Sunday, November 27, 2011

Geographical Perspective on Women in Local Government in Ireland

Geography is more than just knowing where every state in the US is, where every mountain range is, and so on.

It's also about the distribution of people, of resources, of views and ideas. Practically everything can be quantified with some branch of geography.

From Feminist Open Forum: Geographical Perspective on Women in Local Government in Ireland
(Government of Ireland IRCHSS scholar, NUI Maynooth;
This short paper aims to give a brief overview of women in local government inIrelandfrom a geographical perspective. While a large body of work has explored Irish women (or rather the lack of them) in national politics, little research has focussed on the local level. However, local politics remains the most common route to Dáil Eireann and it is often at this level that aspiring TDs build up the experience, networks and recognition required to successfully contest a general election. Recent research by Buckley, Mariani, McGing and White (2011) on candidates in the 2011 general election shows that 45% of those that had previously held a seat at local level were successful in winning a Dáil seat, as opposed to just 11% that had not.

Women are markedly underrepresented in Irish politics in comparison to their presence in the population, accounting for just 15% of TDs, 30% of senators, 25% of MEPs, 16% of county and city councillors, and 22% of urban district council councillors. While females have a higher presence in local government compared to the national parliament in other democracies (Phillips, 1993), these figures show that this has not been the case inIreland, where progress in local politics has been very similar to (and as slow as) the Dáil.

Where are all the women?

The academic literature advises five main challenges preventing women from making a breakthrough in local and national politics: care, cash, culture, confidence and candidate selection. The ‘5 C’s’ interact throughout the process recruitment process. The persistent sexual division of care (for children and elderly parents) means that women lack the time required to nurture a local political base. A report from the Central Statistics Office (2011) shows that half a million women are engaged full-time in activities in the home, compared to just 7,500. With not a much earning potential as men and less cash at their disposal, women find it harder to build up the funds for a political campaign. Politics, inIreland and elsewhere, is a ‘gendered institution’. Norms, behaviour and values were established at a time when women were still campaigning for voting rights. This means that culture of political parties is intrinsically masculine, making it less attractive to women, while also acting to decrease their confidence levels. These factors come together at the most crucial barrier for females: the selection convention process. Research shows that women are severely underrepresented as convention candidates and are less successful in relative terms to men when they do seek a nomination (McGing, 2011).

Gender and geography in the 2009 local elections [i]

This section considers the importance of electoral geography in determining women’s political participation at a local level. Are females more likely to run in and/or represent certain constituencies or regions?

Table 1 below shows that 17.1% of all candidates for city and county councils in the 2009 local elections were women. This figure marginally bucks the trend set over the previous two decades of increasing levels of female participation in local electoral contests, wherein female participation rates had increased from 11.0% in 1985 to 14.0% in 1991, 15.6% in 1999 and 18.1% in 2004. Table 1 uncovers significant differences between the larger parties and the smaller, more ideological, parties in terms of their propensity to select female election candidates, although the smaller parties all failed to meet the gender quota targets that they had adopted for these elections. Labour and Sinn Féin had both proposed quotas of 30%, while the Greens were even more ambitious in their aspiration for an increase in female candidacies by pursuing a quota of 40% (Weeks, 2009: 101).

Party Total Male Female % Female
Fianna Fáil 473 393 80 16.9%
Fine Gael 470 385 85 18.1%
Labour 208 160 48 23.1%
Sinn Féin 149 115 34 22.8%
Green Party 77 60 17 22.1%
Others 446 398 48 10.8%
Total 1823 1511 312 17.1%

Table 1: Number of male and female candidates selected by political parties to contest the 2009 local elections

While the percentage of female candidates selected by Labour (4.1%) and Sinn Féin (2.7%) did improve on their 2004 levels, the proportion of Green Party female candidates actually declined, marking a decrease of 15.2% from its 2004 levels. Fianna Fáil has a target to have a third of all its candidates female in the 2014 local elections (Weeks, 2009: 101) and had announced prior to the candidate selection process that it would interview “young people and females in particular” around the country (Regan, 2009), but despite this it only registered a 2.4% increase on its relatively low 2004 female participation levels.

