'A different perspective' Four female councillors reflect on Ireland's first 50/50 council gender split
"The discourse around women in politics has changed."
This week, Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council became the first ever local authority to have a 50/50 gender split.
It's an impressive achievement and one that we should be proud of. Last week's local elections also saw a significant increase in the number of women who ran and were subsequently elected to councils around Ireland.
Despite this, women are still only making up less than one quarter (about 24 percent) of local seats across the country. This has led to a plea for gender quotas at local level, as well as a further push for support and encouragement from the ground, and also from the top.
Out of DLRCC's 40 available seats, 20 went to women. Among them were Lorraine Hall, Una Power, Deirdre Kingston, and Deirdre Ní Fhloinn. Each of these women spoke to Her about Ireland's shifting attitudes towards female politicians as well as the barriers that still exist for those running in elections.
Green Party councillor Una Power says that she was delighted with the outcome for DLRCC, but she wasn't "entirely shocked" that so many women were elected.
Rather, she thinks the council was well set up to achieve a 50/50 split.
"The previous council had 16 women elected to it and since then there has been a tremendous surge in women’s participation in politics locally," she says.
"Female politicians can and do bring forward issues that may not be on the radar of male politicians. This is simply as a result of having shared experiences and understanding."
Power points to the work county councillors do - sitting on local election boards and engaging in housing and planning committees - as reason for the need for more women in Irish politics, and more representatives in these pivotal areas of community life.
"The discourse around women in politics has changed," she says. "In the very recent past we have seen media coverage focus on pitting female politician against female politician, feeding tropes that women are catty with one another."
"The work of the Women’s Caucus in Leinster House and the coming together of women in the Repeal campaign has debunked the myth of women hating women, helping to build a collegial approach to politics, and attracting more women to the political table."
The Irish Women's Parliamentary Caucus, founded in 2017, has allowed female politicians from all political backgrounds to discuss issues that are predominantly affecting women.
Two years ago, Catherine Martin TD brought forward the motion of extending maternity leave for mothers of premature babies. A few months ago, the Caucus tabled a motion on period poverty - both issues that no doubt affect thousands of women across the country, but hadn't been previously addressed at legislative level.
Fine Gael's Lorraine Hall says that it is important for female councillors to use their own experiences to add a new, and necessary, voice to Irish politics.
"We bring a different perspective to issues," she says, "so having our voice heard means that we have a better understanding of society and the issues communities face."
"I also suspect the women work more collaboratively than men, so I'm hoping that stronger female representation on council means we will get more work done quicker."
Hall points to groups like Women for Election, the organisation that has trained over 1,000 women in Ireland to run for election at both local and EU levels, as a major player in the increased numbers of women who are running for seats - and subsequently winning them.
However, she also recognises that the number of female councillors taking seats following this local election is still below the EU average of 32 percent.
"So far (at the time of writing), women have won 224 (23 percent) of the 949 seats available in the local election. This is an increase on the 197 seats won by females in 2014 but is still well below the EU average," she says.
"Women account for 51 percent of the population – so we need to increase women’s participation in politics (...) When it comes to forming policies, it’s very important that women’s views are fully represented and considered."
Labour's Deirdre Kingston says that such focus on women's experiences has proven how necessary it is for gender balances to exist in Irish politics.
She, like Power, points to the Repeal movement as proof that women can, and need to, bring a unique perspective to politics and place a focus on the issues that are facing women in Ireland today.
"It is much more collaborative and there is less game playing," she says. "We saw that in the Repeal movement in Dún Laoghaire where lots of women from different parties worked well together. I think that can only be positive for the council."
This collaborative process irrespective of political leaning is apparent in achievements such as supporting the grassroots abortion rights campaign, but it is also echoed across the problems that female councillors still face going forward.
Attitudes across Irish politics have largely shifted for the better, but this doesn't mean that female councillors across the board aren't still facing more practical issues - the most prominent being childcare and maternity leave.
Kingston says that there needs to be more of a balance between work and home life. She recalls being back at work six weeks after giving birth, saying that there needs to be "more of an acceptance that politicians have families."
"Maternity leave needs to be introduced for councillors so that women who have children during a term are given the opportunity to rest and recover," she says.
"I was back in the chamber when my baby was only six weeks old. It was all a bit of a blur because I was still so tired! I would have liked to been able to feel supported in taking some time out but it's not just the case."
Green Party's Deirdre Ní Fhloinn echoes Kingston's sentiment. She says that the lack of options for childcare has continued to cause a significant barrier for women getting involved in local politics.
"The time commitment can be irregular and many meetings and community events take place in the evenings," she explains.
Deirdre Ní Fhloinn
"The payment is also well below what would be an equivalent salary in any other job given the hours typically worked by councillors, which is a deterrent to women on low incomes. This must be addressed as the council should not be reserved to those who can afford to work without being paid."
These are issues that women in politics are facing, but also ones that women outside of the political sphere are struggling with too.
Each councillor emphasised the same issues the 50/50 gender split in DLRCC hasn't fixed, but they also pointed to the same problems they want to work towards tackling.
For Power, it's finding ways that young mothers in the community will be able to continue their education. For Hall, it's addressing the gender pay gap. For Kingston and Ní Fhloinn, it's using their own experiences to bring a fresh perspective to politics and the communities they represent.
DLRCC may have made history, but not every council around the country, or even in Dublin, achieved such significant numbers of female seats. The equal split also doesn't mean that the barriers facing female politicians in that constituency have been all but erased.
Just three women were elected to an 18 seat chamber in Co Leitrim. Kilkenny county council elected the same amount out of 24 seats, and women are representing just 20 percent of the new Cork City council.
This disparity is not representative of an Ireland that is unwilling to support female politicians, but rather one that needs to give its women more encouragement and, of course, opportunity.
Kingston says that gender quotas have been a game changer within Irish politics but she, like her fellow councillors, believes that women in Ireland need - and deserve - support too.
"It goes to show that if parties make the effort to select women to run, they will be elected," she says. "I think it sets a great example to other local authorities."