Niamh Gallagher, co-founder of Women for Election organisation


“…..the old idea that a woman can only serve her nation through her home is gone”

“…….now is the time, on you the responsibility rests. It may be as a leader, it may be as a humble follower… perhaps in a political party, perhaps in a party of your own… but it is there.”

“… so many of you, the young women of Ireland, … are distinguishing yourselves every day and coming more and more to the front..…We [older people] look to you with great hopes and a great confidence that in your gradual emancipation you are bringing fresh ideas, fresh energies ….

“Women, from having till [sic] very recently stood so far removed from all politics, should be able to formulate a much clearer and more incisive view of the political situation than men…..”

“You will go out into the world and get elected on to as many public bodies as possible ….. ”

The words are those of Countess Markievicz, delivered in 1915, to the Irish Women’s Franchise League. These words could have been uttered yesterday. Countess Markievicz was Minister for Labour in the first Dáil, 1919-1922.  She was the first female elected to Westminster, the first female cabinet Minister in Ireland and the second in Europe.  She was a trailblazer, as was Ireland at the time, with its 1916 proclamation, guaranteeing universal suffrage, equal rights and equal opportunities for all citizens.

We are here in Glenties to address the question: how stands the Republic? To look back over the last one hundred years, and look forward towards the next three and ask what kind of a country do we want to inhabit as we reach this milestone?

In 1979, sixty years after Countess Markievicz’s appointment, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn became Ireland’s second ever female Cabinet Minister.  Since then, Ireland has had another ten women appointed to Cabinet, bringing the number of women to have served at Cabinet level in the history of our country to 12.  Our Dáil, the heart of our national political representation, has just 26 women, i.e. 15%.  That is the highest it has ever been.  In fact, only 92 women have ever been elected to the Dail, in the history of our State.

Only 16% of our local Government representatives – at town, borough and county council levels – are women.

These figures show how, when the big and important decisions about our country are made, women are absent.  Is this the Republic we imagined?  Is this the Republic we want or deserve?  I believe it is not, and I know that I am not alone.

Four years ago, my partner Michelle O’Donnell Keating and I set up Women for Europe, a grassroots campaign to provide a platform for women’s voices in the second Lisbon treaty referendum.  Within months, we grew from just two to 30 volunteers, all trained in the nuts and bolts of the treaty.  For the next nine months, we travelled all over Ireland meeting thousands of women.  We ran meetings in church halls, in coffee shops, in pubs, living rooms and GAA clubs, sometimes speaking to three women, sometimes to three hundred.

But no matter where we were, the conversation was always the same.  The women said:  “We’re here, we’ve come out tonight to talk about politics, and yet we’re not doing anything more about it” So, we asked why not, and the answer was so very simple:

–          “How would we get involved?”

–          “Where would we start?”

–           “What would people make of us locally, sure we’ve never been involved before”

–          “My experience wouldn’t really fit in politics, I haven’t been trained in it”

Yet these women were leaders in their local communities.   They were the women behind the community games, the tidy towns, the women running local farmers’ markets, residents’ associations and network groups; the women who represent other women in trade unions and in local chambers of commerce. Each of these women is a leader.  Each of these women is making a difference in her community.  And yet, so many of them simply did not see how their leadership at local level had something to add to politics. Michelle and I wanted to change that.  And that is how Women for Election began, in response to demands from thousands of women whom we met around Ireland who wanted a bridge from their interest in politics, to action.

Since then, over 400 women have been on our INSPIRE and EQUIP programmes, designed to support them to take the next step on their political journey.  We’ve been to Galway, Cork, Limerick, Dublin and Athlone with our travelling circus of trainers, facilitators and political speakers.  And each step of the way we have been inspired by the women we met.  In Limerick we met Ciara, a young community activist living on the Limerick-Kerry border.  Ciara works in a factory at night and runs a youth programme during the day, as well as helping out at a local constituency office.  Every hour of Ciara’s day is packed with community service.  Why? Because she is living in a community that is rife with youth emigration and she wants to change that, by encouraging and supporting young people to engage in education and training that will help them get the kinds of jobs that will allow them work and prosper at home.

In Galway we met Helen.  Helen told us how she used to hate politics.  Why? Because politics killed her husband.  Despite Helen’s wishes he would not leave his job as a Nigerian politician and move to Ireland.  He wanted to stay in Nigeria and help make his country a better place.  He was assassinated.  Now Helen is here.  And she sees her community – not just Nigerian immigrants but Polish, Lithuanian, Romanian – without a voice.  She realises that her husband was right – it is through politics that they will gain influence.

