Ireland has made huge progress in recent decades. There are now very few international indices where the country is not among the top 5 or 10 best-performing. Its public services, notwithstanding the high level of centralisation and disaggregation, generally perform well when benchmarked against public services across the OECD. All in all, there is much to be proud of so long as we do not become complacent, thinking we have finally made it to the top table.
Or have we?
One area of apparent concern in recent years is the low level of representation of women and Minority Ethnic Communities in the local to national political systems of Ireland. With only one in four Councillors being women and the representatives of our Minority Ethnic Communities being countable pretty much on two hands, it is clear that there is a painfully slow transition of representation towards the level of diversity modern Ireland has become.
What is the reason for the low levels of representation one might ask?
Well, unfortunately, one of the answers can now be found in an excellent, if terribly depressing, but critically important research paper published by Women’s Collective Ireland Limerick. Addressing Sexism in Politics. Creating Safe, Inclusive and Accessible Political Spaces for Everyday Women was prepared in association with the TUS Midwest research group – EDGE (Exploring diversity, gender, & exclusion) and supported by several government departments, including Housing, Local Government and Heritage.
It is a short and direct piece of research and should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in local democracy and its future in Ireland. The findings of the research are damning, to put it mildly. Reading it, one did think why anyone would want to be involved in local politics given the appalling experiences, so well laid out in the report, of many of our elected women, not to mention those wishing to be elected into our local and national political environment.
It is difficult enough to have people make the brave decision to put themselves forward for a democratic election. Especially so for the 50% of our population that are so underrepresented. The challenges of having to deal with keyboard warriors is a daily occurrence but having to deal with a lack of support, especially poor party support and downright bullying from within our elected bodies and others, is wholly unacceptable. The last time I looked at local (and national) government, it was not about creating “safe” male spaces where some feel they are free to be sexist and, quite frankly, abusive, and others will turn a blind eye to such egregious behaviour. Reading the report, it is hard not to come to a conclusion that many within the system in Ireland seem to think that being male in politics is a guarantee under the laws and regulations of the State.
Also of regret is the limited discussion that the report’s publication seems to have initiated. It’s not wrong to think this should be at the top of various agendas. How can a system claim to be democratic when most of the population is effectively frozen out of participation across the various layers of our democratic institutions? Then, when they do put themselves forward or are elected, they are treated by many colleagues as irrelevant at best or, as is apparent from the experiences laid out in the report, much worse.
It is clear codes of conduct are not working. Proactive leadership across our political and senior management spaces in public administration is clearly required. Turning a blind eye is no longer acceptable. Hopefully, with the publication of the research and the clear recommendations set out in the report, depressing as it might be to those of us committed to enhancing local and national democracy, we might see the issue of sexism and bullying becoming a priority in government underpinned by substantive action. Or will it?
Reading the report would be a start. Is following it up too much to expect in the modern Ireland we all are a part of?