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Les Irlandaises : vers une reconnaissance / A New Citizenship for Irish Women?

 | 
Paul Brennan
, 
Elisabeth Gaudin
, 
Catherine Maignant

Political women

Paul Brennan

Résumé

In spite of the fact that women could vote and be elected in the same conditions as men from the foundation of the Irish State there were very few in politics until change began to occur in the 1970s and 1980s. This change has resulted in more women deputies and ministers. It has also modified the sociological composition of the Dáil. The election of Mary Robinson as President of Ireland in 1990 was, to a point, the expression of such change.

Malgré le fait que les femmes disposaient du droit de vote et étaient éligibles dans les mêmes conditions que les hommes dès la création de l’État irlandais peu de femmes ont participé à la vie politique jusqu’à ce que des changements sont intervenus dans les années 1970 et 1980. Il en a résulté une augmentation du nombre des femmes députés et ministres et une modification dans la composition sociologique de l’Assemblée. L’élection de Mary Robinson en tant que Président d'Irlande en 1990 exprimait aussi, en partie, ces changements.

Texte intégral

1On 7 November 1990, Mary Robinson was elected to the highest post in the State, that of President of Ireland. For more than twenty years prior to that victory she had waged many a battle in favour of new rights for women. Consequently some people saw her election as a victory for the women of Ireland. To a certain extent they were right. We ought however to go beyond that individual achievement and see whether the breakthrough it represented reflected an equivalent breakthrough as regards the presence of women in politics. In other words was the election of Mrs Robinson a further major step in the conquest of politics by women or was it similar to the Thatcher phenomenon, an exceptional women succeeding in reaching an exceptional position in society? In attempting to answer those questions a double limitation will be adopted in this article; without totally neglecting the past it will deal essentially with women in politics in contemporary Ireland and will concentrate on elections to the most important chamber of the parliament, the Dáil.

Women elected to the Dáil

  • 1 The right to vote was accorded in France in 1944, in Italy in 1945, in Greece in 1952 and in 1976 (...)
  • 2 She was Countess Constance Markievicz, (1868-1927), born in to the Sligo Gore-Booth family. She pa (...)

2Prior to the 1980s and in spite of a situation that was not inimical to women’s participation in politics, there were very few elected to the Dáil. Irish women obtained the right to vote under the same conditions as men when the State officially came into existence in 1922. Article 14 of the Constitution of the Irish Free State allowed for the right to vote for members of the Dáil “without distinction of sex” and article 15 allowed every citizen aged 21 and over to become a member of the Dáil. That was years before the same right was given in France, Portugal, Italy and Greece, if we limit ourselves to taking some of Ireland’s present partners within the European Union as examples.1 A further illustration of this relatively favourable climate is the fact that prior to independence the first Dáil, created in defiance of British rule set up in 1919 and composed of the Sinn Fein candidates who had been elected in December 1918 to Westminster, appointed Countess Markievicz a minister.2

3Such a promising start was soon to be halted with the withdrawal from the Dáil of the first women deputies like Constance Markievicz and Mary MacSwiney, who, in defence of their republican convictions, refused the political compromise contained in the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1921 which gave birth to the Irish Free State. As the following table shows a decline in the number of women elected to the Dáil set in during the 1920s and for the following fifty years the proportion of women deputies never reached the three percent level.

Women elected to the Dail 1923-1973

Electoral year

Number elected

Total seats

%

1923

4

153

2.6

1927

3

153

2.0

1927

1

153

0.7

1932

2

153

1.3

1933

3

153

2.0

1937

2

138

1.4

1938

3

138

2.2

1943

2

138

1.4

1944

4

138

2.9

1948

4

147

2.7

1951

4

147

2.7

1954

3

147

2.0

1957

4

147

2.7

1961

1

144

0.7

1965

3

144

2.1

1969

2

144

1.4

Source: Adapted from, V. Browne (ed.) THE MAGILL BOOK OF IRISH POLITICS, DUBLIN: MAGILL, 1981.

4The decline in the number of women representatives began in the latter part of the 1920s and even reached the lowest level possible in the second general election of 1927 with only one woman candidate elected. The same level was to be reached again in 1961. Otherwise over the fifty year period the highest number ever reached was four deputies.

5The 1970s were to introduce change though initially, as the following figures indicate, the period witnessed no major breakthrough as to the number of women deputies elected to the Dáil.

Women elected to the Dail 1973-1981

Electoral year

Number elected

Total seats

%

1973

3

144

2.1

1977

4

148

2.7

Source: Adapted from, V. Browne (ed.) THE MAGILL BOOK OF IRISH POLITICS, DUBLIN: MAGILL, 1981.

  • 3 Nuala Fennell, “Address”, Cahier du Centre d'Études Irlandaises, No 11, Rennes: Université de Haut (...)
  • 4 Maire Geoghegan-Quinn was appointed to a junior post in the government.

