A Century of Political Struggle for Equality

Currently, Ireland has one the lowest percentage of women representations in politics in Europe. A report, published by the Council of Europe in October 2017, looked into the political performance of women in the 47-nation Council of Europe. It stated: “Ireland is below the European average when it comes to having women in politics”.

The report focused on the progress made by the 47 nations, towards a goal set in 2003 of having at least 40% female representation in various positions of power, “In general, Ireland was below the European average when it came to women’s performance in politics, and significantly below the 40% target for representation” set by the Council of Europe. What does this mean for Ireland, how do we increase the percentage of women involved in politics or ideally rise above the European goal?

On 6th February 1918, women were given the right to vote. An exhibition, “Suffragist City: Women and the Vote in Dublin”, showed that the Representation of the People Act was passed and women who were above the age of 30 years old, had property rights or a university education, were finally allowed to vote. Eleven months after this, the voters of Dublin elected Constance Markievicz, the first woman to win a seat at Westminster as Ireland was still run by the UK Government. Although, as a member of Sinn Féin, whose members abstained from taking their seats, as it would mean swearing an oath of allegiance to the crown, she never took her seat. Before this, suffragists endured ridicule, assault and imprisonment in their quest for social justice but 1918 was the year of victory for women.

A suffragist is a person advocating the right of vote, especially towards women. This term has made an important mark in our history. The women activists of 1918 put up a fight to get our right to vote today. Should we not take this into consideration when choosing whether we vote or not? Especially with the Repeal the Eight Referendum coming up, women involving themselves in politics is essential.

Norma Sammon is a Fine Gael Councillor for the Ballymun board in Dublin City Council, and she explains she always has been involved in politics as she studied politics in college. She joined young Fine Gael in 2011 and in 2016 her friend, Noel Rock, ran in a general election and she helped with his campaign. He was elected and his position on Dublin City Council was offered to Norma when he took his seat in the Dail. She says it was a “whirlwind” and it was “unplanned” but it has been a “great experience”. She was drawn into Fine Gael because of gender quotas and decisions that have been made in involving women in politics. A gender quota is a positive measurement aimed at accelerating the achievement of gender-balanced participation and representation.

She says that being a woman in politics, like any job, is daunting at first. Her first time in the chamber, where there are 63 councillors, everyone was very welcoming. She believes that there is an equal split of men and women. She did not feel in any way intimidated because she is a woman, which she believes is the aim of the even split. “We don’t see that in other councils or we don’t see that in Dail Eireann either at the moment but I am hoping it’s going to move that way; if Dublin City Council can do it then why not other places.”

Kate O’Connell, TD, stood up at the end of a meeting in November 2017 to raise the issue of online abuse against women in politics. She asked her colleagues for their support and handed out screenshots of posts which were made about her. Kate claims that on the Twitter account of a member of the Fine Gael Executive Council, there are a number of derogatory tweets about her and other female politicians, calling them ‘bitches’. She wrote a formal letter of complaint to the Fine Gael’s General Secretary, Tom Curran. Actions like this need to be taken if Irish women want to feel safe and respected when entering politics. Seeing things like this happen acts as a discouragement for women and will in turn make women less enthusiastic in politics.

Norma believes that women do not get involved in politics, because it has been a “boys club” for so long. “I think people look to their peers, first and foremost, so if I see my friend is going on a six-week holiday on their own and they come back and they’re fine then I think maybe I can do that. For women we are not seeing other women go for it so we think maybe I don’t have it either and it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, because we don’t vote for women and then women don’t run because we don’t see anyone go up for it.”

This causes women to feel disheartened and they don’t bother engaging in political discourse. Norma says, “There are really good organisations out there for encouraging women to involve themselves. Organisations like Women for Election run courses for women which helps them feel confident and helps them to stop apologising for being successful which is a huge problem we have as women”.

“Originally, there were certain conditions attached to suffrage but equally certain men couldn’t vote up until a certain period, for example, a man had to be earning a certain amount every year, and that was happening into the late nineteenth century so universal suffrage from the age of 18 in a historical context is relatively modern”, Norma states. Women still have that motivation and enthusiasm that they did 100 years ago. “They had bigger walls to climb and they broke down barriers for us so we should be striving to make them proud,” she says.

Now that Ireland’s referendum, Repeal the Eight, is coming up, Irish women need to get more involved in politics as this is an important topic relating to women and their body’s rights. Norma mentions, “The marriage equality referendum brought out a lot of voters that wouldn’t have voted before and I think the Repeal the Eight referendum will do the same, but then it is hard to know if those people will still be involved later on.”

Local politics and national politics can be “really dull”, but Norma hopes that people who feel passionate about Repeal the Eight would transcend the issue and would fall into a network of people who have similar ideas and want to follow into similar issues and they will continue to lobby politicians or even run themselves. “I think it opens a door but it doesn’t guarantee whether people will vote in the national or local elections.”

So how do we encourage women to vote in local and national elections? Norma explains, “It’s about engaging. It’s up to people, like me, to host different events so people can come along and they can feel a part of it because people can feel intimidated by going to those events.”

This is important because people may feel that they might not have much to say or they might be too shy to make a contribution or they might be afraid that everyone else in the room knows much more than they do, “but it’s about breaking down that kind of thought process and saying to women this is as much your country as it is everyone else’s.” Norma explains, “if we want to tackle more women’s issues, we need more women in the Dail and its about encouraging people to keep talking and keep engaging and then to go and vote because voting is just part of that process.”

Ireland is moving forward. Gender quotas are a huge advancement. Equality in politics is something Ireland has been striving for over a long period of time and it’s something we have made a lot of progress with over the last 100 years. There is a hope with the marking of this significant centenary of women getting the vote and repealing the eight amendment, Ireland’s percentage in the next report by the Council of Europe won’t be a disappointing figure. Women need to work together and as Norma says, “They open a door and it’s up to us, women now, to encourage other women and its up to women to talk about women’s issues and bring other women along with them.”

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