There was probably little or no furore when, in the run-up to Ireland’s first local elections in 1899, The Kildare Observer ran a front page story reporting “loud laughter” at the announcement that the ballot would give women the right to vote for the first time in this country. The notion, it was said, “raised hilarity and heckles”.
That vote, as it stood, was limited to women over the age of 30 who owned property and while they could vote they could not stand as county council candidates. It would be 1922 before all Irish women over 21 were given the right to vote. However it was a start and, 110 years on in the electoral process, you’d be forgiven for presuming that women and men were now on an equal footing in local politics. Hah.
Women make up just one fifth of local representatives in this country and the councils remain practically as male dominated today as they did in 1898, no matter how progressive the parties claim they are. The UN considers 30 per cent to be the critical mass to enable women to exert meaningful influence on politics, yet just 24% of the candidates in last weekend’s city election were female and, of these, just 6% was successful (equating to one candidate, Mary Roche).
I was at the Butler Community Centre last weekend when female representation on Waterford City Council was halved. Now some might argue that I’m trying to be radical with this statistic, in that the number of female councillors was actually reduced from two to one. But given that there are fifteen seats on that Council, I see this as hugely significant. Five female candidates ran in the City East area (one third of the total number), yet these women received just 21.7% of the votes and it was largely on the basis of transfers that Roche held her seat. No women ran in the City North area and, of the two (out of eleven) who campaigned in City South, just 8.5% of people gave them their first preference.
Two women held seats on the last Council, elected in 2004, and, during that term, the city elected its first ever female Mayor in Mary O’Halloran. Yet the city seems to have taken a step backwards this time around.
Less than 400 female candidates ran for political parties in last week’s election. Fine Gael ran 176 females out of 780 candidates. Two of these candidates ran in Waterford city, one of which (the aforementioned O’Halloran) lost her seat to a (male) party colleague.
Fianna Fáil’s speed-dating style selection process resulted in the nomination of three female candidates in the area, though none of them secured remotely enough votes to be elected. Labour, which has often prided itself on the high level of female participation in its party and out forward 62 women out of 206 candidates nationally, did not run any woman candidate in Waterford city.
This is not a straight-forward Girls Vs Boys argument, I hasten to add. Many of the decisions made by Waterford City Council are completely unrelated to gender. But I’ve sat at local authority meetings over the past five years and repeatedly listened to Roche and O’Halloran raise their voice to highlight countless traditional ‘women’s’ issues, including the lack of affordable childcare and the need for a cervical cancer vaccine. And it was reassuring to know that two intelligent and eloquent women were there on my behalf.
The crux of the matter is that women are obviously not voting for women, despite the knowledge that the majority of us are far more empathetic and make more efficient multi-taskers then the men in our lives. And yet we’ll probably be the ones to whinge and moan when we observe the new Council making ‘typical man’ decisions.