Political Reform and the Seanad (from 2011)

I wrote this in 2011 for teaandtoast.ie, the site of which seems to be gone now. I’m pretty surprised to see my opinion hasn’t changed since then!

What people who argue for political reform all ignore…

“The one man minority opinion whose

time hasn’t come but 20 years later some circuit court clerk digs it up at

3 in the morning.”

This is one of my favourite quotes from the West Wing, and it’s not even from a main character.

It sums up so well the importance of making your case, of expressing your opinion and fighting your fight even when there is no chance of your argument winning. It’s not just about honour or doing the right thing, though it is honourable and indeed often the right thing to be a minority or even a lone voice standing up and being heard on one side of an issue.

Seeing Micheal D Higgins make a passionate, intelligent and powerful speech on the minimum wage, and the ideal of a real citizens’ Republic really reminded me of the above quote. He knew the government would win the vote, and the cut would become policy. He still made the speech, and didn’t hold back one bit. The video of that speech was posted by dozens of my friends on facebook, and liked by dozens and dozens more. Not only did Deputy Higgins give voice to the anger of so many people, he also set a baseline, for with such passion and even anger on the issue he made it inevitable that the next government will need to reverse that decision, or at least will face massive pressure to do so. Anyone looking to fight this issue, or even just raise it with their TD will likely have seen that speech and been inspired by it. That is the power the of the dissenting opinion.

With all the talk about political reform, it’s important to remember that the biggest influence on our political system comes from those who inhabit it. If more opposition TDs gave speeches like Deputy Higgins’, or even like some of Deputy Noonan’s lately or others in their all too rare moments of inspiration, we would have improved our democracy without any referendum or lengthy report. Unfortunately, this also means that the best designed system in the world can still be cheapened by TDs who don’t bother to contribute to the debate at all, that’s you Bertie, Jackie, and Noel Grealish. It will still be undermined by TDs who use their time to go for the cheap dig, or the one liner they hope will get them in the Dáil sketch, or the outburst they hope will go viral. Not looking at anyone in particular on that one…

The same is even more true, if it was possible, of the Seanad. Every time there is another call for it to be scrapped the Senators flap and whinge and make a show of themselves yet again. This isn’t true for all of them of course, but too many are using the Seanad as a stepping stone, a consolation prize, a status enhancer or even a cash cow. Whether or not this can be changed is unclear. I’m inclined to hope that it could be. But even now, underneath all the waffle in the lower house, some Senators are fighting the good fight. This past year there has been much work done to develop Ireland’s plan to tackle the aberration that is Female Genital Mutilation. They have come together across party lines, and have discussed the issue and the legislation with an integrity and intelligence that is, sadly, surprising. Even though this doesn’t get coverage, and the legislation might not get passed before the election, it is good work and it will make it that bit easier for the next person who takes up this cause. We should perhaps not be so quick to abolish the place where this progress happened, however slow it may be.

While popular opinion is turning towards the push for political reform we shouldn’t stop arguing for our representatives to do a better job, because if the cute hoorism is allowed to continue, reform will have been for nothing.

All the great moments of progress in our society have come after long periods of individuals and groups fighting for the change, against the odds, and getting nowhere. Benjamin Franklin and the Quakers were not even permitted to have the issue of slavery discussed in the US Congress. But they kept trying, and kept leafleting and talking to anyone who would listen. It’s easy to look back and pick out examples of such pioneering efforts, it’s a lot harder to see them as the happen around us now.  We have become very quick to dismiss any efforts at change that don’t deliver results instantly. We don’t want to get involved in a campaign that can only promise incremental, painstaking change. I think we need to remember the importance of the dissenting opinion, of the one man (or woman) making a speech that fights for progress, in the face of unbeatable odds. And we need to appreciate to power our politicians have, even those in opposition. They could do with appreciating it too, and making better use of it.

"At a certain point, I just have to try not to think too much about certain things, or else they’ll break my heart."

