Did you know on the 6th April 1899 Ireland held its first county and rural district councils elections as set out by the enactment of the Local Government (Ireland) Act of 1898, an act which also gave women the opportunity for the first time to stand for election and a vote in these local elections?
120 years on local female political representation in Donegal stands at a mere 10.8% the highest it has ever been. Of the 37 County Councillors elected during the 2019 local elections, four were women. They include Marie Therese Gallagher (Sinn Féin), Rena Donaghey (Fianna Fáil), Niamh Kennedy (Independent) and Noreen McGarvey (Fianna Fáil). Noreen McGarvey was the only female councillor newly elected, the other three councillors were re-elected having won seats in the 2014 local elections when female representation stood at 8.1%.
With such low female representation the question arises why does Donegal not elect more women? People may say that’s just how democracy works or we shouldn’t be telling voters they should vote for a candidate just because they’re a woman. While these are valid points they do not get us closer to addressing the real problem that women are seriously underrepresented in Donegal politics. It also doesn’t address the issue of how can voters have an actual choice about who represents them when so few women are also not on election tickets. As a County is it therefore not about time we seriously evaluate how we both support and view women as our political representatives?
Working as a community sector organisation NCCWN Donegal Women’s Network knows Donegal has no shortage of talented capable women who would make ideal political representatives. So why did so few run or were identified by the political parties to stand?
Women made up 20% (17 out of 85) of the 2019 Local Election candidates in Donegal compared with the 2014 figure of 13.2% (11 out of 83). These recent elections therefore did see a positive increase in the number of women running for local election which is really encouraging and great to see a range of women putting themselves forward, a trend we hope continues into the next local elections and beyond.
Seven political party’s ran candidates in Donegal, the three main parties; Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Fine Gael all failed to reach a 30% female party candidate ticket list, to follow on from the general election required quota target of females on their party candidate ticket, although it should be noted during local elections this is not a mandatory legislated requirement. While of the 29 Independent candidates women made up 17.2% of them.
Prior to the local elections 70.2% of Donegal Councillor seats were held by three parties, Fianna Fáil on 29.7%, Sinn Féin on 24.3% and Fine Gael on 16.2%. Post-election this increased to a combined 75.6%, with Fianna Fáil at 32.4%, Sinn Féin at 27% and Fine Gael at 16.2%.
For these parties to hold such a high percentage of local political representation but have low female representation raises a question over their commitment to reduce gender inequality and support women especially in rural Ireland. With continued low level of female candidates, these parties need to ask some challenging questions to actually address this situation. For example;
- Analysing and working to remove potential barriers which may be restricting women’s participation and development within their party;
- reforming the way candidates are selected or nominated?
- Encouraging the men in their party to be more actively supporting women to build political careers, even if it means putting theirs on hold?
- Encouraging more women to run and women themselves to challenge their party status quo?
- For parties to look at implementing mandatory local election gender quota systems?
These are all questions that need to be addressed if Donegal is to ever get closer to achieving a gender balance in political representation.
The Lifford/Stranorlar electoral area was the worst for female candidate representation with no women running in this area, while Carndonagh came top with 37.5%.
A number of women who were first time candidates also came close to winning a seat in their local electoral area. Eimer Friel (FG) in the Milford area missed out on the final seat by 110 votes just behind Ian McGarvey (IND) who was running for re-election. In the Carndonagh Area Marie Duffy (FF) missed securing the final seat by 292 votes behind Bernard McGuinness (FG) who was running for re-election. And in the Letterkenny Electoral Area Mary T Sweeney (Aontú) missed securing the final seat by 266 votes behind Manus Mandy Kelly (FF).
In the electoral areas were women did win seats, Niamh Kennedy in the Donegal area received the highest first preference votes and the highest overall vote count of the 19 candidates. Marie Therese Gallagher and Noreen McGarvey in the Glenties area secured the third and fourth highest first preference votes, finishing fifth and sixth in the overall vote count of the 13 candidates. And in the Buncrana area Rena Donaghey received the second highest first preference votes of the 11 candidates.
An Equality Issue
“How can you inspire to be what you do not see?” women and girls need to feel that there is a place for them in Irish politics with the knowledge that their gender will not be a barrier to participation. With an overwhelming majority of politicians and decision makers currently being male, how can women feel like they have a place? Donegal needs more female political role models. Women need to be seen and heard and girls need to have role models who will inspire them to become our future politicians and representatives of our communities.
Equal representation is a basic social justice, without it how can any policy or decision making process be equal or even sustainable when half the population has no input into the structures which makes the decisions. If Ireland is a society that wants to advance and develop sustainably it therefore needs to have men and women equally at the decision-making table.
Equal representation goes to the heart of how as a society we view gender equality, the social standard we set which shows and supports the belief that we are all equal, starting with those who represent us at a political decision making level. The question is how to we achieve this balance?
As a society we need to become better at supporting and encouraging women to engage and not undervalue what they can and do bring to politics. Over the years through the Donegal Women’s Network work and as a member of the 5050 group we’ve heard women say they’re either not interested in getting involved or running for election because it’s not for them. With others highlighting the barriers and challenges they have faced because they are a woman which includes the 5 Cs Confidence, Childcare, Cash, Candidate Selection and Culture, as identified in the 2009 commissioned report for the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality and Women’s Rights.
Another challenge to address is how do we support women who may feel they do not want to belong to a political party who may like to run as an independent, because there are unique challenges faced when running as an independent. All these challenges need to be researched, understood and addressed both socially and politically.
And while politics isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, we need to acknowledge that politics does impact all our lives whether we like it or not, be it our ability to access public services, health care, even down to getting those pot holes in your road filled, the list is endless. We therefore have a vested interested to engage and follow what’s going on, as a community we should promote this. It’s particularly important women recognise the diverse knowledge and life experiences they have to offer which goes towards supporting and creating a more equal society for both men and women.
While the road to achieving better equal political representation in Donegal may seem long NCCWN Donegal Women’s Network looks forward to working on addressing these issues through our membership with the 5050 Group a voluntary national advocacy group dedicated to achieving equal representation in Irish Politics.
On Thursday 13th June 11am-1.30pm, we will also be joining a panel of guest speakers at the
‘Celebrating Donegal Women and 120 years of Local Government’ event in Letterkenny Museum, co-hosted by the National Women’s Council of Ireland and Donegal County Museum, celebrating the achievements of women in Irish politic and discussing the importance of women in politics, highlighting the experiences of women who enter political life and how we can support the increase of women in politics.
To register please follow this link.