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See Her Elected and the campaign for equality in 2024 local elections and beyond

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Dr Michelle Maher, Programme Manager for See Her Elected (SHE). Credit - See Her Elected

As part of LGIU’s coverage for International Women’s Day, Dr Michelle Maher, Programme Manager of See Her Elected, discusses how they are working to increase women’s participation in local government, especially ahead of the 2024 local elections.

Where it all began…

Even before the 2019 elections in Ireland, there was a clear appetite for practical support for women running in rural constituencies. See Her Elected is part of Longford Women’s Link, a social enterprise based in Longford Town providing resources and services to women in Longford. Together, with a group of activists called 50:50 Northwest, Longford Women’s Link made a funding application in 2019 to provide a programme that support s women in rural Ireland to consider running in the local elections.

I joined in January 2020 to help develop the programme but, of course, within weeks Covid arrived in our lives. Like others, we moved online and adapted – and so did the idea. Originally, we thought we would focus on Donegal and Sligo and around the Midlands (because these areas have some of the lowest female participation in the country). But once we moved online, those geographical boundaries no longer made sense because women from every county in Ireland could now get involved in what we are doing.

The phenomenal growing support

The first workshop we had online drew on my own background lecturing in politics in Maynooth University and looked at the difference between active citizenship and regular citizenship and the forms this takes – speaking, voting, supporting diversity in local government and running for election to diversify the male-dominated councils, especially in rural Ireland.

At first, we thought we would be lucky to get about a dozen people. However, immediately we were oversubscribed and had to arrange extra classes. What began with just me, grew quickly into a team of three which reflected the real appetite for this.

At all times we were listening to what insights women themselves told us they were looking to understand. For instance, where does power lie within a county council; what the national government is in charge of; and, the reserved functions for local authorities. As we delved into this centralised model of power in Ireland and the role of Councils and Councillors, the questions the women were asking began to change. Where do you start if you are not in a political family or party? How do you actually start?

The SHE model – ‘Where the rubber hits the road’

Once upon a time, I would have been naive enough to think you could walk into your local library and pick up a copy of ‘How to run for election’, but it doesn’t exist. To fill this space, myself and my colleague Mairead O’Shea collaborated with Katherine O’Meara, a Public Affairs Correspondent and former Senator (who definitely knows the practical ways of politics), to produce our See Her Elected Guide for the 2024 local elections. Now, we want to get it into the hands of as many women as possible, so it is free, available online and in English and Polish.

We also organised workshops to complement the guide. We keep them interactive and practical, definitely not a lecture!.. We have been running monthly workshops since November 2021 and women have been joining all along. The three of us who wrote the Guidebook deliver all the workshops allowing a high level of trust for between SHE and women thinking of getting involved. It’s an hour every month at four different times across four consecutive days to make sure we’re flexible for participants’ lives (details can be found here).

The first group of women started the workshops in November 2021 and a significant percentage are still with us. It’s not just women running for elections but also those who would like to join the campaign team of a woman running locally. We’re very conscious of where we are in the electoral cycles, so now we are really accelerating into those 2024 elections. The original group are now deep into campaign strategy and working out their canvassing strategy, because, of course, in rural Ireland, that’s going to look very different from canvassing in an urban area. Our latest group are currently looking at local electoral area analysis such as mapping, previous election results, voter and transfer patterns. It is where the rubber hits the road and about understanding the nuts and bolts of your local electoral area.

This level of sustained practical support years out from the local elections is a key part of the SHE model. I am optimistic that we are starting to move that dial towards greater gender parity in our county councils.

International lessons from SHE – ‘We just do what it says on the tin’

We operate with a very simple model which has been recognised at a European level (See Her Elected won the 2021 Innovation and Politics Awards). We don’t concentrate on candidates running for national elections, we don’t have any advocacy role. Instead, we just do what it says on the tin – supporting more women into local government.

The entry point for most participants is our ‘Introduction to Local Government’ class which aims to demystify local government by answering questions such as what does your county councillor actually do? What’s their job description? What’s the pay? What does your council do? What’s it responsible for?

Part of demystifying local government is encouraging women to get involved, you can show up and attend municipal district and local authority meetings. We also look at Ireland’s Public Participation Networks, council committees and the low level of women and diversity in councillors. Our core message underlining this course is that feeding in more diverse perspectives makes decision-making more rounded and strengthens local democracy. I believe that when we elect a group of people to represent us, they should look like us, and half of us are women.

Part of the SHE model is to always listen and be flexible. We will augment what we offer to answer areas where women themselves flag that they would like to know more.. For example, this month, our SHE School model is running three extra workshops directly answering identified needs articulated in our workshops. These include online digital safety, selection convention bootcamps and economic discussions.

Online digital safety – In collaboration with the UK charity Glitch, this workshop directly speaks to the growing abuse of local government candidates and councillors.
Selection convention bootcamps – Currently, in the election cycle, political parties are opening their selection conventions. Being selected as a candidate is, in fact, the first election that many women have to face and with it comes some necessary skills to help them successfully become a candidate for their political party.
Economic discussions – Research shows that one reason for the underrepresentation of women in politics is because of a self-perceived lack of knowledge. In collaboration with Financial Justice Ireland, this comprehensive three-week course aims to demystify the economic jargon and make women feel more confident in these discussions.