In Dublin, we met Samantha, a long-time campaigner for Magdalene women because of her mother’s experience in one of the laundries.  Samantha spent years steadily and patiently fighting for justice for her mother’s cause.  And as she did she watched politics, she learned how it worked and she realised that this is something she could do really well, and have a positive impact. In Dublin too, we met Madge, a member of a political party for 30 years and nearing her 70th birthday.  She has always wanted to contest an election and never had the courage to say it.

And we met Lisa.  Lisa, who got on the ticket to contest the last general election in Mayo just six weeks out from polling day, and who – at 26 years old – fought an impressive campaign against established figures, including our present Taoiseach.  Lisa’s resilience owes something to her defence force training – she is a member of the reserves – and a practising barrister.

Ciara, Helen, Samantha, Madge and Lisa intend to contest the local elections in 2014 along with so many more of the women that have become part of Women for Election.  They, along with so many others that we have met – all over Ireland, aged 18 to nearly 80 – will make exceptional public representatives. Some of them come from political parties but many do not.    They are the local leaders I talked about before: the backbone of our communities, the go-to people in our workplaces.

So why have they not done this before?  What has held them back?  The barriers to entering politics faced by women are well summarised as the five Cs: Cash, Culture, Childcare, Candidate Selection, Confidence.

Women want to know if they are qualified to put themselves forward for politics.  They want to know if they have the skills and experience required to be a public representative.  But that is impossible, because there is no job description or person specification for Town Councillor, for T.D. for local area rep.  There is no ‘common’ model and no clear route to get there.  The process – of moving from interest to action – is so deeply shrouded in mystery that many women are put off.

And that is, at its core, what Women for Election is about:

  • Demystifying the process
  • Drawing back the curtain
  • informing, equipping and inspiring any woman who is interested to get on the ticket.

That is what our programmes do.  They provide training in the core areas of competency for anyone seeking to run or participate in a political campaign.

Working with us, women learn exactly how many votes they need to get elected and where to get those votes.  They learn who they need on their team, when they need them and how to manage them.  They learn how the media works, how to develop their message for media and the dos and don’ts of political interviews. And they become part of a cross-party, supportive network of women, which is fast becoming a national movement.

“Lately things seem to be changing”

Those were the words used by Countess Markievicz in 1915.  She may have been right; but they didn’t change for long.  And yet those words resonate now. The next general election will see all parties bound by the new quota legislation, which requires them to field a minimum of 30% female candidates or face losing 50% of their state funding.  In seven years time, that figure will rise to 40% of candidates.  This has pushed the parties to act.  All are declaring they are ‘open for business’ and all are actively seeking female candidates.  We are less than a year from the local and European elections and just over two years from the next general election.   We have a tremendous opportunity.  We have a chance to get women on the ticket and see them elected.  We have a chance to change the age-old make-up of our politics and to bring new, diverse voices around the tables where decisions are made.  And by doing that we will improve things for all of us: men, women, girls and boys.  Because the part that is so often missed in this discussion is the impact: the difference that having more women elected can make.

 International evidence shows that women conduct politics in an open and transparent way, they are consultative in decision-making, likely to work across party lines.  Women create new avenues to power, by building new networks and coalitions of influence – often not traditionally associated with politics – and  the voices in these networks bring new and different ideas and priorities to the political process.  Women are likely to put issues of women’s equality and social and family issues on the political agenda.

Countess Markievicz may have believed that women “should be able to formulate a much clearer and more incisive view of the political situation than men”. I’m not so sure.  But what I know is that women provide a different perspective.  This is not about better or worse.  This is not about men vs. women.  This is about maximising the talents of our citizens to ensure the best possible political leadership for all of us.

And in reflecting on history, and then looking towards the future, we, as citizens, must each consider Countess Markievicz’s call to action: “now is the time, on you the responsibility rests.  It may be as a leader, it may be as a humble follower… perhaps in a political party, perhaps in a party of your own… but it is there.”

Looking towards 2016 I ask you to be part of bringing about this change.

Participate: if this has sparked something in you, come on a Women for Election programme and join our movement.

Advocate: if you think this matters, start talking about it – over a coffee with family and friends, in the office, at home – get people thinking that more women in politics matters.   And most importantly:

Nominate: Think about the women you know – sisters, mothers, aunts, cousins, friends, colleagues, neighbours.  Among them is at least one woman that you know would make a fantastic political representative.  So tell her.

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