Quick facts

Qualitative facts

1.  Electoral system and party system and their impact on women

2.  History of Women's suffrage

3.  Legal framework for the promotion of a balance between men and women in political decision-making
   a.  Infrastructure responsible for EO
   b.  Women's participation in politics as a governmental objective and strategy
   c.  Actions initiated to promote women's participation in politics

Mary Robinson

Europäische Datenbank: Frauen in Führungspositionen

Report from Ireland by our transnational partner
Patricia Lee

Quick facts
Women in Politics:
Women's suffrage active: 1918 with restrictions, 1928 restrictions lifted
Women's suffrage passive: 1918 with restrictions, 1928 restrictions lifted
1st Women in parliament: 1922, 4 women (3%)
1st Women in government: 1919 Countess Markievicz, Minister for Labour;
1979 Marie Geoghehan-Quinn, Ministry of Gaeltacht (Irish speaking parts of the country)
1st Ministry on women's issues: 1993 Ministry of Equal Opportunities and Reform of Law
% women in national Parliament: 14,6% (2000)
% women in national Government: 18,8% (2000)
Electoral System:
Proportional: House of Representatives:
166 members elected by single-transferable vote from 41 multi-seat constituencies.
Quota Law: No quota regulation legislation.
Party Quota: Democratic Left 40%, Green Party 1/3, Labour 20%
% women with secondary degree: 53,0% (1996/1997)
% women with degree in higher education: 51,7% (1997)
% women in senior management: not available
Women's employment rates:
Full time: 35,3% (1997)
Part-time: 23,2% (1997)
Activity rate: 51,4% (1998)
Unemployment: 7,6% (1998)
*sources: Employment in Europe 1999 and Schlüsselzahlen zum Bildungswesen in der Europäischen Union, Amt für amtliche Veröffentlichungen der Europäischen Gemeinschaft 1997, Luxemburg; European Database - Women in Decision-Making and data by transnational experts.

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Qualitative facts

1. Electoral system and party system and their impact on women

The Constitution of 1937 provides that the Oireachtas (National Parliament) shall consist of a President and two houses: Dáil Éireann (House of Representatives) and Seanad Éireann (Senate). The people directly elect the 166 Members of Dáil Éireann. The 60 Members of Seanad Éireann are either nominated or elected.
For electoral purposes the country is divided into constituencies, each of which elects either three, four or five, members. For Dáil elections voting is by secret ballot and members are elected on the system of proportional representation by means of the single transferable vote (STV).
Although women's participation and membership levels in party politics has increased over the last two decades this is not reflected in the number of women holding decision making positions in Irish political parties. In Ireland candidate selection is decentralised with national and regional party leaders playing a secondary role in candidate selection to that of the grass roots party organisation. Practically all of the elected representatives live in the constituency they represent and no candidate can expect to be elected unless they have an extensive network of local contacts and a strong local base. First women have to convince the party of their suitability as candidates for election before contesting in the election campaign and until recently women candidates were seen as being less attractive to the voters than males.
While the STV electoral system gives voters a high degree of choice over the candidates selected some argue that the list system prevalent in other EU countries better promotes women.

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2. History of Women's suffrage

The history of women in Irish political life does not make encouraging reading. From 1919 to the late 70's participation diminished in numbers and effectiveness. In the 1960's women in trade unions, professions, business, social organisations and community groups became more evident in politics and throughout the 1970's and the 1980's the women's movement were active on issues such as sale of contraception, protection from male violence, equal pay and reform of family law.
In 1971 the Women's Political Association was established. This has played an important role in encouraging women to become involved in politics however as mentioned later resources has caused problems. In 1973 the Council for the Status of Women (later to become the National Women's Council of Ireland) was established largely to monitor progress on the Commission for the Status of women which included a banner on women in decision-making and political life. Women Elect was founded in 1975 to support election expenses however this group was shortlived.
With the vote open to all over 18 years of age introduced in 1972 but not implemented until the 1977 elections we began to see the first proof of a shift of any kind. This would also have been enhanced by campaign groups such as the WPA launching slogans such as Why not a woman? and Who is your woman?
1979 European and local elections women won 11.3% of the total valid poll and in the 1981 elections positive action measures at selection level were used by the leader of Fine Gael with a return of 6% of the seats going to women.
In the elections between 1977 and 1992 women have comprised on average 11.3% of the total number of the candidates.
There has been an institutionally focused gender equality agenda throughout the 80's and the 90's with an emphasis on family law, violence, human rights, access etc. The political environs have not been tackled aside from research focused approaches or activities of women's groups within political parties. Over this period we have seen the figures fluctuate from below 10 to the mid teens. We are a far stretch from 50:50!
As recently as 1997 four of the five presidential election candidates were women. There were suggestions, through the media in particular, that women's political involvement is vibrant and extensive. And the successive election of two women presidents has been interpreted as a triumph for women's participation in political life. Yet in that same year in the general elections women candidates lost there seats.

