the case of the larger parties, this might amount to female candidates being added to the ticket in constituencies (especially relatively close to the holding of the election) where they enjoy little prospect of winning seats and may ultimately be there as sweeper candidates to win votes in their immediate local areas that can then be transferred on to, and help elect, their more established male running mates. Against this argument, it is worth noting that female candidates, once selected, generally tended to be almost as successful as male candidates at the last general election; the low number of votes won by female candidates at General Election 2011 was largely due to the low numbers of female candidates selected by the parties (in addition to the very low percentage of females amongst the independent candidate ranks) at that contest.

The gender quota legislation will pose significant opportunities and challenges for all political parties, but may prove more challenging for the government parties, and especially Fine Gael, who may ultimately find themselves victims of their own success at General Election 2011. In the case of Fine Gael, that party won 76 seats at this election with 65 of those seats being won by male candidates. If all these male incumbents decided to contest the next election (excluding Sean Barrett, the Ceann Comhairle), the party would need to run at least 28 female candidates (up from 16 in 2011) at this election in order to not breach the legislation. These numbers would have to increase further in line with the selection of male aspirants/non-incumbents. Indeed, if Fine Gael were to run the same number of male candidates (88) as the party did in 2011 then they would have to run 38 female candidates, amounting to an increase of 22 (a 21.2% increase) in that party’s total number of candidates relative to the numbers contesting the last election.  The scenario is not as challenging for Labour, as this party was one of the more successful parties in relation to female candidate levels at the last election, even though their percentage level of female candidates (26.5%) still fell somewhat short of the 30% target. All of the Labour male incumbents (30) could contest the next election without requiring an increase in the number of female candidates (which stood at 18 at the 2011 contest), although the party would be limited in terms of the number of further male aspirants that they could add. If the party ran the same number of female candidates as in 2011 at the next election, the gender quota legislation would not require Labour to de-select any of their male incumbents but would limit the party in terms of the number of male non-incumbents that the party could choose to run (to no greater than six).

Ironically, the extent of Fianna Fail losses at the 2011 General Election means that this party is best placed to implement, and indeed gain electorally, from the gender quota legislation. The extent of lost seats and the number of retirements of senior male Fianna Fail figures in 2011 (which in fairness exceeded the level of retirements by female Fianna Fail members – even though no female won a seat, the Fianna Fail females could not be accused of shirking the fight at the 2011 contests) means that a number of constituencies either now have no Fianna Fail deputy (e.g. the Dublin constituencies) or else have scope for a second Fianna Fail challenger to contest for a seat should party fortunes improve.  This opens up a number of opportunity spaces for aspirant new female candidates to challenge for nominations and seats in constituencies where they party lost seats in 2011 and where Fianna Fail would be looking for new candidates in any course. In turn, an influx of new, younger, female candidates into the party candidate ranks at the next election could allow Fianna Fail to present a different image and to further distance themselves from the levels of toxicity associated with the last few Fianna Fail governments that resulted in the party’s collapse at the 2011 contest.

One final note and one concern I would have with this legislation is that this just applies at the national level and there is no requirement for this legislation to be implemented at the local level for local authority elections. But research shows that most successful candidates at Dail elections will have ultimately been successful first of all at local elections, and local elections can prove to be crucial in terms of the recruitment and blooding of potential new general election candidates. There is no requirement for parties to increase female candidacy levels for local elections above the low levels associated with previous such contests, but a failure to do so will ultimately make things more difficult when it comes to selecting female candidates and implementing the gender quota legislation at the subsequent general election contest. Hopefully parties will be proactive in this regard and take action to increase female local election candidature numbers without needing to be prompted by legislation – something ultimately that would also be desirable at the national level.


About Adrian Kavanagh

Lecturer at the Maynooth University Department of Geography. Email:
This entry was posted in Constituency Commission, Gender and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Gender Quota legislation: Challenges and opportunities

  1. DJ Moore says:

    I would disagree with the suggestion that the legislation is a “notable achievement”, Adrian – I would instead take the view (as put forward by Joanna Tuffy TD) that this is actually an extremely flawed piece of legislation which doesn’t in any way address the real reasons why women aren’t being selected as candidates (namely, that they are simply not putting themselves forwards for other reasons) and instead seeks to undermine the power of the ordinary members in political parties to select the party candidates – in short it damages grassroots democracy.

    What is likely to happen in practice, is not that male candidates selected at convention would afterwards be deselected; it is rather that party HQs will be very tempted to pre-empt such situations by restricting the numbers of candidates picked by local conventions and reserving a set number of candidate selections to some form of an elite selection committee. The effect of course will be the same and may well lead to the scenario you paint above ie “This, in turn, could lead to a significant increase in the number of gene pool independents at the next election, as disaffected male candidates, who feel they have been unfairly blocked at party selection conventions due to the gender quota, may opt to run as independent candidates and could ultimately go on to defeat the female official party candidate in the general election contest…”

    If it were a case that the Gender Quotas legislation would simply lead to extra female candidates being added to tickets, it wouldn’t be quite so problematic. However the current thinking in party HQs is that a conservative selection strategy maximises seat wins ie if you are looking to win two seats in a constituency, run two candidates not three. Therefore party HQs will be loathe to simply “top-up” candidate lists with female candidates to achieve the gender quota – instead they will be much more minded to restrict the number of candidates conventions can pick to achieve the same effect.

    You raise an interesting point with “Another worry is that political parties may simply run a number of female candidates as paper candidates in order to bring up the party’s percentage of female candidates above the 30% level.” – in other words, that female candidates might be run as “token women”. I would take that further, and postulate that even where women are selected by their parties to seriously contest for a seat, if they don’t have the mandate of having been selected at a local selection convention, they too are at risk of being labelled and viewed as “token women”, irrespective of their talents or abilities.