6The change that occurred was that for the first time since the first and second Dáili in 1919 and 1921 a woman acceded to ministerial rank. In 1973 the formation of a coalition government opened up possibilities for modernizing forces and prepared the way for reforms which were being pressed for by the Women’s Liberation Movement. However, already in 1969, the Fianna Fáil Minister for Finance, at the request of a committee of women’s organisations, had already set up a commission to report on the status of women. The commission completed it report in 1972.3 It was not until 1977 that the first tangible sign of change appeared with the Fianna Fáil appointment of a woman minister, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, when the party returned to power in that year.4

7The rhythm of change became more rapid in the 1980s and even underwent an acceleration in the early 1990s when the number of women deputies increased significantly.

Women elected to the Dail 1981-1992

Electoral year

Number elected

Total seats

%

1981

11

166

6.6

1982

8

166

4.8

1982

14

166

8.4

1987

14

166

8.4

1989

13

166

7.8

1992

20

166

12

Source: Adapted from, V. Browne (ed.) THE MAGILL BOOK OF IRISH POLITICS, DUBLIN: MAGILL, 1981.

8In the general election of 1981 with eleven deputies, or 6.6% of the total number, the 1980s seemed to be ushering in a new situation as regards women and political representation in Ireland. Initial optimism was soon to be tempered by the subsequent decline or slow growth. With only thirteen deputies out of one hundred and sixty six at the end of the ten years beginning in 1980, the initial promise was far from being confirmed. The 1992 general election however produced a major increase, from 13 in 1989 to twenty in 1992. Nevertheless we are still only talking about 12% of all deputies. How can the feeble number of women deputies be accounted for?

  • 5 A. Smyth, “Femmes, Pouvoirs en Puissance dans l'Irlande Contemporaine”, Cahier du Centre d’Études (...)

9Looking at the question from a quantitative point of view it can be said that the first reason is that few women are candidates. Taking some dates at random 12.8% of all candidates were women in 1957. In 1981 the figure was 15.7% and for the first election the following year 15.2%.5 This is true not only at the national level but also exists in local government elections. Since local government is very often a stepping stone to the Dáil-in 1989 86% of all men deputies were or had been local councillors- an increase on the national level seems to depend on an increase on the local level. It is generally accepted nowadays that if women decide to stand for election at local or national level they have as good a chance as men of being elected. Another factor must however be taken into account and that is that the number of sitting deputies returned from one election to another adds to the difficulties of all new candidates in general therefore of women candidates in particular.

10A further reason is that rural areas have not produced many women candidates or deputies in the past and the Dáil has been, to a large extent, a chamber of rural male representatives. A study of the rural women deputies between 1923 and 1973 shows that each and every one of them inherited a seat on the death of a husband or a father and that even under such conditions large areas of rural Ireland were never represented by a woman in the Dáil.

11Some people might explain that State of things by the absence of women candidates in rural areas but if one examines voting patterns in the 1980s a more complex picture emerges. The greatest opposition to abortion during the 1983 and the 1992 referendums, to divorce during the 1986 referendum and the lowest support for Mary Robinson during the presidential elections of 1990 were to be found in the rural centre and centre north west which either never elected a woman deputy or chose one to inherit a seat. The maps below which show where the support for Mary Robinson was the weakest also shows unfavourable territory for women candidates to the Dáil. The constituencies where her support was the strongest were more likely to return a woman deputy to parliament. Indeed, on the whole women deputies are an urban phenomenon.

The Background of Women Deputies

  • 6 B. Fabre, Women Deputies in the Republic of Ireland, 1981-1983, Paris: Centre Universitaire d’Étud (...)

12All the women deputies in the first and second Dáili were committed republicans. Mary MacSwiney for example who, though a sister of the republican Lord Mayor of Cork who later died in Brixton prison on hunger strike, or Countess Markievicz, were activists in their own right and found their own way into the Dáil. For the next generation of women deputies a family background in politics, as mentioned above, was the principal explanation for their presence in the Dáil. Such was the case with Miss Pearse in County Dublin in 1933, with Mrs Collins-O’Driscoll, sister of Michael Collins, in Dublin North from 1923 to 1932 or with Mrs Redmond, daughter-in-law of John Redmond, in Waterford between 1933 and 1951. This tradition continued into the 1980s and 1990s. In the 1981 general election 55% of women deputies had inherited seats as against 31% of men, and in the first 1982 election the comparative figures were 50% to 34%.6

Presidential Election 1990 support for Mary Robinson

Presidential Election 1990 support for Mary Robinson

Presidential Election 1990 support for Mary Robinson in Dublin

Presidential Election 1990 support for Mary Robinson in Dublin
  • 7 C. Lepage, Women eected to the Dáil, Senate and European Parliament in the 1989 Elections in the R (...)