Significant spatial variations exist in terms of the likelihood of women being selected as candidates, mirroring the general trend observed in recent general and local elections, with the percentage of female candidacies considerably higher inDublinand its immediate commuter hinterland, as well as in some of the other city council areas.DublinCity(27.1%) had the highest number of female candidacies, followed by Dún Laoghaire (26.2%), Meath (24.2%), Kilkenny (23.5%), South Dublin (23.0%), Fingal (21.0%) andWaterfordCity(20.0%), although female participation levels inCorkCity(16.9%) andLimerickCity(12.8%) were lower than the national average. Especially high female participation levels were found in the Dublin Inner City electoral areas (45.7%), and indeed only two of the candidates selected by the three larger parties in the two South Inner City electoral areas were male. Women were considerably underrepresented as candidates in the more rural constituencies, with especially low female participation levels found in Tipperary South Riding and Clare (10.3%), Leitrim (10.8%), Mayo (11.8%), Monaghan (12.1%), Tipperary North Riding (12.2%), Longford (12.2%) andWaterfordCounty(12.5%). The regional analysis conveyed in Table 7 further confirms the urban bias in female candidate selection. Although parties speak out about rectifying the disproportionate nature of gender with regard to candidate tickets, a geographical analysis of female candidates in the 2009 local elections contends that there has been a failure on the part of party central organisations in doing so, especially in rural areas.

Region Female candidates (%) Success rate (%)
Dublin 24.8% 52.0%
DublinCommuter Belt 18.8% 40.8%
South-East 17.8% 38.3%
Border 15.2% 51.2%
Connacht andWest Munster 15.5% 45.5%
Midlands 14.0% 44.1%

Table 2: Number of female 2009 local election candidates selected by region, and their relative success levels

Nationally, the success rate of female candidates in these local elections stood at 46.8%, marking an increase on the 2004 local elections, when 42.5% of female candidates won seats. A review of other past local elections places the respective figures at 44.8% in 1999, 44.8% in 1991 and at 34.0% in 1985. Despite the sharp increase between 1985 and 1991, the amount of women winning council seats has remained relatively static since then. Notable differences existed between parties, with 65.9% of female Fine Gael and 62.4% of female Labour candidates proving successful, as against just 41.2% of female Fianna Fáil candidates and 35.3% of female Sinn Féin candidates. The Green Party failed to elect any women to county and city councils in 2009. In the Others category, 31.3% of female candidates won seats, with significant successes for female Socialist Party and People Before Profit alliance candidates in Dublin City and Fingal. In geographical terms, an urban bias is again evident, with females shown to be more likely to win seats in Dublin than in any of the other regions (Table 2), although it also shows that female candidates fared better electorally in the Border, West and Midlands regions than they did in the more urban Dublin Commuter Belt and South East regions.

Figure 1: Percentage of votes cast for female candidates at a county level in the 2009 local elections

Further proof that urban areas proved to be healthier stomping for female candidates is offered by Figure 1, which shows that the percentage of votes cast for female candidates tended to be higher inDublinand its immediate hinterland than in the more rural regions, although relatively high levels were also found in the counties of Cavan,Sligoand Kilkenny. 28.0% of all votes cast inDublinCitywere won by female candidates, while female candidates also won high votes shares relative to the national average (17.0%) in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown (26.8%), Fingal (25.0%), Meath (23.9%) andSouth Dublin(23.7%). Even though high by national standards, these figures must be viewed as disappointing given that females account for a half of the state’s population. These do, of course, compare favourably with levels for Clare, Westmeath, Monaghan and Louth where less than one-tenth of all votes cast were won by female candidates. Support levels for female candidates were highest in the Dublin Inner City electoral areas, where females won 54.0% of the valid poll in the electoral areas, and especially in the South West Inner City electoral area where female candidates won 72.1% of the vote. Female candidates succeeded in winning over half of the votes cast in only one other electoral area – Castleknock (51.2%) – although strong support levels for females were also observed in the North Inner City (49.1%), Rathfarnham (47.3%), Castleconnell (45.4%) and North Inner City (44.5%) electoral areas. Contrasting with this, there was no female candidates to contest twenty seven of the electoral areas.

Some interesting patterns emerge when candidate success rates for city and county contests are broken down by gender (see Table 3 below). With just over 50% winning seats, male candidates for rural councils were the most successful. Interestingly, men running for in urban areas were the least successful, while females saw similar rates across the urban-rural divide.