Jonathan Franzen (via h-o-r-n-g-r-y)

(Source: larmoyante, via h-o-r-n-g-r-y)

"Literature, real literature, must not be gulped down like some potion which may be good for the heart or good for the brain—the brain, that stomach of the soul. Literature must be taken and broken to bits, pulled apart, squashed—then its lovely reek will be smelt in the hollow of the palm, it will be munched and rolled upon the tongue with relish; then, and only then, its rare flavor will be appreciated at its true worth and the broken and crushed parts will again come together in your mind and disclose the beauty of a unity to which you have contributed something of your own blood."

— Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature (via c-ovet)

(Source: ivankaramazovs, via bookporn)



So this is the second big long thing that I’ve been compelled to write by things I’ve seen on Twitter. Maybe it’s the fact that 140 characters just aren’t enough to appear in any way reasonable and most Twitter arguments end up as polarised statements being hurled back and forth, Or heck, maybe…


The “Lap” Video

So I doubt as many people will see this as saw the video I posted around 3am last night (http://mergito.tumblr.com/post/55134539390) but I still wanted to write down and share my reasons for recording that video and posting it on twitter.

That sort of behaviour (whether it’s called “silly” or not) is part of a culture that makes women feel unwelcome and uncomfortable. These events happened during (very extended!) working hours in the Dáil - and there should be a level of professionalism there. When countless studies tell us that women are disinteresting in running for election, seeing this behaviour makes it less puzzling. I would not want to work somewhere that women were grabbed and pulled while working - even if it’s intended as playful. It exhibits a classic patriarchal view that women’s bodies exist for other people. 

It’s the same view that allows commentators to attack the appearance of female politicians, athletes or celebrities. It’s what makes street harassment so devastatingly prevalent. I don’t presume the TDs held such views in the forefront of their minds during these events, but it’s unthinking actions that allow these ideas to become so pervasive, and so dangerous.

I’m not a prude. I’m pretty sure I’m not a member of the “fun police”. But is it so much to ask that TDs act professional when deciding on issues of life and death? The event happened during the vote on whether women who are suicidal should be allowed to access an abortion. Minister Kathleen Lynch, responding to claims that women would lie to access abortion said “I thought Ireland had moved beyond this”. I liked to think the same. 

update - Tom Barry has apologised. http://mergito.tumblr.com/post/55134539390



Why I’m in favour of gender quotas

A few years ago (okay, ages ago, I’m old), I made a speech at USI congress that very angrily classified any attempts at rectifying gender imbalances in student politics as being offensive and worse, counter productive. I really believed myself to be correct at the time. Most people would disagree with old me, but some do seem to think she was correct. Here is why I think she was completely wrong.

The more I look at our political system, and our society in general, the more I see the need for some action on creating gender equality at the political level.

This note will have, for fun, three main points. First I want to give a concrete explanation of the core problems that flow from having women underrepresented. Next, I want to look at some possible solutions and the effects that would flow from them. Finally, I will look at some of the arguments against such measures.

This is entirely Ireland focused. I promise not to mention Sweden or Rwanda. (Except for just there, soz.)

  1. The fact that women make up such a shockingly low number of TDs, senators and candidates is hugely problematic, unless you believe that women have some genetic/biological impediment to being good at representative politics. Since you don’t, the fact that so few women are trying to get into politics, and even fewer are being successful in such attempts highlights a discrimination that goes through the whole system. A working life that is tailored towards men who have supportive wives to do all the family stuff gives many women pause in considering a career in politics, and has even driven some women out of politics even after successfully getting elected. This bias hurts other groups too, as I’ll discuss later. Aside from the fact that this discrimination is anti-democratic, and just bad as discrimination in itself, it actually leads to poorer decision making.