13However by the end of the period, this was much less the case, indicating a more autonomous relation with the profession of political representative on the part of women. Out of the thirteen women elected in 1989 only five, 38%, could be characterized as having a family background in politics.7 It is interesting to remark that the President, Mary Robinson, fits into the category of women who found their own way into politics.

  • 8 After every general election to the Dáil a new Senate partly elected and partly appointed is set u (...)
  • 9 V. Browne (ed), The Magill Book of Irish Politics, op. cit.
    V. Browne (ed), Magill, Election’82, Du (...)

14But the way or the route they chose was always one form or another of activism in the public sphere. In other words the women who, without any family connection in politics, became deputies are a reflexion of the much greater participation of women in the life of the city. Some examples can be taken to illustrate that point. If one looks at the three general elections which took place over an eighteen month period during 1981 and 1982 seven women who had no family political connection were elected deputies. Three of them, confirming what has been said above, had been involved in local politics. Alice Glenn and Mary Flaherty had previously been elected to the Dublin local government body, Dublin Corporation and Carrie Acheson had been Mayor of Clonmel and a member of the county council of Tipperary South. The fourth deputy, Mary Harney, was first involved in student politics. Thanks to that she was nominated to the Senate by the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, in 1977.8 The three remaining deputies had all been actively engaged in the feminist movement. Two of them, Monica Barnes and Gemma Hussey had also been elected to the Senate and, adopting the practice of many men politicians, used that institution as a stepping stone to the Dáil. The third deputy, Nuala Fennell, moved directly from the feminist movement to the Dáil.9

  • 10 Idem
  • 11 T. Nealon, Guide to the 26th Dáil and Seanad, Election ‘89, Dublin: Platform Press, 1989.

15In terms of political party background a very uneven pattern emerged in the early 1980s. Of the eleven women deputies elected in 1981, six belonged to the Fine Gael party but only four to Fianna Fáil. The eleventh was a Labour deputy. This inequality in distribution was to be accentuated at the two following elections: five out of the eight were Fine Gael, two Fianna Fáil, one Labour at the February 1982 general election and nine out of the fourteen were Fine Gael, four were Fianna Fáil and again one Labour at the November election of the same year.10 In the 1989 general election Fianna Fáil had five women elected out of a total of thirteen, Fine Gael, remaining faithful to its tradition though not improving on it, had six and the Labour party had none. The two remaining ones were Progressive Democrat deputies. This party was the product of a split in Fianna Fáil in 1985.11 The Fianna Fáil party, being the most traditionalist, had the least proportion of women deputies. It is not surprising either to find out that it is the party which presents the lowest proportion of women candidates. The following table throws further light on the distribution of women candidates among the different political parties in 1989.

Women Candidates by Party 1989

Political Party

Women
candidates

Total
candidates

%
women

Fianna Fáil

10

115

9

Fine Gael

11

86

13

Progressive Democrats

7

35

20

Workers’Party

3

23

13

Labour

3

33

9

Green Party

5

11

46

Sinn Fein

2

14

14

Independent

11

49

22

Source: T. Nealon, Guide to the 26th Dáil and Seanad, op, cit.

16What emerges from this table is that the newer the political party the higher the proportion is of women candidates, the Progressive Democrats and the Green Party, both creations of the 1980s, prove that point. On the other hand the relatively high proportion of independent women candidates suggests strong dissatisfaction on their part with the selection process of the political parties. How justified is that dissatisfaction? If one limits oneself to the data which has been already presented there would seem to be some justification since, in 1989, though 9% of Fianna Fáil candidates were women only 7% of the deputies were women. The respective figures for the Fine Gael party gave a similar resuit with 13% as against 11%. The Progressive Democrats however reversed the situation with 20% of the candidates and 33% of the deputies. It could of course be said that the origin of the disparity is to be found among the voters who might prefer men candidates though, as has been already said, this position would not seem to resist the test of research. On the other hand it is well known that the organizers of political parties are past masters at the art of overcoming voters’ hesitations. Every well structured party possesses way and means in each constituency to promote some of its candidates to the detriment of some of its other candidates.

