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In 2012 legislative gender quotas were introduced as part of the Fine Gael/Labour coalition government's political reform agenda. The legislation specifies that payments to political parties 'shall be reduced by 50 per cent, unless at least 30 per cent of the candidates whose candidatures were authenticated by the qualified party at the preceding general election were women and at least 30 per cent were men'. The 30 per cent gender threshold came into effect at the 2016 general election. Research demonstrates that gender quotas work to increase women's political descriptive representation, but to do so, political parties must engage with them in 'goodwill', be 'wellintentioned' or place women in 'winnable seats'. This article examines if this was the case at the 2016 general election. Using statistics, as well as drawing from interviews with party strategists, the article assesses the impact of gender quotas on women's candidate selection and election. We conclude that parties did embrace the spirit of the gender quota law but resistance remains.
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Administration, vol. 65, no. 2 (2017), pp. 15–35
doi: 10.1515/admin-2017-0013
The Irish legislative gender quota:
The first election
Mary Brennan
University College Dublin
Fiona Buckley
University College Cork
In 2012 legislative gender quotas were introduced as part of the Fine
Gael/Labour coalition government’s political reform agenda. The legislation
specifies that payments to political parties ‘shall be reduced by 50 per cent,
unless at least 30 per cent of the candidates whose candidatures were
authenticated by the qualified party at the preceding general election were
women and at least 30 per cent were men’. The 30 per cent gender threshold
came into effect at the 2016 general election. Research demonstrates that
gender quotas work to increase women’s political descriptive representation,
but to do so, political parties must engage with them in ‘goodwill’, be ‘well-
intentioned’ or place women in ‘winnable seats’. This article examines if this
was the case at the 2016 general election. Using statistics, as well as drawing
from interviews with party strategists, the article assesses the impact of gender
quotas on women’s candidate selection and election. We conclude that parties
did embrace the spirit of the gender quota law but resistance remains.
Keywords: Gender quotas, elections, informal institutional norms, political
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One of the first political reform proposals announced by the Fine
Gael/Labour coalition government in May 2011 were measures to
address the public funding of political parties. In Ireland the public
funding of political parties is administered in two ways: firstly, through
money paid to political parties under the Electoral Act 1997
secondly, through what is termed the parliamentary activities
allowance (Standards in Public Office Commission, 2016). The former
was the focus of the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act,
2012, Part 6 of which dealt with the ‘state funding of political parties
and gender balance’. The Act specifies that payments to political
parties ‘shall be reduced by 50 per cent, unless at least 30 per cent of
the candidates whose candidatures were authenticated by the qualified
party at the preceding general election were women and at least 30 per
cent were men’. The 30 per cent gender threshold came into effect at
the 2016 general election. The threshold is due to rise to 40 per cent
from 2023 onwards. Legislative gender quotas apply at general
elections only.
Research demonstrates that gender quotas work, but to do so,
political parties must engage with them in ‘goodwill’ (Matland, 2006),
be ‘well-intentioned’ (Dahlerup, 2007) or place women in ‘winnable
seats’ (Murray et al., 2012). Essentially, to be effective, parties must
‘fully embrace’ gender quotas (Buckley et al., 2014). However, writing
ahead of the implementation of the gender quota law, Buckley et al.
(2014, p. 479) warned that ‘informal rules surrounding incumbency
and localism’ and male ‘gendered legacies’ of political parties posed
challenges to the effective implementation of gender quotas in
Ireland. This article examines if this was the case in 2016.
The article begins with a discussion about why measures to address
the political under-representation of women were introduced for Dáil
elections. Placing Ireland in a comparative context, it argues that
women’s political representation in Ireland remained static from the
early 1990s to 2012, while other nation states embraced affirmative
action measures which saw the proportion of women’s political
representation increase. Examining candidate emergence and
recruitment through the ‘supply and demand’ analytical lens, the
To receive funding under the Electoral Act, 1997, as amended, a political party must
achieve at least 2 per cent or more of the national first-preference vote. This funding is
used for general administration, research, education and training, policy formation and
branch activities.
