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5 May 2005 Edition

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Gender quotas only one aspect of holistic approach

MUIRIS O SÚILLEABHÁIN, Cathaoirleach of Comhairle Cúige Mumhan, takes issue with JUSTIN MORAN's article last week questioning the quota system in place at the Ard Fheis to ensure gender equality on the Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle

Justin Moran, my Dublin counterpart, argued in last week's issue that the current system that guarantees the election of six women and six men to the Ard Chomhairle is the gerrymandering of Sinn Féin's internal democracy.

I find this a curious argument. The current system also guarantees that three members from each of the five Cúigí are elected to the Ard Chomhairle. Is this the regional gerrymandering of Sinn Féin's internal democracy?

In fact, and correct me if I'm wrong here, Justin, don't you hold one of these regionally gerrymandered positions?

Wait a minute, perhaps that's a bit harsh. Perhaps such emotive words as 'gerrymandering' and 'rigged' are unfair in the context of this debate, just maybe this issue needs less heat and more light.

Something that often seems to get lost is that prior to the constitutional change that brought about the gender equality provisions for Ard Chomhairle elections, the constitution already had a gender equality provision. It read: "An Ard Chomhairle shall have the power to co-opt eight members for specific posts and the power for additional co-options to ensure that not less than 30% of Ard Chomhairle positions shall be held by women."

Where were those who opposed the current system when this provision was in place? Where were the impassioned pleas from delegates calling for an Ard Fheis rejection of this tokenistic approach? Why was there no condemnation of this provision for "cosmetic photo opportunities"? In fact, how come no one ever put a motion to an Ard Fheis on the issue?

Justin correctly points out that at this year's Ard Fheis just six women ran for the six positions; to use Justin's words, the positions were "only just filled". But the same can be said for the officer-board positions of the party, none of which were contested. In fact, only 21 people contested the 19 Ard Chomhairle positions elected by the Ard-Fheis. In this context, to use the "only just filled" argument against the gender balance provisions is misleading.

I'm not arguing that Sinn Féin is "structurally and institutionally sexist" but I'm not naïve enough to think that all Sinn Féin members are immune from the various stereotypes and prejudices that exist in wider society.

Take, for example, our stance on racism or homosexuality. I'm convinced that our politics on these issues are sound; I don't believe Sinn Féin is structurally and institutionally racist or homophobic, but I do believe that there are attitudes within our party membership that need challenging when it comes to these issues.

I cannot provide proof or evidence, as Justin requests, that Sinn Féin is "structurally and institutionally sexist" and in fact, I don't believe it is, but I can point to some worrying trends that suggest gender equality is a real issue for our party.

For example, in 2003 the Equality Department carried out an analysis of all cumann registration forms and on average, across the island, 20% of cumann chairs, PROs and treasurers were female, but on average 60% of cumann secretaries were female. Why?

Of course, without a fully functioning Equality Department, we have no recent figures to further analyse this trend.

As for Ard Chomhairle gender balance provisions being "presented as the panacea to our problem of gender inequality", it has never been presented as such. Those who have argued for the provisions have always said it must be only one aspect of a much more holistic approach.

Here's where I agree with Justin; if the gender equality provisions for electing the Ard Chomhairle are the only approach that the party adopts in terms of gender equality, then it is just a "cosmetic change". The fact that the party doesn't currently have a fully functioning equality department is a disgrace, and as Justin points out we do need a focus on why women within the party are reluctant to go forward for various positions and to attempt to deal with the reasons.

The fact that we do not currently have a fully operational equality department carrying out this work leads to the problems that Justin outlined in terms of women being asked to be candidates in their first interview with the party because a "party official needs to fill a quota".

Justin identifies the two key problems as firstly, the lack of women in the party and secondly, their reluctance to come forward despite encouragement. He further suggests that this is where we should focus our approach.

I don't disagree but we need to do more. Equality-proofing our structures and organisational approach also plays an important role in encouraging more women to play active roles within our party.

Opponents of the current system will argue that under the old system the number of women elected was broadly representative, in terms of percentages, of the number of women within the party. This may even be true, but while our leadership should, to a certain extent, be reflective of what we are, should it not also be reflective of what we hope to be?

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