The Geography of Women in Irish Politics

Women hold just 23 seats out of 166 in the current Dáil. Although a vast body of scholarship has looked at the factors attributable to the low numbers of women in Irish politics, few have considered the importance of geography in their analyses (exceptions include Randall and Smyth, 1987; Galligan, 1991; NWCI, 2003 and Galligan and Kavanagh, 2007). By this I mean that although a number of barriers for politically-aspirant women have been identified, very little literature has analysed how these vary across space. This is significant in light of the fact that an analysis of the 22 women elected to parliament in 2007 (this figure was brought up to 23 with the election of Maureen O’Sullivan in the 2009 by-election) illustrates a significant gendered geography to female representation patterns. 10 represent Dublin constituencies, while Cork North-Central, Cork South-Central, Donegal South-West, Kildare North, Limerick East, Mayo, Meath East, Tipperary North and Wicklow have 1 female TD each. In addition, 1 woman was elected to represent 2 counties in 4 cases – Carlow-Kilkenny, Cavan-Monaghan, Laois-Offaly and Longford-Westmeath. Strikingly, 21 constituencies out of 43 have no female representatives at all. Overall, the urbanised east is the most favourable to politically-aspirant women, with 69% of female TDs (16 women) currently representing the Dublin and Leinster region. Interestingly, as the NWCI (2003) have noted, the majority of female TDs represent large urban areas and even when a woman is elected to a constituency that covers both urban and rural areas, her bailiwick often is located in a town. For example, Beverly Cooper-Flynn is based in Castlebar and Liz McManus in Bray.  

These pronounced patterns raise a number of questions and point to a way of better developing feminist electoral geography, one that would explore the links between “political culture, patriarchal structures, and patterns of women’s representation is particular settings” (Secor, 2004: 265). Electoral geography is a relatively under-researched area within the wide sub-discipline of feminist political geography, despite it being a mainstream agenda in political geography (Kofman, 2008). Firstly, what are the various contextual factors that lie behind the geography of female political representation in Ireland? Looking at the candidate selection process in the UK, Norris and Lovenduski (1995) speak of issues of ‘supply’ (women not putting themselves forward) and ‘demand’ (parties not actively recruiting and/or selecting females to run). In order to get a more thorough picture of the barriers hindering women from entering Irish politics, we need to ask how this varies across constituencies and why. Examples of questions to be asked include: Are candidate selectors (who are usually male) in urban and commuter-belt areas more open to recruiting and running women candidates? Alternatively, are urban women more likely to have the opportunity and aspiration to enter political office than their rural counterparts? Does the issue of childcare play a considerable role in hindering politically-aspirant rural women from seeking a nomination? Is there a statistically significant link between the number of female candidates and TDs in a constituency and the percentage of women in the higher professional workforce? Do the routes used for entry to the formal political sphere differ between men and women and from place to place? In a political culture in which candidates are usually required to build up a strong bailiwick vote for electoral success, does the role of the locality differ for men and women – i.e. do women, for various reasons, find it more difficult to build up a network of local support to mobilise than men?

Finally, does the gendered geography of female representation in Ireland really matter? We need to dramatically increase the number of women in politics in the nature of gender equality, but we also need to ask whether women are being adequately represented. This is a complex argument and depends on whether one believes that there are distinct ‘women’s interests’ that require political representation. Within the context of third-wave feminism and the emphasis on multiple dimensions of identity and difference, this claim is problematic. However, Anne Phillips (1995) argues that the descriptive representation of women in politics is required because women are more likely than men (though not always) to actively seek to represent women in parliamentary discourse and policy-making. Political representation is, on the other hand, determined by geography and not by political interests. In this light, who represents the gendered needs of the 46.6% of Irish women with no female TD? To use the argument put forward by Jane Mansbridge (1999), do female TDs feel they are required to act as ‘surrogate representatives’ for those women on certain issues, with whom they have no electoral relationship in any traditional sense? Can the low numbers of women TDs represent the diversity of Irish women in the first place, whether they are in their constituency or not? This question is particularly significant given the fact that the majority of female TDs come from a similar educational and professional background and may not be overly representative of a large number of the female population in this regard.

 Claire McGing


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