Highlighted below are some key points in the lives of women in politics in Ireland.

  • Year Active and passive suffrage
  • 1898: the local government vote was granted to women.
  • 1900: October 1st the Daughters of Ireland (Inghindhe na hEireann) held their first meeting.
  • 1908: May 5th Irish Women's Franchise League founded.
  • 1909: National University of Ireland founded, fully open to women.
  • 1910: Society of United Irishwomen founded later becoming the Irish Countrywomen's Association in 1935. This group is strictly apolitical.
  • 1911: September 5th, Irish Women Workers Union established.
  • 1912: November, 71 members of the Irish Parliamentary Party by their vote defeat the Women's Suffrage Bill as well as Women's Suffrage Amendments to the Home Rule Bill.
  • 1914: April 5th, Cumann na Ban the women's branch of the Irish Volunteers were founded. They were involved in the 1916 Easter Rising and the War of Independence.
  • 1918: Irishwomen over 30 years of age are granted the vote under the Representation of the People Act1st Dail, Countess Markievicz the first woman elected to Dáil Éireann.
  • 1919: April 1st Countess Markievicz appointed Minister for Labour in the first Republican Government.
  • 1921: 2nd Dáil, 6 women elected.
  • 1922: Suffrage for all adults over 21 introduced under the Free State Constitution. 3rd Dáil, 2 women elected; 4 women to Seanad Éireann.
  • 1923: 4th Dáil, 5 women deputes elected to Dáil Éireann.
  • 1925: 4 women elected to Seanad Éireann.
  • 1927: 5th Dáil 4 women elected; 6th Dáil 1 woman elected.
  • 1928: 5 women elected to Seanad Éireann.
  • 1930: Women's Social and Progressive League founded.
  • 1931: July 31st, Louie Bennet became the first woman President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU).
  • 1932: 7th Dáil, 2 women elected.
  • 1933: 8th Dáil, 3 women elected.
  • 1935: The Joint Committee of Women's Societies and Social Workers campaigned on important issues affecting women.
  • 1937 Constitution article 41.2 defines role of women. 9th Dáil, 2 women elected.
  • 1938: Soroptimists International - Dublin club founded. 10th Dáil, 2 women elected as deputies and 3 as senators.
  • 1942: Irish Housewives Association founded.
  • 1943: 11th Dáil, 3 women elected as deputies and 3 as senators.
  • 1944: 12th Dáil, 4 women elected as deputies and 3 as senators.
  • 1948: 13th Dáil, 4 women elected as deputies and 4 as senators.
  • 1951: 14th Dáil, 5 women elected as deputies and 3 as senators.
  • 1954: 15th Dáil, 6 women elected as deputies and 3 as senators.
  • 1957: 16th Dáil, 5women elected as deputies and 4 as senators. The Married Women's Status Act passed giving married women control of their property.
  • 1959: ICTU Women's Advisory Committee established.
  • 1961: 17th Dáil, 4 women elected to the Dáil and 3 to the Seanad.
  • 1965: 18th Dáil, 5 women elected to the Dáil and 4 to the Seanad. Irish Federation of Women's Clubs founded.
  • 1967: National Association of Widows formed.
  • 1968: Call by an Ad Hoc Committee representing women's groups to the Taoiseach for establishment of a National Commission on the Status of Women.
  • 1969: 19th Dáil, 3 women elected to the Dáil and 5 to the Seanad.
  • 1970: Irish Women's Liberation Movement (IWLM)- first meeting. March 31st Establishment of the Commission on the Status of Women chaired by Dr.Thekla Beere. June 19th, Minister for Finance requested the Commission to prepare a report on equal pay, focusing on the public sector.
