Political Voices: the Participation of Women in Irish Public Life, 1918 – 2018
Since its inception in 2012, the Government’s Decades of Centenaries Programme has been hugely successful in commemorating the significant events that have shared the history of our island over the last 100 years – not only those that marked Ireland’s path to independence, but those which enhance our understanding of the wider international landscape during this period. 2018 marks the centenary of a hugely significant moment for Irish women – the passage of the Representation of People Act 1918. This Act introduced the first steps towards full suffrage, with women over 30, who were university graduates or met minimum property qualifications, being granted the vote.
A second significant piece of legislation from 1918 – The Qualification of Women Act - allowed women to stand for the House of Commons on an equal footing with men.These significant legislative changes stemmed from years of agitation by the suffrage movement in both Britain and Ireland. Here women had been campaigning for suffrage from the mid 19th century with Anna Haslam along with her husband Thomas, Isabella Tod, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Margaret Cousins amongst others playing prominent leadership roles. In the 1918 General Election, just seventeen women across Britain and Ireland stood for election. These included Countess Markievicz, who as it happens I have much in common with. She was Ireland’s first female Minister - I am the 19th and the last, so far at least! My seat at cabinet is under her portrait, the only female portrait in the room I might add. Constance Markievicz also provided the inspiration for the new bursary scheme for female artists that I launched three weeks ago. While Ireland led the way on this issue, the excitement of those heady days did not usher in a new era of women participating in Irish political life. I find it difficult to comprehend that it would be another 60 years before a second woman - Máire Geoghegan Quinn - would take her place at the cabinet table.Out of almost 4,500 seats filled in Dáil Éireann between 1918 and 2009, less than 5% have been taken by women. Only 22% of the current Dáil is female while the Seanad fares slightly better with 32% female representation.
100 years on, Countess Markievicz’s work remains unfinished. 100 years on we have not achieved full equality, regardless of gender, in this country. We must take up the mantle once worn by Countess Markievicz and so many inspiring women like here and work to ensure that our progress continues. It is not that women are better or worse than men but we do bring a different perspective, a perspective that is sorely needed in our representative institutions of state. We know from experience that diversity of opinion leads to better decision making. In government, Fine Gael has shown admirable leadership in building a republic of opportunity where everyone is afforded the opportunity to realise their potential. The last Fine Gael Government introduced gender quota legislation. This obliged all political parties to have women making up at least 30 per cent of their candidates or risk having their State funding cut by half.
I know that, as things stand, Fine Gael has passed the 30% mark in its selection of General Election candidates.We need to give serious consideration to raising this bar higher though and do it urgently. Hand-in-hand with this push for greater female representation in our politics is the push for gender equality in business and public life. Currently the “representative” institutions of our state fall far below 50%.
This Government has put a priority on achieving progress in this area. During July I had the pleasure of launching gender equality policy statements by 10 of Ireland’s leading theatre groups. This laudable and significant development saw these leading bodies in Irish drama commit to, among other measures, achieving equality of gender of board members and an allocation of 50% of a new play commissions to women writers. In July the general scheme of the Gender Pay Gap Information Bill received Cabinet approval. It will compel employers with a certain number of staff to publish information on the gender pay gap in their firm. The regulations will apply to large and, eventually, small employers in both the public as well as the private sector.
Finally, in late July the Government launched the Better Balance for Better Workplace initiative. An expert group led by distinguished Irish business leaders Brid Horan and Gary Kennedy will report back with actions for Government and business to increase the percentage of women on corporate boards and in senior management in leading Irish companies. A century after women were given the right to vote, I think it’s important to remember the words of Countess Markievicz, who in a Dáil debate in March 1922 said: “One of the crying wrongs of the world, is that women, because of their sex, should be debarred from any position or any right that their brains entitle them a right to hold.” Today we remember the efforts of all those who have striven to achieve gender equality in Irish political life. Their campaigning, activism, passion and commitment have changed history. In marking the distance that we have traveled in more recent years, I believe it is incumbent on us to remember them well, to cherish their contribution but most importantly to honour them by finishing the work that they started.