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article identifies a number of gendered barriers to women’s candidate
selection, particularly demand-side factors such as informal
institutional norms and requirements such as localism, incumbency
and male-gendered networks. The article then assesses how political
parties integrated the gender quota into their candidate recruitment
and selection procedures at the 2016 general election. Using statistics,
as well as drawing from interviews with party strategists, the article
assesses the impact of gender quotas on women’s candidate selection
and election, and also assesses the extent to which informal gendered
norms mollified the effectiveness of gender quotas, or were
themselves mollified by the formal gender requirements. We conclude
that parties did embrace the spirit of the gender quota law but
resistance remains.
Why a gender quota?
When introducing the world’s first legislative gender quota in a PR-
STV (proportional representation by single transferable vote)
electoral system in February 2012, the then Minister for the
Environment, Community and Local Government, Phil Hogan, TD,
described the scheme as a ‘proportional response to address a
significant weakness in Ireland’s democratic system’ (Seanad Éireann,
2012). With only 15 per cent female TDs in 2012, Dáil Éireann was
ranked in eighty-ninth position in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s
(IPU) global league table for women’s parliamentary representation.
This represented a significant decrease from a ranking of thirty-
seventh position in the early 1990s (Bacik, 2009). Ireland’s drop in the
IPU rankings was a result of the relatively static progress in women’s
parliamentary representation during this period, rising from 12 per
cent in 1992 to just 15 per cent in 2011 (see Table 1). However, as
Ireland stood still, other nation states embraced affirmative action
measures in the pursuit of better gender balance in political
representation, resulting in over fifty countries progressing and
surpassing it.
The UN Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in
September 1995, and its resulting Beijing Declaration and Platform for
Action, raised international awareness of the need to increase the
representation of women in parliaments worldwide. In general, both
the rights-based claim for equality of gender and the instrumental
argument of the value of the female lived experience combined to
make the campaign to promote gender balance in political
The Irish legislative gender quota: The first election 17
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representation not only a women’s issue, but also a broader
requirement for a democratic government’s claim of
representativeness. By 2009 gender-quota measures existed in over
100 countries (Krook, 2009). Gender quotas may be adopted
voluntarily by a political party or through legislation and/or
constitutional provision. According to the Quota Project database,
fifty-four countries worldwide use voluntary party quotas while
seventy-seven have adopted gender quotas through the legislative
and/or constitutional route.
That said, there remains a near universal under-representation of
women in global politics. At the time of writing (March 2017), the IPU
reports that men continue to dominate the parliaments of the world
with a global supermajority of 77 per cent. Across EU member states,
the average rate of women’s political representation in national
parliaments stands at 27 per cent. This universal inequality is argued
to be evidence of an artificial repression of both the supply of and
demand for women in political decision-making (Krook, 2010). The
supply and demand model (Norris & Lovenduski, 1995), or what
Norris (1997; 2006) refers to as the softer structural elements of
political recruitment, outlines that resources and motivational
factors are central to understanding the under-supply of women into
politics, while the gendered biases, attitudes and preferences of
candidate selectorates lead to a repression in the demand for women
Table 1: Percentage of women candidates and TDs at elections,
Election Female candidates Female TDs
(%) (%)
1992 18.5 12.0
1997 19.8 12.0
2002 18.1 13.3
2007 17.4 13.3
2011 15.2 15.1
2016 29.6 22.2
Source: Figures from 1992 to 2011 adapted from Buckley et al. (2015); 2016
figures are authors’ calculations.
Quota Database: [accessed 27 March 2017].
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Embarking upon and nurturing a political career requires key
resources, namely time, funds and networks, as well as motivational
factors such as interest and ambition (White et al., 2015). Ireland is a
progressive country, ranking sixth in the Global Gender Gap Index in
2016, but there remains a bias towards traditional gender roles
(Galligan, 2010; White et al., 2015). Women continue to be the main
care providers (Ferrant et al., 2014) and to earn less than men (World
Economic Forum, 2016). The average gender pay gap in Ireland in
2016 was 14 per cent (European Commission, 2016). Gendered
differences in pay and care commitments impact upon the availability
of time and financial resources, meaning men are more likely than
women to possess such capital to develop a political career and fund
political campaigns.