Firstly, it means discussions are often lacking a full scope of experience and outlook, to a detrimental level. Gender specifically, study upon study shows that group think and rushed decisions are a direct result of groups being one gender only. There is a reason that big companies now actively recruit and train women and create specific career paths that get them up to decision making level ASAP. McKinsey and Goldman Sachs don’t have gender units because they hate discrimination, or want to foster equality. They do it to get to better decisions. I don’t think anyone would argue that Irish politics couldn’t do with improved decision making. This isn’t an argument about women being better than men, it’s about a mixture of men and women being better than men. You can google the evidence for this, it’s prolific.

2. So how to change this – there are several proposals, from specific Dáil quotas to tying party funding to gender equality. I’m personally more favourable to the latter, but it doesn’t really matter. Whichever works. If we try one and it doesn’t work, we try another. The overall aim is to see a massive increase in the number of candidates and elected representatives, somewhere around the 40-60% mark should show success. Whatever initiative is used, however, should have a grandfather clause, and should not be permanent. This is to stop the creation of gender groups based just on meeting quotas/getting funding and also to stop the emergence of “women’s seats”. If the measures are effective they should become irrelevant within 10 or so years. By clearly stating they are short term, they should encourage real change rather than tokenism. What would result is a critical mass of women in politics, combining those already there with the new ones brought in. This will allow for a real discussion on the changes needed to make politics more attractive/welcoming to women. This would allow for the ridiculous Dáil working hours to be re-examined, for the practice of TDs being expected to show up for a constituent at a moments notice, and also reduce the macho culture of Irish politics. These are benefits that would help everyone, not just aspiring female politicians. The point is the creation of a critical mass, that is what the mechanism does, and the rest of the improvements that are needed are then a lot more likely. These changes will make it easier for, for example, single parents (male and female) to engage in politics, or carers etc. It will also, most likely, lead to a diversification in backgrounds of our representatives, as no longer will there be only one clear pathway to politics (the fact that so many TDs are former teachers is definitely worth examining!)

Having women in power changes how society views women in power. Studies in India have shown that having a female governor for one term removes sexism and doubts about female ability from voters’ minds in the next election. This means women will no longer be harder to elect than men, with all other factors removed. This changes how parties work, as no longer will there be the disincentive to select female candidates. This is how the measures become irrelevant so quickly.

3. One argument against this proposal is that it is undemocratic. As I’ve already outlined, the current system is the undemocratic one. When man-made (pun intended!) circumstances are excluding women from politics, both directly and indirectly, the options for voters are limited, and out eventual governments are limited. It’s absolutely fine to use public policy to push the spectrum back towards democracy. The very fact that we pay our TDs, and even give compensation to candidates is proof of the fact that we believe running and representing should not be limited to the upper classes.

Another argument is that there are plenty of other under-represented groups. Yes, true. But none so under-represented, statistically speaking, as women. Further, as outlined above, this measure actually helps a lot of these groups. Also, there is less evidence that including such minority groups has the same impact on improving decision making as this one. That’s not to say inclusion of all shouldn’t be an aim, and this certainly doesn’t hamper that.

Others say the problems are too systemic, but I think, modestly, that I’ve shown how this measure actually leads to changes in those systems that bias against women.

Some seem to argue that the women present currently are poor public representatives, or at least, are no better than men. I don’t think the first is true, and even at that, I don’t see how such a judgement can be made before we actually achieve the change being advocated here.

Finally, some say that these measures are patronising to women, especially those who have achieved election without them. Not in the slightest. I don’t think it is patronising to rectify discrimination, even it is so entrenched. I also don’t believe exceptions can disprove the rule. Just because some women broke through, doesn’t mean firstly that they didn’t have work disproportionately harder/have some prior advantage that cancelled out the bias. This problem is much bigger than individual women – or even all women.

I know I’ve promised a lot of effects here, and I’m sure there could be some negative ones too. I know, also, that I’ve left out some issues, on both sides, but space dictates. However, with so much at stake, and so so much to gain, I really don’t see why we shouldn’t try.