New Government, Old Tricks: Women In Irish Politics

Micheal Martin, Leo Varadkar and Eamon Ryan walking at a distance together

28th July 2020


The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of PPE, protests and, most recently in Ireland at least, politics. The 33rd Dáil saw Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin elected as Taoiseach in the midst of a coalition of Fianna Fáil, Fianna Gael and the Greens. However, despite the historic nature of the abandonment of Civil War politics, that age-old discrepancy in the representation of women in politics continues: out of a Cabinet of sixteen, only four female Ministers have been appointed.

Women still face systemic barriers in their ability to participate fully in Irish political life. For example, only 22 women have held full Cabinet positions since the foundation of the state. And the argument that there just aren’t enough women in the Dáil to create a balanced cabinet is simply moot – for generations, a distinct lack of female candidates have been “put forward in winnable seats across the State”, according to women’s rights groups.

Of course, we can’t ignore the fact that two women were recently appointed “super juniors” to the Dáil. At the same time, though, it did not go without recognition that these women, along with many others, would have been more than capable of serving in a more senior Cabinet role. Why present people as “juniors” to a job that they are so qualified for?

Naturally, an indisputable step in the right direction has to be that nine of the Taoiseach’s eleven Seanad appointees are women. While this is undoubtedly a positive development, Ciairín de Buis, chief executive of Women for Election, finds that is “also shows up the gaps in Irish politics because if there was no problem finding those nine women to take those roles, it would make you question why the same can’t be done elsewhere”. While all of the women appointed to the Seanad are extremely capable, it cannot be the only area where there is full female representation. Otherwise, it will not spread out across all levels of politics. It cannot end there.


“Naturally, an indisputable step in the right direction has to be that nine of the Taoiseach’s eleven Seanad appointees are women”

Indeed, it seems to be “ending there” already. The two main political parties clearly failed to run sufficient numbers of women for electable positions during the last general election – and this narrative appears to be continuing into local government too. The programme for Government contains a merely “vague” commitment to increasing female representation in local politics. We need quotas at a local level. We need Government planning and support. We need affirmative action and change across all levels of politics.

It is almost hard to believe that, here in 2020, there are only four women acting as Cabinet Ministers. This grand total of 25% does not even meet the current quota of 30 per cent, signalling that gender balance can begin to be discussed and addressed, let alone the desired 50/50 split that so many other governments globally have actually achieved. The UK Cabinet, made up of 27% women, while only marginally so, is still better. The Government has missed a powerful opportunity to appoint a balanced cabinet.

As Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, Orla O’Connor put it, “It will be crucial now that all Ministers promote women’s equality over the next Dáil term. The decisions they make in both appointments to senior decision-making bodies and the policies they implement must show a renewed commitment to advancing women’s rights.” I couldn’t have put it better myself. But we need to recognise that women’s equality involves intersectionality and diversity too. A balanced cabinet has many facets – and in fighting for female equality in politics, we can fight for representation for everyone.




Featured photo by Merrion Street.ie



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