17The uneven distribution of women deputies among the political parties in the 1980s reproduced itself in 1992 as the following table indicate

Women deputies by party in 1992

Fianna Fáil

7.4%

Fine Gael

11.1%

Labour

15.2%

Progressive Democrats

40.0%

Democratic Left

25.0%

Source: The Sunday Tribune 29 November 1992

18Finally it can be said that from a sociological point of view women deputies do not conform to the global portrait of Dáil deputies. First of all, if one examines the chamber elected in 1989, they are younger. This is not of course surprising given their recent arrival on the political scene. 61% of the women are aged forty and under whereas only 49% of all the deputies are in that situation. Secondly more of them are single. 11% of all deputies are not married whereas 38% of the women are in that situation. Age can help, to an extent, to explain such a high percentage; 14% were under the age of thirty in 1989 leaving open the possibility of a later marriage. However since marriage and a family have been, undoubtedly, major obstacles to women’s participation in politics in the past it is not surprising to-day to see a certain number refusing marital status. Those who are married do not fit into the dominant pattern either: the modal number of children for all deputies is four whereas for women deputies it is two. The age factor, unlikely though it may seem, could, though, still play a role here and one may be simply dealing with delayed pregnancies.

  • 12 T. Nealon, Guide to the 26th Dáil and Seanad, Election ‘89, op. cit.
    C. Lepage, Women Elected to th (...)

19From a socio-economic perspective the background of women deputies is quite distinct from the global profile. The teaching profession, with 26% of all deputies, was particularly well represented after the 1989 election. Among the women deputies it scored a much higher mark with 69% or nine deputies, the remaining categories being nurses, social workers, journalists and executive and industrial cadres. The three most important categories, after that of teachers, represented in the Dáil are business, farming and the legal professions. No woman candidate came from those categories. Any major increase in women’s representation in the Dáil would suggest the possibility of a profound change in its socio-economic composition.12

20It is clear from what has been seen that the 1970s, and above all the 1980s and the 1990s, constitute a break with the past as regards women’s representation in the Dáil. It could be said however that in purely numerical terms the progress made in the 1980s has been slight and that it was only in 1992 that a clear improvement could be seen. At the same time the entry to parliament of women who do not owe their seat to a father, a husband or an uncle, in other words to a political dynasty; who have achieved political prominence because of their own efforts and because of the cause they defend amounts to an important innovation. The election of Mary Robinson to the presidency of Ireland in 1990 must therefore be seen first of all as the achievement of an exceptional woman. This achievement has, nevertheless been built on a slowly developing basis. Furthermore, her election, added to that of the deputies in the 1980s and above all to the results achieved in 1992 should, logically, lead to a greater participation on the part of women in the politics of the Irish State.

Notes

1 The right to vote was accorded in France in 1944, in Italy in 1945, in Greece in 1952 and in 1976 in Portugal.

2 She was Countess Constance Markievicz, (1868-1927), born in to the Sligo Gore-Booth family. She participated in the 1916 republican rising and was second-in-command at the St Stephen’s Green command in Dublin. She became Minister for Labour in the Dâil government in 1919 and was reappointed to the same post in the government of the second Dáil. Her total opposition to the Free State and her death in 1927 put an end to her participation in politics.

3 Nuala Fennell, “Address”, Cahier du Centre d'Études Irlandaises, No 11, Rennes: Université de Haute Bretagne, 1987.

4 Maire Geoghegan-Quinn was appointed to a junior post in the government.

5 A. Smyth, “Femmes, Pouvoirs en Puissance dans l'Irlande Contemporaine”, Cahier du Centre d’Études Irlandaises, op.cit.

6 B. Fabre, Women Deputies in the Republic of Ireland, 1981-1983, Paris: Centre Universitaire d’Études Irlandaises (unpublished).

7 C. Lepage, Women eected to the Dáil, Senate and European Parliament in the 1989 Elections in the Republic of Ireland, Paris: Centre Universitaire d’Études Irlandaises (unpublished).

8 After every general election to the Dáil a new Senate partly elected and partly appointed is set up. The new Taoiseach has the constitutional right to appoint eleven senators. J. Mastias et J. Grangé, Les Secondes chambres du Parlement en Europe occidentale, Paris: Economica, 1987, p. 296.

9 V. Browne (ed), The Magill Book of Irish Politics, op. cit.
V. Browne (ed), Magill, Election’82, Dublin: Magill, 1982.
V. Browne (ed), Magill Book of Irish Politics 1983, Dublin: Magill, 1983.

10 Idem

11 T. Nealon, Guide to the 26th Dáil and Seanad, Election ‘89, Dublin: Platform Press, 1989.

12 T. Nealon, Guide to the 26th Dáil and Seanad, Election ‘89, op. cit.
C. Lepage, Women Elected to the Dáil, Senate and European Parliament, op. cit.

Table des illustrations

Titre Presidential Election 1990 support for Mary Robinson
URL http://books.openedition.org/psn/docannexe/image/5273/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 128k
Titre Presidential Election 1990 support for Mary Robinson in Dublin
URL http://books.openedition.org/psn/docannexe/image/5273/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 128k

Auteur

Centre Universitaire d’Études Irlandaises, Université Paris III - Sorbonne Nouvelle

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1994

Conditions d’utilisation : http://www.openedition.org/6540