In July 2013, when the government was debating the highly restrictive Protection of Life during Pregnancy legislation, Tom Barry, a Fine Gael backbencher, grabbed his party colleague, Aine Collins, on to his lap. Her only ‘crime’ was being both proximate and a woman. Simon Coveney was standing nearby, but it’s no coincidence that the minister for agriculture didn’t find himself forced to sit on Barry’s lap. Collins very clearly put up a struggle; the type of struggle you might put up if you wanted a desperately uncomfortable and embarrassing situation to end, but also really didn’t want to risk drawing more attention onto yourself. After being held there against her will for six or seven very uncomfortable seconds, she eventually wriggled free. Live footage of the incident was captured from the Oireachtas website and almost immediately found its way onto YouTube. Inevitably, owing to people’s utter lack of imagination when naming political controversies, it became known as ‘Lapgate’ and went viral, creating headlines all over the world and taking attention away from the important issue of pregnant women’s right to bodily autonomy. A nation collectively cringed. And not for the first time either.
If I got my kicks out of drunkenly groping female waiting staff and forcing them to sit on my lap, I would almost certainly find myself ejected from pubs on a regular basis. No respectable establishment would expect their staff to endure that kind of sordid behaviour in the workplace. However, if I was a TD and did it to a female colleague in the Dáil chamber, a smarmy little non-apology ‘for any hurt and offence my actions may have caused’ would no doubt suffice. Maybe I could throw in a half-arsed offer of resignation too, safe in the knowledge that ‘the lads’ up in party headquarters wouldn’t accept it. Sure, it’s only a silly bit of auld horseplay anyway… it’ll all blow over.
Tom Barry, along with many other TDs, had been drinking that night. How heavily is unclear, but the incident resulted in questions being raised about the appropriateness of TDs drinking in a state-subsidised bar while conducting important Dáil business. Valid questions, no doubt, but they were the wrong questions at the wrong time. ‘Lapgate’ wasn’t about drink. Whether Barry was slightly merry, half-cut or absolutely shit-faced is irrelevant; the vast, vast majority of men, no matter how drunk they might be, do not feel entitled to grab passing women for a bit of non-consensual ‘horseplay’. Barry’s actions – and the failure of the men standing near him to intervene – could only happen within an environment where women are vastly outnumbered and are not taken seriously. Incidentally, Tom Barry voted in favour of the Protection of Life during Pregnancy bill, but only after double-checking with the Catholic hierarchy that he wouldn’t be excommunicated for doing so.
There have been various other incidents over the years that point towards the Dáil being little more than a boys’ club where the presence of women is more tolerated than encouraged. It’s nice that they’re there and everything, but the important business of running the country is something that should be left to the over-confident middle-aged male teachers, farmers, auctioneers and publicans, with their smart suits, comb-overs and general sense of entitlement. In 1992, Albert Reynolds, then Taoiseach, attempted to brush off a question from Fine Gael TD Nora Owen by dismissively throwing his eyes up to heaven and saying, ‘That’s women for you…’. He was asked to apologise and retract his remarks, but refused. And that was the end of it.
More recently, in 2010, Brian Cowen responded to a question from Joan Burton by politely asking Eamon Gilmore if he could possibly ‘try and rein her in now and again’. That Cowen saw fit to immediately apologise suggests that at least some progress had been made in the intervening years. Just not enough.
In July 2012, the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill, requiring all political parties to ensure that at least 30 per cent of their candidates are female, was passed by both houses of the Oireachtas. Any party that fails to meet the 30 per cent quota will lose 50 per cent of its state funding. Threatening the parties with the loss of state funding is a sensible idea, for two reasons: Firstly, should a party (for whatever strange reason) opt not to run any female candidates at all, there is no legal obstacle preventing them from doing so. The punishment is purely financial. Secondly, if the parties are being funded by the public, then it is hardly unreasonable to expect the candidates they put forward to be adequately representative of those who have no choice but to pay for them.
Much of the opposition to gender quotas stems from the worthy idea that politics should be about merit. This presupposes not only that Irish politics is already a meritocracy, but also that men are inherently more suited to the task. If it has always been solely about merit, it automatically follows that every person selected to run for the Dáil has got there as a result of being the best person for the job. Which implies that men are, in 84% of cases, more adept at fixing potholes, helping out with late passport applications, and voting in accordance with the wishes of the party whip (as long as the Catholic hierarchy is cool with it, obviously). And what a marvellous job they’ve done too, apart from that whole unfortunate ‘destroying the entire economy’ incident that resulted in the country losing its economic sovereignty. But maybe it’s time for a national parliament that more accurately reflects those whom it is supposed to represent.
The idea that Irish politics is based solely on merit becomes even more laughable when you consider the sheer number of TDs, past and present, male and female, who effectively inherited their seats from dead or retiring family members. When Henry Kenny died in 1975, his son, a 24-year-old recently qualified primary school teacher, was not selected to run for the Dáil because Fine Gael recognised whatever qualities would inexplicably result in him becoming Taoiseach almost four decades later. Nor was he selected because of his cool hairstyle. Fine Gael selected him because they knew that the tried and tested method of holding onto a dead TD’s seat involved cashing in on a mixture of sympathy votes and name recognition. Although the hair can’t have done him any harm.
Fianna Fail members have been most vociferous in their condemnation of quotas, with one Longford councillor earnestly comparing the plight of male candidates with Nelson Mandela’s struggle against apartheid:
Meanwhile, a failed candidate in Dublin has got himself all lawyered up in his brave fight for his right to party (a right, lest we forget, for which the Beastie Boys fought and died). Brian Mohan, who failed to win a seat on Dublin City Council in 2014, and was prevented from putting his name forward in the Dublin Central constituency for the forthcoming general election, claims that quotas based on age, gender, race or religion amount to ‘political discrimination’ and are therefore unconstitutional. Mohan joins a long list of men who suddenly start caring about inequality when they perceive themselves to be on the wrong side of it. He’s being represented by the former justice minister and attorney general Michael McDowell and has the support of Bertie Ahern, who described gender quotas as ‘zany’ and ‘mad’. Ahern believes that ‘the person who works their way through the system, and through their party branch’ should be chosen first. He fails to recognise that if ‘de system’ he adores didn’t encourage entitled male wannabes to view a career in politics as their automatic right, there would be no need for gender quotas at all.
As far as the electorate is concerned, voting for women, whenever parties choose to put them forward, is simply not a problem. For example, in the 2011 General Election, an unprecedented twenty-four candidates ran in the Wicklow/East Carlow constituency. Remarkably, on the longest ballot sheet in the country, in a relatively liberal constituency, just two of those listed were women. Between them, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Sinn Fein all failed to provide even one female candidate. Of Labour’s three candidates, just one (Anne Ferris) was a woman. And she was comfortably elected. Furthermore, in the 2014 European Parliament elections, we elected six women and five men as our MEPs. If the parties gave us the opportunity, there is no reason why we couldn’t also achieve parity between men and women in the Dáil.
Gender quotas aren’t perfect. They are a crude and awkward method of correcting a very real problem. However, those who oppose them offer no realistic alternatives. It seems that they’d prefer to just sit back and wait for the problem to rectify itself. Or better still – pretend that it’s not a problem at all. Quotas, for all the toys that have been thrown from prams, will inevitably result in an increase in female representation in the Dáil. Perhaps this will result in incidents like ‘Lapgate’ becoming a thing of the past. More importantly, maybe it will also result in decisions that affect the rights of women being decided upon by a parliament that isn’t dominated by men.