% Successful City/urban councils County/rural councils
Male candidates 42.5% 50.8%
Female candidates 46.6% 47.2%

Table 3: Successful candidates by gender and council type in the 2009 local elections

Debates for feminising Irish local politics

In May 2011, Phil Hogan, Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, announced his intention to introduce legislation whereby political parties must ensure that 30% of their general election candidates are female. The proposed sanction for non-compliance is very strict: parties face losing 50% of their state annual funding they do not meet the quota requirement. The proposed legislation is due to come into affect at the next general election. Although it has been welcomed by groups and individuals advocating greater gender equality in political decision-making, a number have argued that the quota should also be applied for elections to other levels of political office, especially for local elections. The minister has so far ruled this out due to the fact that party state funding is based on the share of the vote a given party receives in the previous general election. However, Phil Hogan has stated that he hopes all parties will replicate the model on a voluntary basis in the 2014 local elections. This paper has argued that the scarcity of women councillors prevents the development of a ‘pipeline’ of potential female candidates for the Dáil, thus making a strong case for the use of positive discrimination measures to be extended to the local level, especially in rural areas.

Why is it important to have a gender balance in local and national office? The main arguments in the academic literature for increasing women’s political representation can be broken down into three distinct themes: justice, difference and symbolism (Buckley and McGing 2011).

Justice arguments for increasing women’s political presence are the most powerful. In essence, justice advocates contend that it is simply unfair for men to disproportionately populate political assemblies (Phillips 1995). This perspective does not presume that women will make any difference to the political process, but argues that gendered barriers must be dismantled in the name of equal opportunity to ensure that political representatives are more descriptive of Irish society as a whole.

Difference arguments for increasing women’s political representation are more contentious. Looking at theory and empirical evidence, gender is seen as relevant to the ways in which elected representatives perform their role. In this line of reasoning gender is a structure that imposes a particular position on women and makes all women different from men. For some women bring different perspectives and priorities to all policy areas because of different life experiences, while others argue that there are distinct women’s issues or interests that merit political representation and an adequate number of women representatives is often required to bring these into the discourses of representational politics (Lovenduski 2005). Given the current economic situation, a gender balance in decision-making may be more important then ever. Local women’s groups have tirelessly highlighted the gendered nature of the Irish recession, showing that women suffer disproportionately from reductions in the minimum wage and social welfare payments, as well as from cuts to public services and public sector employment (National Women’s Council of Ireland 2011). Considering this, the inclusion of women voices in the discourses of economic recovery and state rejuvenation at a local and national level is absolutely vital. This paper has illustrated that rural women and their distinct interests are especially underrepresented in politics and it crucial that more are encouraged to enter political life to ensure that their voices are heard.

Some scholars have argued that the presence of women representatives is important for symbolic reasons because they may act as role models for women. Although women often appear to be slightly less interested in politics, some international studies have suggested that the presence of visible female candidates and elected representatives helps to mobilise women, stimulate their interest and activity in the election campaign, and increase their own confidence in making the decision to run themselves (Karp and Banducci 2008).


Fiona Buckley, Mack Mariani, Claire McGing and Tim White (2011) Pipeline Theory and Women’s Recruitment to the Irish Parliament., Annual Conference of the Political Studies Association of Ireland, University College Dublin , 21-23 October 2011.

Buckley, Fiona. and McGing, Claire. (2011) ‘Women and the Election’ In: Michael Gallagher and Michael Marsh (eds). How Ireland Voted 2011.London: Palgrave MacMillan

Karp, Jeffrey, and Susan Banducci. (2008) When Politics is Not Just a Man’s Game: Women’s Representation and Political Engagement, Electoral Studies 27(1): 105-115.

Lovenduski, Joni. (2005) Feminizing Politics.Cambridge: Polity Press.

McGing, Claire. (2011) “Still a Man’s World? The Gender Question in the 2011 General Election in the Republicof Ireland,” Paper Presented at the Elections, Public Opinion and Parties Conference,University ofExeter, 9-11 September 2011.

National Women’s Council of Ireland(2011) Submission to Budget 2012 – (accessed 16 October 2011).

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