    Essentially, my main problem with the legislation (and my problem is with the legislation – not with the analysis above which is thorough and topnotch) is that it directly contradicts the move towards greater grassroot democracy in parties in the form of One Member One Vote selection conventions. What is the point of having One Member One Vote selection conventions if they in the main become mere rubber-stamping sessions for incumbent candidates, whilst new candidate selection is mainly the preserve of a HQ selection committee? In my view, this legislation is seriously flawed, and it is unfortunate that it was left to a Government backbencher in the Dail to address those flaws.

    • While I myself have outlined some issues associated with this proposal and you note some valid points there also (some of which are covered in my own post), I still contend that given the seriously low levels of female candidacies in past elections that something had to be done. I think Joanna is right to a degree in suggesting that there are more effective means of addressing the real issues associating low levels of females in Irish electoral politics, but such measures would require a lot of time and I would look on the quota as an imperfect, but important, first step (and probably a temporary interim step) in terms of this process.

      Just a correction – I did not refer to the de-selection of males selected at conventions in my post but was instead talking about cases where sitting male TDs may not be selected to contest the next election arising from a need to reduce male candidate numbers. In terms of how the process will operate I’d agree that this will probably be on the basis of parties trying to limit the numbers of candidates that the membership can select, rather than actively de-selecting candidates chosen at a convention although there is a precedent for deselecting candidates (Tipperary North, 2002).

      Your point about the marginalisation of ordinary party members in terms of the selection process is a valid one, but it is worth noting that the power to select has been taken away from the constituency members in more than a number of case anyway over recent elections for other reasons, such as incumbency or geography. And just as I acknowledge that party members should have a say in the selection process, I also think the electorate has the right to be able to vote for candidates who will be better equipped to represent them: the local party does not always get it right when it comes to candidate selection and there is a need for party headquarters to offer some balance in this regard but not to the extent of totally disempowering the local membership.

  2. DJ Moore says:

    Adrian, maybe indeed “something has to be done” – that is in fact a phrase I’ve heard several times in relation to the gender quotas debate. Perhaps it’s my determinedly cynical nature, but it has a certain hand-wringing quality. But my main gripe is that “something” doesn’t have to be – and it shouldn’t be – gender quotas. The imposition of gender quotas presupposes that female candidates are willing to run as party candidates but are unable to get selected at conventions. That simply isn’t the case. Parties are in fact crying for female candidates. The fact is that women are simply not putting themselves forwards forelection inside or outside the party system – I think in February 2011 only 26 out of 209 independent or minor party candidates were female (feel free to correct me on those figures).

    I also don’t believe any party will seriously consider not selecting sitting male TDs – who are by dint of their success in getting elected proven vote-winners. Such a move would result in uproar in the local party, considerable disquiet amongst the TD’s base (particularly in rural constituencies), and “token woman” would probably be the least offensive insult bandied freely about the unfortunate female candidate chosen to succeed him. And if the cuckolded TD were to choose to run as an independent, one would be most inprudent to lay money against him being re-elected with an increased vote.

    I fundamentally believe that ordinary grassroots members of every party should be the primary selector of candidates ie that they should be the decision-makers and HQ the administrators. You are correct in pointing out that “(the) power to select has been taken away from the constituency members…over recent elections….”, but it would be my firm view that this process should be rolled back – Gender Quotas instead reinforces and further necessitates it. What instead HQs instead should be doing is instead concentrating their efforts on their very necessary administrative functions – maximising party membership by facilitating and promoting access to such membership, ensuring that membership lists are properly maintained, ensuring that conventions are “free and fair” etc. Local selection conventions might make mistakes, but the important thing is that those mistakes are theirs to make. That said, perhaps indeed there should be a greater diversity of candidates, but electoral reform – as I’ve mentioned below – rather than arbitrary quotas should be how such is implemented.

    I also believe – with a One Member One Vote system – gender quotas could have unintended consequences. Under the previously used Cumann/branch Delegate vote system (now abandoned by most parties I believe) almost all delegates to a selection convention were “spoken for” – this is not necessarily the case for One Member One Vote conventions where is likely to be a significant number of “unspoken for” delegates. It’s an arguable case that such delegates could be minded not to vote for a female candidate on the basis that such a vote would be “wasted” as the female candidate would be most likely added to the ticket by HQ to fulfil the gender quota requirement. Also, the hostility – both inside the party and from the wider electorate – that female candidates selected outside of a selection convention would likely face might actually act as a deterrent to other women potentially interested in putting their names forward for a candidacy.

    There were other measures the government could have taken to increase the amount of women putting themselves forward for election – training and mentoring programmes (either ran individually by parties or independently), funded political apprenticeships, stipulations that a certain percentage of public funding be spent on pro-actively promoting and incentivising women’s involvement in each political party. None of these measures would have impinged on the right of grassroot party members to select their party’s candidates. They could also – at a broader level – have considered radical reform of the electoral system (such as that suggested by John Rogers, ie a hybrid system featuring national PR-STV “expertise” constituencies) which would allow women with a national profile to enter politics at national level, rather than hive off the issue to the interminable talking-shop that is likely to be the constitutional convention.

    The fact is that Gender Quotas are now law. How they are to be implemented – given the conflicting imperatives of optimal candidate strategy, retaining public funding, and maintaining grassroots democracy – is another thing entirely. In essence, this legislation is going force parties into trying to put round pegs into square holes. Which action will result in splinters.

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