“We need to bring back a sense of respect into political life and support more women to become involved at decision making tables” – that’s according to former Tánaiste Mary Coughlan who was one of the guest speakers at a seminar to promote the need for more women in politics in the North West.
The ‘What Would You Do to See Her Elected’ event took place on Friday, February 24th in the Central Hotel, Donegal Town.
Former Tánaiste Mary Coughlan, Senator Eileen Flynn and Dr Edel McSharry, Councillors Finola Armstrong McGuire (FG, Leitrim), Niamh Kennedy (Ind, Donegal) and Sinn Féin member Pippa Black were some of the guest speakers contributing to the event.
It was 1979 before a woman was elected to Donegal County Council and there have only ever been 11 women elected to Donegal council since the foundation of the State.
“In 1963 Soviet Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space so we were able to get a woman to outer space before we could get a woman onto the county councils in the North West,” said Dr Michelle Maher, Programme Manager for See Her Elected.
Former Tánaiste Mary Coughlan who has held numerous senior cabinet positions said that politics was changing and being from a ‘political dynasty or political family’ was not necessary in today’s society as politics was becoming more inclusive.
“I hate the word dynasty, it gives a connotation that is not true,” she said. “I come from a family that was interested in politics.”
She spoke about politics being a family business, where candidates need the support of their family circle. She highlighted the importance of resilience and well-being for women in the political arena.
“There is a huge sense of gratification in representing your community and your people, participating in policy and decision making and getting things done. But I really feel that respect needs to be brought back into political life, respect for those you put their name forward, respect for those who are elected and respect within the chamber for each other’s point of view,” said Mrs Coughlan.
As for re-entering the fray herself, Mrs Coughlan said that it’s important to know when to get off the stage, and that other people have to take the mantle in Donegal.
Mary was co-opted onto Donegal County Council in 1986 following the death of her father, Cathal Coughlan. This launched her political career, but when asked if she would ever return to local politics, she said there have been too many changes in the way things are done: “Not a hope,” she said.
“I worked for many years in a very difficult and challenging political atmosphere,” she said.
“The challenge is something to rise to and relish.
“We need more diversity and more women in the chamber because they can definitely bring change,” she added.
Mrs Coughlan’s advice to women considering putting their names forward for politics is: “If you are overly modest you’ll be run over by a truck. If you are too cocky you’ll be ate alive. Try and get the middle ground. You need somebody who would take you down off your high horse.”
Sitting councillor Niamh Kennedy from Killybegs said it is important for elected representatives to follow their conscience on difficult issues.
“Use your vote and be firm, don’t be afraid to stand for what is right,” she said.
Senator Eileen Flynn, from Dublin, now living in Ardara, spoke about the “guilt” she experienced trying to juggle motherhood with political life and she called for more national support and more support from political parties to ensure there were more women in the political arena. “We’re very good at putting ourselves down and it’s our own guilt- sometimes the barriers we have are in our own heads. We need to squeeze ourselves into the spaces where we’re not expected to be,” said Senator Flynn.
“We focus on the barriers, let’s focus on why we can and why we should put ourselves forward,” Senator Flynn told attendees.
“We need to trust in each other, it’s not a competition of what women should be around the table, we should all be around the table, or get rid of the table, there is room for us all.”
Dr Edel McSharry, a former Director of Elections shared her knowledge on campaign management and she spoke about the importance of building a “multi-skilled kitchen table team” around the candidate and the importance of listening to the community about the issues at grassroots level.
Dr Jacqueline O’Toole, Senior Lecturer, Office of Academic Affairs, Atlantic Technological University, Sligo said that the seminar was a “call to arms” for women in the North West.
We know who active women are in community life and we need to tap into this skill set. Research from UCC has shown that there is no electoral bias against women the problem is there just not enough women are appearing on the ballot papers,” said Dr O’ Toole. She highlighted the dynamic of care that that the idea of women being told their roles as wives, carers and homemakers was “cemented” and this “emphasis on special caring roles” has a huge impact “on all the other choices women make”.
Dr O’ Toole said that a recent EU survey found that the majority of caring roles in the EU is done for free by women and she noted the findings of a Safe Ireland study from 2019 which found that 26% of young people aged 16-25 still thought of the male as being head of the household. Dr O’ Toole said that shared responsibility was necessary and that only by getting more women into politics that change would continue.
Nóirín Clancy of 50/50 North West said: “We cannot be complacent about equality. Women – and particularly those from minority backgrounds – are vastly underrepresented in county councillors in Ireland. After the 2019 local elections, women hold just 26% of council seats and the figures are particularly stark in rural Ireland. For example, there are only 4 female councillors out of 37 in a large county like Donegal while Leitrim and Sligo both have just 3 women out of 18 councillors and we want to see those numbers increase for the Local Elections 2024.”
Friday’s event was organised by 50/50 North West and See Her Elected, a programme run by Longford Women’s Link which supports women in rural Ireland to become County Councillors and prepare for Local Elections 2024.