  • 1971: IWLM published CHAINS OR CHANGE detailing major discriminations against women. IWLM active throughout this year on issues such as contraception. Women's Political Association held it's inaugural meeting then known as the Women's Progressive Association. October 27th Commission on the Status of Women presented its interim report on equal pay.
  • 1972: Report of the Commission on the Status of Women which widely became the charter for women in the modern Irish state. All over 18 years of age were entitled to vote. The first opportunity to exercise this vote was in the 1997 elections.
  • 1973: Formation of the Council for the Status of Women to be the main co-ordinating body for women's organisations. Known as the National women's Council of Ireland since 1995. The Civil Service (Employment of Married Women) Act 1973 removed the ban on the recruitment or employment of married women in the Civil Service, local authorities and health boards. 20th Dáil, 4 women elected to the Dáil and 4 to the Seanad. First woman Chairperson elected to the General Council of County Councils - Senator Mary Walsh. First woman ambassador appointed to Sweden and Finland - Mary Catherine Tinney.
  • 1974: Women's Representative Committee set up by Minister for Labour to implement the recommendations contained in the Commission on the Status of women report. Women's Aid opened its first women's refuge for battered wives.
  • 1975: INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S YEAR. January 9th, Exhibition of the Irishwomen's Suffrage Movement Trinity College June 8th, Irishwomen United hold their first meetingICTU adopts the Working Women's Charter.
  • 1977: 21st Dáil, 6 women elected to the Dáil and 6 to the Seanad. Máire Geoghan-Quinn appointed Minister of State at the Department of Industry and Commerce. Employment Equality Act passed and the EEA set up.
  • 1979: Two women elected to the European Parliament Máire Geoghan-Quinn appointed Minister for the Gaeltacht (first woman to be appointed to cabinet since Countess Markievicz in 1919).
  • 1981: 22nd Dáil, 11 women elected to the Dáil and 9 to the Seanad Gemma Hussey appointed Fine Gael leader in Seanad Éireann, two women ministers (Eileen Desmond to Health and Mary Flaherty to Poverty and Family).
  • 1982: 23rd Dáil, 8 women elected to the Dáil and 8 to the Seanad Máire Geoghan-Quinn appointed Minister for State at the Dept of Education Tras Honan appointed Cathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann 24th Dáil, 14 women elected to the Dáil and 6 to the Seanad Gemma Hussey appointed Minister for Education Nuala Fennell Minister of State for Women's Affairs.
  • 1983: Nuala Fennel appointed Minister of State for Family Law Reform. Joint Oireachtas Committee on Women's Rights set up.
  • 1984: Two women elected to European Parliament Government Positive Action policy with EO Officers appointed into Semi-state organisations.
  • 1985: UN Decade for Women Conference in Nairobi - CSW organised the Irish Women's Forum to assess the conclusions.
  • 1986: onward Equal Opportunities Policy within the Civil Service UNCEDAW Ireland removed three of the reservations lodged EEC directives on equal treatment.
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3. Legal framework for the promotion of a balance between men and women in political decision-making

