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.