In terms of motivational factors, White et al. (2015, p. 206)
demonstrated, using European Values Survey data, a gap between
men’s and women’s political interest in Ireland but noted ‘that women
are increasingly inter ested in politics and… gender-based differences
are not so great as to hinder the ability of parties to find potential
female candidates to run for office’ (see Figure 1). However, the lack
of women in Irish politics has curtailed role-model effects, inhibiting
women’s confidence and ambition to pursue a political career
(Buckley et al., 2015). Compounding this is the fact that masculinity is
the basis on which politics is constructed and the ‘norm’ against which
all political activity is judged (Connolly, 2013; Duerst-Lahti & Kelly,
1995; Harmer et al., 2016, p. 4). The potency of this male-gendered
way of ‘doing’ politics is so strong as to be assumed as the universal
norm for political activity, contributing to a notion of men as ‘natural
leaders’ (Duerst-Lahti, 2002, 2008). Women entering politics are
contrasted against the ‘naturalised’ male inhabitants (Puwar, 2004).
Their presence is queried and behaviour scrutinised, which, in turn,
contributes ‘to a notion of women as out of place and unnatural in the
political sphere’ (Falk, 2010, p. 37; Puwar, 2004).
Socio-structural and cultural studies demonstrate that increases in
the supply of female politicians usually follow growth in women’s
participation in the workforce, and point to specific careers or
‘pipeline professions’, notably legal, civil service and education, from
which candidates are most likely to emerge. CSO data show that the
female employment rate in Ireland stood at 55.1 per cent in 2012, up
from 32.2 per cent in 1991 (Walsh, 1992, p. 1), a jump of 22.9
percentage points. However, the percentage point change in women’s
The Irish legislative gender quota: The first election 19
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representation in Dáil Éireann increased by a mere three points
during this period. In terms of the occupational backgrounds of
politicians, teaching consistently features as a prominent career
among TDs, providing key political resource opportunities, including
connectedness to a local area and profile-building. It is a profession
that is dominated by women – 84 per cent of all teachers during the
academic year 2014/15 were women (Central Statistics Office, 2016).
Women’s workforce participation rates and their dominance of one of
the key feeder professions into politics show that women with ability
and qualifications are readily available within Irish society to contest
politics. However, up to and including the 2011 general election,
women’s candidacy levels remained low. As noted, confidence, or lack
thereof, impacts women’s ambition and motivation to enter politics,
while differential access to key political resources, such as time and
money, privileges male candidate emergence and stymies women’s
(Culhane, 2017). But the question of demand must also be
interrogated. Supply factors may curtail women’s access to politics, but
if political parties do not seek women candidates, then their
opportunities to break onto the political scene are limited.
While it is universally agreed that PR electoral systems are more
favourably disposed to the election of women, this is understood in
Figure 1: Percentage of Irish respondents ‘somewhat’ or ‘very
interested’ in politics, by sex
Source: White et al. (2015, p. 206).
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comparison to plurality systems. Within the many variations of PR
electoral systems, the Irish STV has been found to mediate differently
with candidate selection depending on the district size (McGing,
2013), with three-seat constituencies being the least facilitating of
female political aspirants, as political parties tend to stick with the
tried and tested incumbent, usually a man. However, electoral systems
have been found to have not alone mechanical effects but also
psychological consequences for voters and parties (Duverger, 1986).
It is argued that these psychological effects have a direct impact on
how parties nominate their candidates (Blais et al., 2011; Gallagher &
Marsh, 1988). In the STV case, the impact poses a particular challenge
to parties as selectors must carefully balance their ticket to maximise
the efficiency of the vote (Farrell, 2011; Sinnott, 1995). Too few
candidates on the ticket and the selectors risk gifting party votes to the
competition; too many candidates selected and the party risks splitting
the vote and losing a seat (Reidy, 2011). The maximisation of the party
vote is the sole aim in this balancing act and, to this end, the location
of a candidate also plays a role in the selection process. The candidates
selected must represent a spread throughout the constituency; two
excellent candidates from the same town or area would rarely be
selected, as locality remains important for the Irish electorate
(Gallagher & Marsh, 1988). In effect, an informal geography or
localism quota is implicitly implemented by all parties in Irish
elections. As Culhane (2017, p. 46) highlights:
this privileging of ‘the local’ is widely known about and shapes
political recruitment and selection in a number of ways… First,
it has shaped informal candidate recruitment criteria, such that
the perception of what makes an electable and therefore ‘good’
candidate is one who is locally recognised and known by
constituents. Second, it has shaped perceptions of who should
select candidates, a power which is principally attributed to the
local branch members as opposed to central strategy
To be local is to have a tapestry of integrated and networked links into
the local community that affords name recognition and profile-
building. Being a local councillor is one way of demonstrating, as well
The Irish legislative gender quota: The first election 21
For example, a voter knows that a vote for a smaller party is a wasted vote under
majoritarian electoral systems such as first-past-the-post, and therefore may not vote for
that smaller party.