Support from online abuse – ‘None of us can control the internet trolls’

We’re not social media companies and as a casual observer of those companies, I am not even sure they have the ability to control their platforms. Personally, I would like to see them step up here but, as a practical response to this, See Her Elected are helping women with their responses.

First of all, this means naming abuse as a reality for politicians. SHE School makes sure that they know that this may very well be a reality of standing for election so that they’re not naively wandering into a campaign. In our workshops, we constantly talk about how to handle this, how to go about blocking and reporting abuse, record keeping to aid an investigation and having someone else manage your social media as a filter.

The Association of Irish Local Government report sadly showed that it was commonplace among councillors to be subjected to intimidation and threats and harassment. We would support the recommendations they have put forward.

Gender quotas in local government – ‘Fully, fully, fully support gender quotas for local elections.’

Gender quotas underpin all of that work that the Departments is already doing, and I fully support them both at a personal level and organisationally within See Her Elected.

It is disappointing that the Citizens Assembly’s recommendations for gender quotas by the end of 2022 did not come in, by the deadline they specified. We know from the past that hope to see a greater gender balance on ballot papers for local elections is not enough, and principally, we believe gender quotas would compliment ongoing work to increase women’s participation and diversity in local government.

There have been a number of measures to increase diversity in local government, such as maternity leave and funding of caucuses for female Councillors, and gender quota’s would underpin those measures which already exist.

However, gender quotas probably need to be in place by now to make a meaningful impact in the 2024 local elections.. One of the research findings is that women tend to wait to be asked to run for election, and when that ask happens, it often comes quite late in the day. But if gender quotas are bought in and that involves women being asked to run for election where they only have weeks or months to run for election, then that would undo the work of She Her Elected. They miss out on valuable time toto work on their profile, be clear why they want to run, and ensure their work in their communities is recognised. So, if quotas are brought in only months away from an election, they lose that valuable preparation time and there is a risk of tokenism.

Regional women’s caucus – ‘a brand new political institution in Ireland’

With the Association of Irish Local Government (AILG), See Her Elected are the secretariat to a pilot project called the WoMeN’s (Western, Midlands and Northern) Regional Caucus. The Department’s funding for women’s caucuses can work well in counties with enough women to form a meaningful caucus. In rural Ireland this is often not the case.

Overcoming this, we collaborated with AILG to put together a pilot project to see how a caucus would work if it was cross-county. Caucuses by their nature are cross party and of course include independent female councillors. The membership of the WoMeN’s Regional Caucus is made up of female councillors  from 13 local authorities: Cavan, Donegal, Galway City, Galway County, Laois, Leitrim, Longford, Offaly, Roscommon, Mayo, Sligo, Monaghan, and Westmeath

Incidentally, the woman’s regional caucus voted to buy a strong majority to support the citizens assembly recommendation for quarters for local elections. So, the female councillors themselves, certainly within that woman’s regional caucus, support quotas.

Recently we found out that WoMeN’s Regional Caucus has been shortlisted for the Innovation and Politics Award 2023, in the democracy category and we congratulate the Caucus membership on this great achievement..

This is a brand-new political institution in Ireland and the first caucus spread across three regions. What is particularly special about the Institute for Innovation and Politics is that it isn’t a committee or a group of academics or managers who select the shortlist. Instead, it’s citizen juries in every country across Europe.

2024 Local Elections – ‘Supporting women into local elections’

What See Her Elected will do is support women into local government. We have no role in local government. However, we did participate in the steering group for the family-friendly toolkit for local authorities and we would fully support all of the recommendations in that.

In 2021 the National Women’s Council received funding from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to develop a family-friendly toolkit to support greater diversity and inclusion in local government. The toolkit builds on good practice evident in local authorities that promote greater inclusion and diversity. Examples included in the Toolkit include;

  • Clare County Council: ran an in-person conference in collaboration with She Her Elected entitled “Promoting Gender Equality and Diversity in Local Government”. This was followed by a free online training programme delivered by See Her Elected on “Introduction to Politics”.
  • Dublin City Council has produced the ‘Women in Politics Video Series’ featuring 15 Councillors who discuss their roles, motivations, challenges and changes, and why more women should become involved in politics.
  • Longford County Council, in partnership with See Her Elected, Longford Women’s Link and Longford Public Participation Network has produced a booklet, Connecting Women to Local Government. This provides clear information on the structures and services of Longford County Council and sets out how women can best participate in local government structures. The booklet has been translated into five languages: Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian, Slovak, Brazilian Portuguese
  • Limerick City and County Council uses Sugar CRM to capture all Councillors’ representations via various channels. One of these channels, My Limerick, enables Councillors to log and track cases to completion, when they receive a resolution email setting out the final decision. LCCC also has a dedicated Senior Staff Officer to support Councillors with representations.

One particular aspect of this which the WoMeN’s Regional Caucus supports is ensuring that hybrid meeting arrangements for both plenary and municipal districts remain in place.

As they saw during COVID, many Councillors have other careers and responsibilities that go in tandem to their local government role. And many of them have family responsibilities as well. And as we know all too well, the lion’s share of caring work within families does fall to females. So I think it’s very significant that female Councillors are very much in favour of keeping hybrid meeting arrangements as an option.

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