There is no provision in the Constitution relating to the gender balance in political decision making, however, the Constitution does identify the role of women in Irish society as nurturer and carer of the family. Provision for the promotion of gender balance in this area is through legislative enactment alone.
Current legislative initiative in this area concerns the introduction of equal status legislation. The Equal Status Bill has been debated for many years. Initially introduced in 1997, it was found to be unconstitutional and was replaced and amended in 1999 to meet the Supreme Court's requirements. The measure will give protection against discrimination on nine grounds, including gender discrimination, in non-workplace areas. The bill is now before the Oireachtas and it is expected that it will be enacted by summer 2000.
The Equal Status Bill complements existing equal opportunities legislation prohibiting discrimination in access to and participation in employment on the same nine grounds, including gender discrimination.

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a. Infrastructure responsible for EO

Historically gender equality was the responsibility of the office of the Prime Minister and for a short period (1995-1997) equality was assigned to a Ministry of Equality and Law Reform. Historically the budget for equality has been extremely limited.
In 1997 the government established an Equality Section within the Department of Justice Equality and Law Reform. Minister John O'Donoghue TD heads this Department, with the remit for equality given to a Minister for State Ms Mary Wallace TD. Through this lead department equality (across nine counts of which gender is one) receives a higher level of priority and more recently this has been matched with resources.
This priority has shifted largely due to lobbying from specific interest groups, and in 1996 the introduction of a Community and Voluntary Sector Pillar into Ireland's Social Partnership structures and pending legislative changes.
We have seen a clear emphasis on gender mainstreaming and in late 1999 a significant budget has been assigned towards Gender Equality Positive Action measures as well as introducing equality into Ireland's National Development Plan (2000-2007) which in turn is closely monitored at Social Partner level.
Since 1998 a new infrastructure has been put in place to underpin employment equality and equal status law. This consists of two new bodies, the Equality Authority and the Office of the Director of Equality Investigations. They have been established under the Employment Equality Act 1998. The remit of the bodies will be broadened beyond the employment equality area after the enactment of the Equal Status Bill 1999.
The Equality Authority replaced the Employment Equality Agency and has a statutory role in support and monitoring under the Employment Equality legislation which became law in 1998. The Office of the Director of Equality Investigations was established in 1999. This provides the main locus for redress of first instance for equality cases.
In addition to these state structures the government also resources Non-Governmental Organisations to offer information, support to specific groups. These organisations have a key role in social partnership, policy influencing and development and lobbying on behalf of those they represent. One such organisation is the National Women's Council of Ireland, Comhairle Naisiunta na mBan in Eirinn, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), which is the national representative organisation for women and women's groups in Ireland.
The National Women's Council of Ireland was founded in 1973 as the Council for the Status of Women. Its foundation was preceded by the formation of an ad hoc network of women's organisations who had successfully lobbied for the establishment of a national Commission of the Status of Women in 1970.
The Commission, appointed by the Government, reviewed the position of women in Ireland and made recommendations on action needed to achieve women's rights. Following publication of the Commission's report in 1972, the Council for the Status of Women was set up, by the members of the ad hoc network, to monitor the implementation of the report, and to act as a co-ordinating body for women's organisations in Ireland.
Over these twenty seven years, the role of the Council has expanded and changed. Maintaining its role as a non-governmental organisation, it has addressed many complex and often controversial issues affecting women. Today the National Women's Council of Ireland, a company limited by guarantee, works to achieve change through a range of action and activity, maintaining its independent voice and a commitment to inclusiveness reflecting its broad membership. This organisation plays a significant role in monitoring progress on areas such as the Beijing Platform for Action (current process of review for Beijing +5), commitments to the UN CEDAW, gender in the structural funds.
The NWCI has also influenced the introduction of a strategy for gender mainstreaming and a mechanism for the gender proofing of all national policies and programmes.
The NWCI is also a key member of the Community and Voluntary Pillar alongside interest groups representing youth, religion, disadvantaged, disabled, unemployed, etc. The social conscience of the partnership structure!
The NWCI share a common vision, working together to transform society into a just and equitable community, a community in which all women and men can participate with equal effectiveness as full citizens, in which the independence of women is determined by right.

As the collective voice of Irish women's organisations our work is aimed at:
· Shaping society so that all women can achieve their true potential;
· Ensuring that the law advances equality and places no barriers in its way;
· Changing attitudes to ensure the recognition of the individual dignity of each woman;
· Removing all threats of violence to women and children both inside and outside the home;
· Monitoring to ensure that the effects of poverty on women and children is highlighted and removed;
· Achieving access to appropriate, affordable and quality health care for all women and protecting and promoting reproductive health rights;
· Creating an education system in which women and young girls can participate fully and which fosters quality and respect.

Membership: The National Women's Council of Ireland has always been committed to bringing together women and women's organisations which reflect the rich and diverse life experience of women in Ireland today. Through its 152 affiliate organisations, urban and rural, local, regional and national, the NWCI represents an estimated 300,000 women. The membership includes major national organisations, community-based groups, service and support providers, professional bodies and women in business, trade unions, politics and farming.

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b. Women's participation in politics as a governmental objective and strategy

Participation of women in politics as an objective of Government was manifested in the introduction of a policy of attaining a minimum target of 40% gender balance in relation to Government appointments to State boards. This policy initiative was introduced in 1991. The success of implementing and achieving this target level of representation has been varied, some government departments have shown an increase in the number of female members as a result but others have failed to increase the level of female membership. This confirms the assertion of organisations such as the NWCI that targets without an overarching strategy for change and specific actions rarely have a significant impact.
In addition the Government has asked nominating bodies to comply with the its target of a minimum representation of 40% men and women on State boards. In many cases compliance has not been achieved, particularly where the nominating bodies are already largely male.