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as enhancing, ‘localness’. However, as men dominate local councils,
few women have an opportunity to harness localism skills, which are
essential for candidate selection and election at the national level
(Buckley et al., 2015). Therefore, localism as an informal candidate
recruitment norm is highly gendered, with highly gendered outcomes
(Culhane, 2017). Furthermore, while many women are networked into
local community groups and organisations, their spheres of influence
are limited as men dominate sites of political power, whether that is
within political parties or local councils (Buckley, 2013; Buckley et al.,
2014; Culhane, 2017; Galligan, 2010).
As noted, localism is also integral to candidate selection processes
in Ireland, whereby the selection process involves interplay between
local and national selection committees. Irish political history shows
that even when the party leadership is convinced of the need to
improve gender balance, this desire is often mediated by the low levels
of district and party magnitudes, and the reluctance on behalf of the
local level party to select ‘new’ candidates in favour of the ‘tried and
tested’ incumbent. The role of incumbency is universally understood
to be a barrier to the nomination of challengers, but as the majority of
incumbents are men, the opportunity spaces for ‘new’ women
candidates are limited (Gallagher & Marsh, 1988; Norris &
Lovenduski, 1995). Certainly, for the Irish open ballot system,
incumbency is a factor, as selectors consider electability as the key
criterion for selection, and there is no greater evidence of electability
than having already won a seat (Gallagher & Marsh, 1988; Weeks,
Localism and incumbency are barriers for women who contest party
selection conventions, but often female aspirants struggle to even get
to this stage as their candidacy is not fostered. Candidate recruitment
and selection can be viewed through the lens of Bjarnegård’s (2013)
‘homosociability’ concept, whereby she argues that this process is
often an outcome of interpersonal links, summed up in the old adage
of ‘who you know, not what you know’. In itself this practice is
gendered to privilege men, as men, who disproportionally hold
positions of power within political parties, tend to recruit and select
other men for political office (Culhane, 2017, p. 49). Reviews of office
holders in political parties consistently show that leadership positions
are dominated by men (Buckley, 2013; Galligan, 2010; Galligan et al.,
1999). It usually falls to the occupants of these leadership roles,
notably constituency party chairpersons, to identify and approach
potential candidates for selection convention. The evidence clearly
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points to a male bias in this regard. While women’s party membership
hovered between 30 to 40 per cent in 2011, women’s party candidacy
was approximately 19 per cent (Buckley & McGing, 2011),
demonstrating that women were disproportionally under-selected
relative to their party membership rates. Party chairpersons speak of
their attempts to recruit women candidates, only for women to refuse
to let their names go forward for selection. Research on candidate
recruitment and gender reveals that while men expect and are
confident of receiving supports such as mentoring and political
networking from the party leadership, women are less confident, as
these supports are often dispensed through the informal channels of
the ‘old boys networks’ (Butler & Preece, 2016). Thus, they are
reluctant to see their names go forward for candidate selection as they
feel they will be ‘on their own’ in the contest for candidate selection
and election, as informal male networks converge to privilege and
sustain male political power (Butler & Preece, 2016; Verge & De la
Fuente, 2014).
Prior to the adoption of gender quota legislation, there was little
incentive to encourage female candidacy. Indeed, prior to the intro -
duction of legislative gender quotas, parties, in general, did very little
to balance party tickets for social or gender considerations (Buckley,
2013; Buckley & McGing, 2011, p. 228; Weeks, 2010, p. 160). How -
ever, the economic crash of 2008 and the ensuing political reform
discourse, which queried the representativeness and diversity of
politics, would change all that. With the research highlighting the
effects of Irish political culture and electoral system on women’s
candidacy, it became inevitable that an interventionist measure along
the lines of a legislative quota was required if the gross inequality in
the gender balance of Dáil Éireann was to be addressed.
