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Irelands feminist revolution

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DUBLIN — Feminism is the force of the moment in Irish politics. So where are all the women?

The repeal of a strict abortion ban by overwhelming popular mandate last year was a major leap forward for womens rights in the country — and largely driven by women-led grassroots activists. Yet women are severely under-represented in public office. Just a fifth of national lawmakers and local councilors are women.

Thats why some activists have fixed their sights on May European and local elections. By recruiting and coaching a new roster of female candidates, they hope to leverage grassroots activism into concrete representation by Irish women.

“Certainly, from what were seeing, were at a huge turning point,” said Ciairín de Buis, CEO of Women for Election, a non-profit organization that runs how-to bootcamps on campaigning. “Whats very telling is that theres a lot of women coming to sessions who are new to political life.”

There has never been a woman leader of either of the biggest parties.

The landmark referendums of 2018 and 2015 — to legalize abortion and gay marriage respectively — are cited by de Buis and others as game changers in Irish politics. The plebiscites served as a crash-course in campaigning for many women, galvanizing thousands to take part in canvassing and voter registration efforts.

“They havent been involved in a particular political party for years,” de Buis said of the women coming forward as potential candidates. “They are fresh to politics, having been engaged by a referendum campaign, and now they want to continue some level of involvement.”

Vocal pressure from female activists has put issues that affect women — from a scandal over a cervical cancer screening program to street protests about consent in response to a divisive rape trial in Belfast — on the political center stage.

The next test: whether female activists can translate their surge of support into votes at the ballot box.

Long road

Women played a prominent role in the initial creation of the Irish state — the countrys first legislature in 1919 had a woman minister, Constance Markievicz — but women were marginalized in the following decades. The second woman minister took office only in 1979.

Irish politician and nationalist, Constance Markiewicz | Walshe/Topical Press Agency via Getty Images

There has never been a woman leader of either of the biggest parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Nor has Ireland had a woman prime minister, or a woman minister of finance, foreign affairs or defense.

Martina Fitzgerald, former political correspondent with national broadcaster RTÉ, interviewed all surviving 17 of the 19 women who have served as Irish ministers and two former presidents for her book “Madam Politician.”

She found that “the unrelenting focus on appearance, various levels of sexism, and also the tug of war of balancing a career and also family life” are the most frequently-cited barriers to life in politics.

Of the seven female lawmakers who sat in parliament from the 1930s to the 1950s, five were widows of deceased parliamentarians — a route into politics that was known as the “widows mandate.” In the last three years, this culture has begun to disappear.

“Since 2016, the vast majority, the overwhelming majority [of women lawmakers] have no connection to a former office-holder,” Fitzgerald said.

Prior to Irelands general election that year, just 16 percent of lawmakers were women. That vote marked the first in which gender quotas came into force, compelling parties to nominate women as 30 percent of general election candidates or face cuts to state funding — a measure that is credited with helping to raise the number of women lawmakers by 8 points.

One in five deputies in the Irish lower house is female, a record high for Ireland.

For women, the barriers to entering politics are high — and not always visible

“We still have a lot of work to do, but were getting there,” Mary McAuliffe, assistant professor in gender studies at University College Dublin, said at FemFest, a February conference organized by the National Womens Council of Ireland for women and girls aged 16 to 25. “Transformation of culture is always much more difficult than actually changing the laws.”

Since 2012, Women for Election has trained hundreds of women a year, and its efforts appear to be paying off. Half of the female local councillors elected in a 2014 ballot, and 40 percent of lawmakers elected in a 2016 vote, were trained by the activist group.

Among them are women now reaching senior positions across the spectrum of Irish politics: Josepha Madigan, a Fine Gael lawmaker appointed culture minister in 2017; Lisa Chambers, Brexit spokesperson for the rival Fianna Fáil party; and Liadh Ní Riada, who was the Sinn Féin candidate for president last year.

Rosarii Griffin attended Women for Election training after a friend urged her to consider politics. She is now running for local elections in Cork, in the southeast of the country.

“When it comes to political priorities, women and children are always at the bottom,” Griffin told POLITICO. “If women arent elected were never going to have a place at the table.”

Trailblazers

Irelands female activists have also made diversity a priority.

The local elections of May 24, for example, are likely to see a number of trailblazers. Among the women running for seats on councils are Malawian asylum seeker Ellie Kisyombe, who has lived in Irelands controversial “Direct Provision” refugee processing system for eight years.

Another is Julia OReilly, an Irish Traveller whose political ambitions were given urgency when discrimination against the ethnic minority became a theme in Irelands 2018 presidential election.

“I always had the interest to do it, but that was the push that I needed,” OReilly told POLITICO. “I know what it is to need and want, and thats whats lacking in politics right now.”

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