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c. Actions initiated to promote women's participation in politics

Statistical data is not easily accessible for example following the June 1999 Local and European elections official statistics were not available until late Autumn 1999 and would not be disaggregated on the basis of gender. However through a recent 4th Action project the NWCI gathered some relevant data. From the table below for example it can be seen why statistics are not necessarily made visible.

Party Memberships
Total of Members
Total of female Members
Women as a % of membership
Fianna Fail 50,000 approx. 3000 6%
Fine Gael 23,000 approx 7,750 33%
PD 3,700 approx.1,850 50%
Labour Party 6,4772 1733 4%

The European Commission DGV in co-operation with the Women's Rights Committee produced a booklet titled "European Elections 1999 - Europe for Women, Women for Europe". This booklet outlined briefly the position of women in the European Parliament and in National Parliaments, and urged people to vote for women in this year's election. They also provided a campaign kit that contained the "vote for balance between men and women logo, tee-shirts, posters etc. Other than that, they provided little assistance.
Support is not specifically given to NGOs with regard to addressing participation gaps etc. In many instances targeted actions have been resourced through the EU under programmes such as NOW or 4th Action. The NWCI has taken the initiative to conduct specific research with the strong message going to government that a Positive Action programme is required. Under the National Development Plan a budget has been assigned to Gender Equality Positive Actions and the NWCI will inform the development of these measures to ensure inclusion of awareness raising, comprehensive information, political will, and positive action initiatives.
In the past a number of actions have supported women in politics as listed below:
The Women's Political Association (WPA) has not been actively supporting candidates etc. This is largely due to lack of resourcing. The WPA has focused on increasing its membership.
The National Women's Council of Ireland provided information briefings to EU and Local candidates on the childcare issue. Under the 4th Action Programme the NWCI also conduct a research project to identify what supports (be they information days, or practical administration) women candidates need in order to get elected. The key messages are attached in appendix 1.
Political parties and the women's groups within again are largely unresourced. One example of Labour's group organised a fundraising event to fund their female candidates however the money raised quite small and possibly ineffective.

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Portrait: Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson was elected President of Ireland on the 3rd of December 1990. She was the first woman to hold the highest office in the land and the youngest. Her Presidency was not only active and hard working but was also distinguished by imagination, compassion, vision and commitment. She was as she promised - a president for all. Many remember her ground breaking trip to the Sudan in the height of the famine, and the effect it had on her personally as well as putting the Sudan on the agenda for world action.

In the years as Irish head of State, Mary Robinson has redefined this primarily ceremonial role. A prominent liberal feminist and high achiever academically (at the age of 25 she became the youngest ever professor of law at Trinity College Dublin), she came to office promising Irish women that "the hand that rocks the cradle can rock the system". She embodies many of the contradictions and concerns of modern Ireland - a Catholic married to a Protestant, she has visited the Queen at Buckingham Palace and shaken hands with Gerry Adams. Her "Woman of the People" approach has won her a staggering 93 per cent approval rating with the Irish electorate.

Prior to her election as President, Mary Robinson had a distinguished academic career as well as being an international advocate/activist on human rights. She was involved in many social campaigns in Ireland - developments at the archaeological site at Woodquay. The Anti-Apartheid Movement, Cherish - as well as many historic court cases which secured rights for excluded sections of the Irish Community. This work has been recognised by her numerous awards, including the International League of Human Rights Award, United Nations Association Global leadership Award, UNIFEM Award, and her many honourary degrees from Universities such as Harvard, Yale and Cambridge.

Mary Robinson's current position as U.N. High Commissioner for Human rights is a challenging role on the world stage. She is indeed an inspiration to Mná na hEireann.

Personal Motto
Mary believes that all politics are local, the truth of this phrase was brought home to her on one of her visits to Kerry during the 1990 presidential election campaign. A reporter commenting on the unexpected level of support she was getting in what were considered unlikely places said, "things have changed and I began to realise that inn Lyrecrompane - where the get it in the milk. The "it" he referred to was political belief. Mary still believes all politics are local and we all live in one locality, a global village, and we all have responsibilities in that village.

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