Data and methodology
The adoption of legislative gender quotas is an attempt to redress the
historical gender imbalance in Irish politics. This article assesses the
impact of gender quotas on women’s candidate selection and election,
and the extent to which informal candidate selection norms such as
incumbency, localism, and male-gendered institutional legacies
mollified the effectiveness of gender quotas, or were themselves
mollified by the formal gender requirement. To examine this, the
article draws on statistical data and interviews with party strategists.
The Irish legislative gender quota: The first election 23
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It was noted earlier that for gender quotas to be effective, political
parties must embrace quota requirements and engage with them in
‘goodwill’. To examine the concept of party ‘goodwill’, we measure the
likelihood that new female contenders are placed with male
incumbents, the effects of district magnitude, and whether women are
placed in seats with low levels of competition, i.e. a ‘safe seat’ or a
‘safely unwinnable seat’. For this, a measure of marginality proposed
by Brennan & Elkink (2015) is employed:
M = u— – su
Here marginality is argued to be the absolute value of the votes (v)
achieved by a party, divided by the quota (Q) less the number of seats
(s) won by a given party in a given constituency. Here the value will be
zero if a party achieves an exact quota (i.e. the exact number of seats
required to win a seat), high if the party receives almost enough for a
quota, and low if party preferences fall well short of the number of
votes required for a quota.
The analysis makes use of a number of control variables that can be
expected to impact on a party’s decision to select a candidate. These
include the use of the Pobal HP Deprivation Index
as a proxy for the
socio-economic level of each constituency, and the levels of yes votes
in the 2015 marriage equality referendum as a rough measure of
liberal values in each district. The literature shows that variables such
as district magnitude and incumbency can affect female candidate
selection (McGing, 2013). Here the impact of district magnitude is
controlled using the variable ‘seats’ while incumbency is controlled for
in the logistic regression by looking only at the effects on non-
incumbent candidates.
Incumbency and marginality
A total of 551 candidates contested the 2016 general election – 163
women and 388 men. The number and proportion of women
candidates (just under 30 per cent) were the highest to contest a
general election in Ireland. Indeed, as demonstrated in Table 2, the
proportion of women contesting general elections had been declining
between 1997 and 2011. Thus, the effect of the quota is clear to see in
Available at
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the absolute numbers and proportion of women selected to contest the
2016 general election.
The literature points to the inevitability of male incumbency as a
barrier to new women entrants in electoral competition, as, due to
male dominated parliaments, the majority of incumbents are men;
albeit, the vast majority of candidates selected in the 2016 general
election were not incumbents (see Figure 2), suggesting plenty of
scope for parties to select new women candidates as opposed to new
male ones. However, as demonstrated in Table 3, the effects of
incumbency on the selection of newcomers varied depending on party.
was a much greater constraint for the Fine Gael and
The Irish legislative gender quota: The first election 25
Table 2: Candidate selection at general elections disaggregated by
biological sex
Gender Election year (%)
1997 2002 2007 2011 2016
Male 80.37 (389) 81.68(379) 82.52 (387) 84.78 (479) 70.42 (388)
Female 19.63 (95) 18.32 (85) 17.48 (82) 15.22 (86) 29.58 (163)
Source: Authors’ own calculations.
Figure 2: New and incumbent candidates selected at the 2016
general election
Per cent
New Incumbent
Incumbency covers those candidates who were outgoing TDs contesting the general
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Labour parties, the outgoing government parties, than it was for
Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, the outgoing opposition.
Table 3: New and incumbent candidates selected by the four main
parties in the 2016 general election
Fianna Fáil Fine Gael Labour Sinn Féin
(%) (%) (%) (%)
Non-incumbent 76 (53) 32 (28) 28 (10) 74 (37)
Incumbent 25 (18) 68 (61) 72 (26) 26 (13)
Source: Authors’ own calculations.
Besides looking at the number and incumbency status of the
candidates selected, the research shows that in the Irish case the size
of the constituency matters. Table 4 shows the consistency in the
distribution of selected candidates by size of district.
