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‘The Irish political system is designed primarily for men by men’: Why a record number of women are contesting local elections

Ireland currently ranks sixth lowest in the EU for the number of women in local politics, with just one in four councillors women


People want to see more women candidates – that’s the message Labour’s Catherine Walsh has been hearing on the doorsteps as she canvasses for the local elections in Wexford town.

“They’re actually saying to us: ‘I’m delighted a woman is running, we need more women’,” she says. “Our local authority is definitely crying out for more, and people are delighted that more women are putting themselves forward.”

Coming into the local elections, only six of Wexford’s 34 councillors are women. Walsh (61), a Siptu trade union organiser, is among a record 683 women across Ireland – 32 per cent of the field – seeking a council seat on June 7th.

The latest figures, supplied by Women for Election, a non-profit organisation campaigning to increase the number of women in elected office, show this is up from 561 in 2019 and 440 a decade ago.

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Walsh, who has been involved with the Labour Party for most of her life and is particularly interested in community development, says it was “always in the back of my mind” to contest an election.

“I decided it’s something at this stage in my life that I know I can really give an awful lot to, whereas in the past I wouldn’t have had the time,” she adds. “I just feel as though the time is right for me. I’ve another 30 years in me and I’m not ready to retire in the conventional sense of the word.”

Ireland currently ranks sixth lowest in the EU for the number of women in local politics, with just one in four councillors women. There are currently no women councillors in 41 of the 166 local electoral areas that make up the 31 city and county councils.

Women for Election chief executive Brian Sheehan says “ultimately the political system was designed primarily for men by men, and that’s how it has evolved”.

“Women are breaking through but issues remain such as confidence in the public realm, childcare reasons as well the political culture and candidate selection . . . All parties are trying to incorporate and introduce more women into politics but it does take time,” Sheehan adds.

Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown is the only local authority with near 50:50 representation, while Mayo elected just two women out of 30 councillors in 2019.

The gender quota for political parties running candidates for election to the Dáil increased from 30 to 40 per cent last year. However, there are no quotas for local or Seanad elections.

Some parties are doing better than others in this regard. The Social Democrats (51 per cent) has the highest proportion of women candidates running in the local elections, according to Women for Election, followed by the Green Party (50 per cent), Sinn Féin (44 per cent), Labour (41 per cent), Aontú and People Before Profit-Solidarity (both 40 per cent). Fine Gael is running 97 women candidates (29 per cent of its total), while Fianna Fáil has 90 (25 per cent).

Social Democrats candidate Ann Bambury (41), from Bandon, Co Cork, describes contesting an election for the first time as “very daunting”.

“Politics is still predominantly the male sphere, but I just feel women aren’t being represented,” she says.

A mother of four with a background in marketing, Bambury returned to college in recent years, completing a bachelor’s degree in social science at University College Cork.

“Going back to college was the catalyst for and encouraged me to pursue politics,” she says. “I’ve always had an interest since I was younger. I was always aware of Mary Harney growing up, Mary McAleese, Mary Robinson, the women in particular . . . I just felt our community wasn’t being represented at the moment.

“I feel a lot of our councillors are there quite a long time and that when you’re in a position for a long period of time, you can become complacent.”

Amy Farrell, a Sinn Féin candidate in Dublin City Council’s Cabra-Glasnevin ward, says it was losing her father to suicide in 2016 that pushed her to run for election. The 30-year-old, who works as a co-ordinator for party leader Mary Lou McDonald, welcomed her first child, Alba, last November.

“I think it was seeing how bad our health and mental health services are, because my Dad didn’t have the money, he couldn’t go private, and I do, to this day, believe that if he had the money to go to St Pat’s [mental health services] here in Dublin, he probably would be here,” she says. “It made me become really active in politics, wanting to make a change with our healthcare system, because it just drives me up the wall.”

The last few months have been “difficult”, she says, between juggling becoming a parent and canvassing.

“I’m lucky how good she [Alba] is, and I’m lucky I have a supportive family around me as well, but I am exhausted,” she adds. “My own body is still recovering from having a baby. Literally a month after I had Alba, I was out knocking on the doors.”

Dympna Daly Finn is running for Fine Gael in the Boyle electoral area in Co Roscommon. A nurse at Sligo University Hospital, Finn says her focus, if elected, will be on renewed investment in her hometown of Arigna, where a coal mine ran until the 1990s.

“I just feel we’ve missed out on a lot of investment. We’ve no one in Roscommon County Council shouting for us,” she says.

“You see huge investment coming to Leitrim and Sligo and you’re asking what about north Roscommon, we really didn’t have anyone. I think that’s the main reason I felt someone should do something. I think everyone was delighted to see a women candidate go through because they never thought they would see that in a small village like this.”

The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage allocated €230,372 across nine political parties and one independent group in December to promote gender equality in local government, in particular for initiatives such as party diversity officers, training initiatives and an annual women’s conference.

It plans to review the allocation following the local elections, with consideration to be given to the number of women and diverse candidates selected by each party to run in the local elections as well as the number successfully elected.

Sheehan says “politics works so much better when there is a good mix” of men and women.

“It is up to voters now to reshape that,” he adds. “There are plenty of great, talented women running in next month’s elections.”

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