Ireland’s county councils are male-dominated arenas, leaving women highly underrepresented despite making up just over half the country’s population.
The gender imbalance is particularly significant in rural Ireland. If we look at Offaly, out of 19 councillors, only one is female, and a lot of other rural counties aren’t much better.
The 2019 local elections saw women gain 48% of the seats on Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council. In contrast, women’s representation on Longford County Council was reduced to 5%, Mayo County Council to 6% and Donegal County Council to 11%. Such disparity in women’s representation within urban and rural constituencies was a key factor in the establishment of the award-winning, Government-funded SHE Project, which aims to address this gender imbalance.
Programme manager Dr Michelle Maher says: “It was set up to address the really low numbers of women in local government when it comes to rural Ireland.”
While Dublin and its surrounding counties are somewhat balanced, Michelle says that outside the capital, it is a different story.
“You have a county like Longford, where in the 2019 local elections just one woman was elected. Further up the road in Leitrim you have only three women out of 18 county councillors. It is not just that the 2019 local election was particularly awful when it came to the representation of women in rural Ireland, it is a really entrenched pattern.”
While there are several reasons women don’t get into politics, lack of knowledge of the system is a significant factor that SHE aims to address through its workshops.
“One of the things women were saying when asked about why you don’t get into politics was, ‘I don’t know anything about politics,’ so it was to kind of demystify that,” says Michelle.
SHE is a collaboration between the Women’s Manifesto Project (a Longford Women’s Link programme) and 50:50 North West, and runs workshops for women all over rural Ireland through its SHESchool initiative.
Often the issue can be not knowing where to start. SHE has published a free guide to running in the 2024 local elections on its website, which works in collaboration with the workshops. The goal is to encourage women to engage in local politics by building their knowledge of politics and the electoral process.
The SHESchool runs two series of free online workshops that will take you from being able to articulate why you or your candidate should run, right through to the election count and beyond. In addition, there is an introduction to politics workshop for those who maybe just want to know more about how local councils work before deciding to take “the foundation series”.
Mairead O’Shea, communications manager, explains: “The idea [is] that you start off with the introduction to politics, hopefully go on to do the foundation course and then follow on with the strategy workshops. The guidebook then follows in tandem as a textbook more or less, it is like a little bible. It is a really practical tool and there are lots of checklists.”
The first level of the foundation series, which begins on 3 October 2022, will consist of three online workshops that will cover key issues – profile building, analytical work on voting patterns in your local electoral area, and being a party candidate or running as an independent.
Upon completion, candidates will be invited to join the second level in January 2023, the “strategy series”, which will take an in-depth look at campaign strategy, canvassing strategy, and communications strategy including social media. For those who completed the first level in 2021/2022, these workshops will start on 12 September 2022.
The one-hour workshops are flexible, running four different days of the week and at four different times.
Mairead says: “The beauty of See Her Elected and SHESchool, it is so flexible as well, it is all online. It’s free, all the classes are accessible and they are at different times so we run workshops like early morning 7am, a ‘brunchers’ one that is later in the morning, then there is a lunchtime one and an evening one, so at four different times of the day, to fit into the needs and lives of women.”
The organisation has been crowned the winner of the 2021 Innovation in Politics Award in the democracy category. It is the first time Ireland has won this prestigious award. The annual Innovation in Politics Awards recognise creative projects from across Europe that break new ground to find innovative solutions for today’s challenges
SHE has also rolled out the schools’ roadshow, which sees Mairead going around to schools giving presentations on the work of entering politics and the work of SHE in a bid to encourage more young women to see politics as a possible career path.
Schools interested in having the SHE Schools’ Roadshow visit their school can email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. To register for the workshops log on to www.seeherelected.ie/events
Driving to Dublin one day, Monica Murphy heard Leo Varadkar speaking on the radio about the need for more women in local politics.
Coming from a farming background, the Leitrim native automatically thought: “They are not talking to me, they are talking to people who have political affiliation, they’re talking to people who grew up in political families.”
A thought that made her question this belief and ultimately led to her getting involved in politics.
It was at this point that she discovered SHESchool and its various classes.
“So, I signed up last year, I have done one full term as such with SHESchool at this point.” Monica says. “I didn’t set out with objectives really, only to learn more and I have definitely learned more. I have become more confident that I do have something to offer, that I could make a difference.”
Monica is considering running in the 2024 elections and SHESchool was instrumental in clarifying the process as well as her goals.
“You would like to see better facilities for children in rural areas, as regards special education schools, better transport links, better links to local libraries, those kinds of basic things that rural Ireland needs, particularly children who don’t have the independence of a car. Also, progressing farming in rural Ireland goes hand in hand with what we need to do in terms of climate change.”
The flexibility of the SHESchool classes is a major attraction for Monica, a business owner and mother to two young children.
“There were three time slots available and this particularly works well for women so you can choose between 7am and 8am in the morning, I think there was a lunchtime one and one in the evening and I am totally an early bird,” she says.
Women are very underrepresented in politics in rural Ireland and it is this disparity that SHE aims to tackle. Through their booklet, classes and mentorship, Monica gained the knowledge and confidence to become politically active and maybe one step closer to closing this divide.
“Politics is a language many families in rural Ireland can’t afford to speak,” says Monica. “I know when we were growing up, we were more likely to be discussing the jobs that had to be done in the evening or the next day than discussing politics and politics in my opinion has become city-centred for that reason.”
Another person who is considering running is the next local election in Co Westmeath is Anthonia Izekor, who has being living in Ireland for over 20 years. Originally from Nigeria and Sierra Leone, she is employed in the chief state solicitor’s office in Dublin, while she also established the Unique Community Youth Group in Kinnegad to bring young people from different backgrounds together.
Anthonia became involved with See Her Elected with the introduction to politics course and is now enrolled on the foundation and strategy workshops. The availability of such classes and the chance to meet like-minded women inspired Anthonia to sign up.
“I think SHESchool was the perfect place for such a thing, to meet other women, with the same motive as you, who have the same goal. They want to be part of the community, they want to bring a change into the country, I suppose, So, the SHESchool was a place to interact, have a conversation and to learn from other people as well,” says Anthonia.
If she considers running for the 2024 local election, Anthonia believes the classes will have been beneficial in giving her the confidence and knowledge needed to do so. She never heard about the class until one of her friends brought it up and believes that there should be more awareness about the SHESchool.
“People should know more about it. I think there are many other people who are really interested in getting into politics, but they don’t know to go about it, they don’t know the steps to take … maybe they lack confidence, maybe they want someone to encourage them and SHE does that.”
Given her work through Unique Community Youth Group, Anthonia already has experience working to improve her local community, particularly regarding social inclusion, a topic close to her heart.
“Another thing, we don’t seem to have more foreigners, the ethnic groups in politics too … the more we have ethnic groups in politics, the more people will begin to see that the wonderful country of Ireland embraces diversity and inclusion.”
Kinnegad is also close to Anthonia’s heart and she recognises the needs of the growing community. “We still lack so many social amenities. We don’t have a secondary school in Kinnegad, we don’t have a library and the youth don’t have anything keeping them busy.”