Table 4: Candidate selection disaggregated by district magnitude in
2016 election
Party 3-seat constituency 4-seat constituency 5-seat constituency
(13) (16) (11)
(%) (%) (%)
Fianna Fáil 25 (18) 40 (28) 35 (25)
Fine Gael 25 (22) 40 (36) 35 (31)
Labour 28 (10) 39 (14) 33 (12)
Sinn Féin 28 (14) 40 (20) 32 (16)
Source: Authors’ own calculations.
The consistency of selection patterns across the parties suggests an
institutional effect of district magnitude, with all parties selecting
approximately 40 per cent of their candidates in four-seat
constituencies. There is a slight variation with Fianna Fáil and Fine
Gael, who show a stronger tendency than Labour and Sinn Féin to
select candidates in the larger seat constituencies.
Table 5 shows the selection of new, non-incumbent women
candidates disaggregated by party and district magnitude. Here the
variation between the parties and their selection decisions by
constituency size is more apparent. When controlling for the effects of
incumbency, only looking at the distribution of new non-incumbent
women nominees, we see what appears to be a gendered difference in
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party behaviour. In Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, new female aspirants
are more likely to be selected in five-seat constituencies, while almost
the opposite is true for Sinn Féin, where a newly selected woman is
more likely to be selected in a three-seat constituency.
Table 5: Selection of non-incumbent female candidates in the 2016
general election
Party 3-seat constituency 4-seat constituency 5-seat constituency
(13) (16) (11)
(%) (%) (%)
Fianna Fáil 23 (5) 36 (8) 41 (9)
Fine Gael 24 (4) 29 (5) 47 (8)
Labour 33 (2) 34 (2) 33 (2)
Sinn Féin 44 (7) 31 (5) 25 (4)
Source: Authors’ own calculations.
New female nominees can be selected as part of a party’s dual- or
multi-list of candidates. Table 6 illustrates that 76 per cent of all new
female nominees in Fine Gael were placed as the second or third party
candidate. However, Fianna Fáil placed the majority of their female
newcomers as part of single-candidate tickets.
Table 6: Selection of non-incumbent female candidates alongside
male incumbents
Party No male incumbent 1 male incumbent 2 male incumbents
(%) (%) (%)
Fianna Fáil 64 (14) 32 (7) 4 (1)
Fine Gael 24 (4) 47 (8) 29 (5)
Labour 83 (5) 17 (1) 0 (0)
Sinn Féin 69 (11) 31 (5) 0 (0)
Source: Authors’ own calculations.
To assess whether parties ‘fully embraced’ the gender quota
requirement, we analyse how parties react to variation in seat
marginality and to party male incumbency in their selection of new
contenders. Following Brennan & Elkink (2015), we argue that a party
can abide by quota rules and still maintain a selectorate bias. If a
negative selectorate bias is in operation within a party, we hypothesise
that political parties have a tendency to select new women candidates
in constituencies where they are safely accommodated, i.e. in districts
The Irish legislative gender quota: The first election 27
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with low marginality, ‘a safe seat’ or a district where the party support
is considered to be so low as to be regarded as a ‘safely unwinnable
A logistic regression to test the effect of marginality and
incumbency on party selection behaviour is presented in Table 7. Our
main interest is in examining the selectorate bias hypothesis – that is,
if marginality and party male incumbency have an effect on party
selection behaviour. In short, the results show there is no evidence that
either marginality or male incumbency impact party selection
behaviour. That is not to say that all parties’ selection behaviour was
impartial. Indeed, the direction of the marginality coefficient for both
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael was negative, implying that the higher the
marginality of a constituency for both of these parties, the less likely
they were to select a non-incumbent female. This was not the case for
either Sinn Féin or the Green Party.
The relationship with
incumbency, on the other hand, was positive for all parties, implying
that non-incumbent women candidates were more likely to be selected
in constituencies with a male incumbent. However, the results were
not statistically significant. It should also be noted that the numbers
involved for each party are very low; for example, there is no
incumbency measure reported for the Greens as the party had no
incumbents going into the election.
