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Confidence and candidate selection are still some of the barriers for women in politics

"Be conscious of the time it involves but if you want to do it- go for it! It’s better to put your name on the ballot paper and if you’re beaten, you’re beaten, you can run again in five years’ time but it’s better to run than regret it all of your life.” That was the advice from Cllr Mary Hilda Cavanagh, the country’s longest serving continuously elected female County Councillor. Cllr. Cavanagh who celebrates 50 years as a public representative this year was one of the guest speakers at a ‘Kilkenny Women in Politics’ seminar hosted by Kilkenny County Council in association with See Her Elected at the Council Chamber, County Hall Kilkenny to mark International Women’s Day 2024.

PHOTO Vicky Comerford

Currently only 26% of county councillors in Ireland are female and there are only 4 female Councillors out of 24 or 17% in County Kilkenny.

Cllr. Cavanagh’s advice to the women of Kilkenny was simple: “Be conscious of the time it involves but if you want to do it- go for it! It’s better to put your name on the ballot paper and if you’re beaten, you’re beaten, you can run again in five years’ time but it’s better to run than regret it all of your life.” She said that confidence and candidate selection were still some of the main barriers for women in politics but the pace of change is moving in the right direction.

The veteran councillor was first elected in 1974 and she noted this was a time when there was no maternity leave for councillors, and she worked without a salary for the first twenty-five years as a public representative.

The event also included informal panel discussions with female politicians from Kilkenny on their journey into politics and the day-to-day reality of being public representatives.

Cllr. Deirdre Cullen said that political parties had a role to play by selecting women for winnable seats as opposed to being token candidates and she also noted that “sometimes women can be their own worst critics’ and that confidence was a major factor. Cllr. Fidelis Doherty said that if the people of Kilkenny wanted to see greater levels of female representative, then the voters needed to support female candidates. Cllr. Maria Dollard became involved in politics as an activist for people with disabilities and she noted that her grandmother and grand aunt had been involved in the war of Independence, so she had always believed it was “worth arguing and fighting to achieve things.”

PHOTO Vicky Comerford

Deputy Kathleen Funchion T.D. also noted that confidence was a major barrier for women in politics and she said that political spaces had become so toxic but that should not deter women.

A second panel discussion also took place on diverse pathways into politics with a panel of women from a range of communities in County Kilkenny including Helena Power, a representative of the Traveller community, Pearl Jensen of Comhairle na nÓg, Nicoleta Choiran, Chairperson of the Intercultural group, Twilight Community Group and Mary Fennelly a member of the Kilkenny Access Group.

Mary Fennelly, who is registered blind said that one in five or one million people in Ireland live with a disability and 80% of those people have a hidden disability. She asked people to ‘walk in her shoes’.

“I had to give up my job because there was no public transport in rural Ireland- I had to ask my 86-year-old mother to bring me to a GP or hairdresser’s appointment and I eventually had to move into Kilkenny city,” said Ms. Fennelly.

Helena Power, Chairperson of the Irish Traveller movement who is also an Integration Support worker with Kilkenny County Council said that in order to have true inclusion greater diversity was needed amongst public representatives.

PHOTO Vicky Comerford

Pearl Jensen of Comhairle na nÓg, who is a fifth-year student at the Presentation Secondary School called for greater awareness of politics within second level education while Nicoleta Choiran, Chairperson of the Intercultural group, Twilight Community Group said that migrants were often painted in a negative light rather than hearing the stories of migrants contributing to society.

Sinead Doody of Doody Facilitating and Consulting acted as MC for the event.

In welcoming a chamber full of women, the Chief Executive of Kilkenny County Council, Lar Power stated that “the challenge of increasing the number of women in local politics continues and the aim of this event is to encourage more women and people from diverse backgrounds to participate in Local Government, to the greatest extent possible and to realise the Council’s ambition of a more diverse representation of candidates in the 2024 local elections in Kilkenny.”

Director of Services with Kilkenny County Council, Mary Mulholland said that the council can make changes to meet the needs of the lived experience of members of the community and she noted that “not one size fits all”. Ms. Mulholland noted that just under €10 million had been invested in community development projects across the county of Kilkenny.

“We all have to play our part in the creation of the society we want to see so if you’re thinking about running for election- go for it- or you may regret it. We need a broader skill set and greater diversity in the chamber- it’s important we hear everybody’s view,” said Ms. Mulholland.

Dr. Michelle Maher, Programme Manager with See Her Elected, the award-winning Government funded project which supports women in rural constituencies to become County Councillors noted that there was a much lower percentage of female Councillors in rural counties compared to more urban centres around Dublin. “There are only 4 female Councillors out of 24 (which is just 17%) in County Kilkenny. Compare that to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council where half of the 40 County Councillors are female. Neighbouring counties such as Tipperary have 9 out of 40 which is 23% female, Waterford only has 6 female Councillors out of 32 (19%) and Offaly County Council only has 2 females out of 19 Councillors (11%).

“The first female elected to Kilkenny County Council was Sheila McCarthy from Ballyraggat in 1967. Since then, only another 18 women have managed the same feat,” said Dr. Maher.

“The local elections will take place this June, so the people of Kilkenny have the power to make changes and see more balanced representation in their county council. The council chamber should look more like the society it represents so by voting for more women, we can have more balanced decision making,” concluded Dr. Maher.

PHOTO Vicky Comerford