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Why is Ireland electing so few women and what can we do about it?

Dr Michelle Maher, Programme Manager with See Her Elected shares her thoughts on Local Elections 2024

On Friday, June 7th, we voted 247 women into council seats. The fact that this wasn't higher points to a deeply embedded loyalty by voters to incumbent councillors. In rural Ireland those incumbents are mostly men. Here's just two examples. In Killaloe Co. Clare the same five men were elected for the 3rd time in a row. Leitrim now has four female councillors, one more than last time. This brings the sum total of women elected to Leitrim County Council to seven. That's seven since the formation of the State.

Why such loyalty? Name recognition certainly. Also, a positive association with normal council business of grants and discretionary spending which is hard to go up against as a new face.

There were factors in this local election outside of candidates' control. Had the story of the 2024 local elections been one of a Sinn Féin tide we would have been looking at more women in councils because 45% of their candidates were women. Had Fianna Fáil matched Sinn Féin instead of just 24% women, would there be more women in our councils? Arguably, yes.

Here's what I think we need to look at.

1. Retention of female Cllrs. In many counties we were at minus before the first vote was cast. For example, in Donegal only one female incumbent ran, likewise Sligo. It was 2 out of 4 in Roscommon.
2. The workload. Being a councillor is deemed to be part time and remunerated accordingly. Cllrs themselves reference working full time hours. The pay means that many councillors also hold down another job. And the workload is increased again for women who carry the share of caring work in families.
3. There are some excellent recommendations in the Association of Irish Local Government commissioned report ‘The 21st Century Councillor’. A serious commitment to implementing them would undoubtedly help with retention of councillors and make it a more appealing career prospect.
4. Quotas for local elections were recommended by the Citizens Assembly. Find a way to do it.
5. Co-options. Unlike vacancies in the Dáil which require a by-election, those in councils are filled through co-option. Where the person vacating a seat is in a political party, the party fills it. Standing orders dictate how to fill an Independent seat. The biggest source of vacancies is hurtling towards us. After the 2020 general election, 25 male councillors were elected to the Dail, and 14 of their seats went to women. Between the 2019 & 2024 local elections, co-options meant we went from 226 female Cllrs to 246. Co-opting women into seats vacated by men gives those women a profile as an incumbent with all the benefits that go with that.

In summary, we need political parties to make co-options work for women. Then figure out how to bring candidate quotas in. And look at the AILG report to see how to make the job more palatable to all Cllrs, but especially to women.

To all the women #SeeHerElected supported, thank you for being magnificent.