Table 7: Logistic regressions explaining the gender of
non-incumbent candidates
Dependent variable
Female selection in 2016
Fianna Fine Labour Sinn Green
Fáil (1) Gael (2) (3) Féin (4) Party (5)
Marginality –1.009 (1.02) –0.360 (0.59) 223.543 0.492 (0.61) 4.000 (0.34)
Male incumbents 1.137 (0.59) 0.011 (2.93) 0.696 (1.66)
Constant –1.670 (0.63) –2.089 (1.05) 168.494 0.320 (0.63) 0.139 (0.72)
Observations 53 28 9 37 39
Log likelihood –37.354 –29.547 –4.334 –16.794 –13.874
Note: Controls included but not displayed.
Source: Authors’ own calculations.
The marginality coefficient for the Labour Party has no useful interpretation due to
the collapse of the Labour vote in the 2016 election.
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It could also be argued that the lack of significant results indicates
minimal evidence of selectorate bias by political parties as a reaction
to the electoral gender quota. Overall, there was a positive effect on
both the selection and election of women in both absolute and relative
terms, indicating that the parties did indeed embrace the quota law,
but there are indications that this engagement may be more the result
of willpower than goodwill, as incidents of institutional sexism and
male bias were evident in the candidate selection process.
Gender quotas, localism and male-gendered institutional legacies
Candidate selection conventions always have the potential to expose
tensions between party headquarters (HQ) and constituency-level
parties. As one party strategist interviewed for this project mused,
party HQs tend to be more prudent in their approach to candidate
selection, in contrast to the more ambitious aims of the constituency
party. Areas of contention include the number of candidates to be
selected, their geographical location within the constituency, the
extent of candidates’ localism credentials, as well as candidates’ party
apprenticeships. Procedural matters also result in tensions as HQs are
accused of interfering in the democratic right of the constituency party
to choose its preferred candidates. In 2016 the formal gender quota
was layered onto these informal selection requirements and integrated
into selection procedures.
A total of 155 selection conventions took place across the four main
political parties of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Labour. Of
these, fifty-four were contested. A total of twelve gender directives
were issued by party HQs – six by Fianna Fáil, five by Fine Gael and
one by Sinn Féin. All bar three were applied on dual-candidate tickets,
i.e. where party selectors were directed to select one woman and one
man to contest the general election. The three single-candidate,
woman-only directives were issued by Fianna Fáil in Dublin Central
and Dublin South Central and for the Longford County selection
convention in the Longford–Westmeath constituency. In addition to
the gender directives, parties identified constituencies where women’s
candidacy was to be encouraged and nurtured.
The querying of women candidates’ meritocracy was not an
uncommon narrative throughout the candidate selection and general
election period. It was a question rarely asked of male politicians. As
research from Buckley et al. (2016, p. 192) demonstrates, women ‘were
not electoral novices’ (see Table 8). Across the four main political
parties, just under 72 per cent of all women candidates had previous
experience of holding political office.
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Table 8: Candidate political experience
Outgoing Outgoing Current Total: Current
TD senator councillor officeholders
(%) (%) (%) (%)
All candidates 26.3 3.8 27.7 57.8
Female candidates 15.3 6.1 30.0 51.5
Male candidates 30.9 2.8 26.8 60.7
Women candidates’ experience Outgoing Outgoing Current Former Previous office Total
TD senator councillor officeholder experience (experience,
(un)successful current/prior)
All women 25 (15.3%) 10 (6.1%) 49 (30.0%) 4 (2.5%) 29 (17.7%) 117 (71.7%)
FF 0 (0%) 1 (4.5%) 15 (68.1%) 1 (4.5%) 1 (4.5%) 18 (81.8%)
FG 10 (37.0%) 2 (7.4%) 8 (29.6%) 2 (7.4%) 1 (3.7%) 23 (85.1%)
Lab 7 (76.9%) 3 (23.0%) 2 (8.6%) 1 (4.3%) n/a 13 (100%)
SF 1 (5.5%) 1 (5.5%) 11 (61.1%) 0 (0%) 1 (5.5%) 14 (77.7%)
Source: Buckley et al. (2016, p. 192).
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To ensure that the 30/70 gender balance was maintained in
candidate selection, some party strategists admitted that once they
had achieved the quota, they did not select or add additional
candidates, inferring that any additional candidate would be a man.
This betrays an implicit male bias. One strategist spoke about
recruiting women candidates for largely ‘sweeper’ roles. However, it is
clear that women candidates did not see themselves as making up the
numbers, and engaged in strong election campaigns. In cases where
party resources permitted, women candidates negotiated generous
election resource packages for themselves from party HQs in the
form of posters, advertisements, capacity-building and campaign
teams. This was done to overcome concerns that locally allocated
resources would not be distributed equally among male and female
Another dominant narrative was that gender quotas were
undemocratic – in particular, a sense that gender directives removed
the right from constituency party members to select the candidate,
usually male, who they wanted to contest the general election. As
noted, accusations of this nature are par for the course at selection
conventions. However, the advent of gender quotas saw a more
nuanced and gendered narrative emerge, that of the displaced male
candidate. Given that 70 per cent of candidates were male, it was easy
to refute such denunciations. Moreover, the strong vote-getting
performances of female candidates vindicated their selection. Yet, the
tensions that arose surrounding the selection of some female
candidates exposed a form of local democracy infused with male-
gendered norms of candidate preference.
Overall, the legislative gender quota incentivised political parties to
select women candidates, engendered cultural change, encouraged
political parties to pursue and foster women’s candidacy, and was a
powerful mechanism in confronting challenges from quota opponents.
In 2016 political parties simply could not afford to overlook women.
Thus, it can be assessed that gender quotas mollified informal
institutional and gendered norms.
Party strategists were in agreement that the ‘unintended conse -
quences’ of gender quotas were all positive, resulting in the identifica -
tion of quality women candidates who proved their electability
through their election to the thirty-second Dáil, or their potential
through strong vote-getting performances. These women will likely
contest future local and Dáil elections.
The Irish legislative gender quota: The first election 31
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Discussion and conclusion
Overall, the study finds no significant evidence of selectorate bias by
political parties as a reaction to the electoral quota. There was a
positive effect on both the selection and election of women, with
women’s candidacy levels increasing by 90 per cent since the 2011
general election and the number of women TDs increasing by 40 per
cent, up from 25 in 2011 to 35 in 2016. Thus, we conclude that the
political parties did embrace the quota and that the integration of the
formal gender quota in candidate selection processes somewhat
mollified localism and informal, male-gendered institutional norms.
However, resistance to gender quotas endures. There is an ongoing
constitutional challenge to gender quotas working its way through the
courts system. As noted, the quota threshold is to rise to 40 per cent
from 2023 onwards, and party strategists have already begun to air
concerns about achieving the increased quota. Such concerns have the
potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy if not challenged. The
reality is that in achieving the 30 per cent quota, many parties
increased their proportion of female candidacy by more than the
maximum 10 percentage point jump required to meet the higher
gender threshold, thus proving that they can engender change in their
candidate recruitment processes. Expressing concerns about achieving
the higher gender quota may feed into a negative narrative around the
gender quota and a dilution of its effectiveness. Such instances of
resistance and hesitancy are not unusual. In a cross-national study,
Krook (2016) has highlighted the many ways in which gender quotas
have been weakened once the scheme has been introduced. She has
identified evidence of parties using minimal interpretations,
engineering female electoral losses, forcing women to stand aside in
pre-electoral pacts, or recruiting wives and daughters of existing male
incumbents, thereby reproducing existing institutions rather than
empowering new norms.
The international experience is a forewarning for Ireland.
Institutions are adaptable, which can result in transformations but can
also produce resistance. Gender quotas can, and in the case of Ireland,
do affect change. However, political parties and their candidate
recruitment practices must be closely monitored. To not do so risks a
reproduction of male-gendered norms, undermining the effectiveness
of gender quotas which was achieved in 2016.
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The authors would like to acknowledge the support of the Irish
Research Council’s New Foundations funding scheme in facilitating
this research.
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... With the quota in place, the number of women seeking election nearly doubled and the proportion of women elected to the Dáil increased from 15.1% to 22.2%. Though women made gains under the quota, Brennan and Buckley (2017) identify trends to suggest that the two largest and oldest parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, selected women as sweeper candidates to shore up votes to be transferred to a lead male incumbent party colleague. In addition, Mariani et al. (2021) found Fine Gael engaged in a 'sacrificial lamb' strategy under the quota, increasing the number of women nominated to no-hope races and selecting significantly less-experienced women candidates compared to prior elections. ...
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