With the Minister for Culture suggesting that a 50:50 gender quota should be introduced into Irish politics, it is time to consider how effective or fair these policies really are.

Speaking last weekend at the Parnell Summer School, the Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan called for Ireland’s current gender quotas to be expanded. Right now, women must make up a minimum of 30% of every political party’s election candidates, and those parties which fail to achieve this goal risk having their State funding halved.

The mandatory quota is already set to be raised to 40% by 2023, but Minister Madigan thinks that this timeframe needs to be accelerated, just as the percentage target needs to be raised, possibly to 50%.

“In my view, we need to give serious consideration to raising this bar higher and we need to do it urgently.” Minister Madigan told attendees.

While this issue extends far beyond one politician, when considering Madigan’s vocal support for gender quotas, it is worth remembering how she herself has benefitted from their existence.

In a three way contest between the then Councillor Josepha Madigan, Deputy Alan Shatter and Councillor Neale Richmond, the Fine Gael party members in Dublin Rathdown made their wishes clear about who should be their candidate for the General Election in 2016. It was 76 votes for Shatter, 67 for Richmond and 14 for Madigan.

But there was a twist in the tale. Two candidates were to be selected, and in spite of receiving just over a fifth of Richmond’s votes, Madigan was chosen as Shatter’s running mate. All because Fine Gael HQ had deemed it necessary that there be one male and one female candidate in the constituency. In the following election, Madigan was elected to Dáil Éireann, courtesy of a major assist from a policy she is now understandably keen to lend her backing to.

In late 2017, following the resignation of the Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald, Leo Varadkar had the opportunity to promote a new face to cabinet.

Having been harshly criticised for appointing just four women upon becoming Taoiseach, there was no chance he was going to allow the loss of his Tánaiste to be followed by another outbreak of such criticism, even though there were few female TDs to choose from.

The relative novice Josepha Madigan was duly appointed as Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. In less than two years, she had gone from county council to cabinet, thanks in part to a formal gender quota, and also to an informal one.

It is unsurprising then that Josepha Madigan would look fondly upon this policy. However, the question remains: are quotas really necessary to ensure that women will be represented?

Throughout the country, parties eager not to lose out on taxpayer funding have been deliberately adding female candidates to constituency tickets, some of whom are chosen for no reason other than gender. The putting forward of such paper candidates might help to achieve an arbitrary target for female participation, but they do real damage to the image of female politicians.

Such practices can lead to worthy candidates being judged more harshly, as voters can assume that female candidates were chosen due to the quota, rather than on merit.

Another major drawback is the use of state funding as a cudgel to ensure that political parties comply with the rule, in spite of whether or not party members agree with it. (Those who advocate state funding of newspapers should also reflect upon this before insisting that such funding won’t come with strings attached; government funding always does.)

The opposition within parties is far from hypothetical; just as many female voters oppose the idea, so too do many women in politics.

Two years before quotas were introduced here, The Irish Times asked the 23 women who were then in the Dáil whether they supported the idea. Eight did and fourteen did not, and there was opposition across the political and ideological spectrum, including from the current co-leader of the Social Democrats, Róisín Shortall.

The policy was later enacted in spite of this widespread opposition, and with the full support of all party leaders. This fact shows the degree to which Irish politicians are reluctant to challenge ideas which have the support of those in power, regardless of whether they agree with them or not, and regardless of whether or not they make sense.   

Of course, there are some instances where positive discrimination may be justifiable.

One example of this was in the North’s police force, where a temporary 50:50 recruiting policy for Catholics and Protestants was introduced in the late 90s, before being discontinued in 2011, by which time the Police Service of Northern Ireland had grown to better resemble the community which it serves.

Temporary discrimination may well be necessary in societies where specific groups are mistreated and marginalised on an ongoing basis; but when such policies become permanent, there is a real risk that they can sow division, instead of promoting equality.  

In the United States, for example, affirmative action policies – involving the use of racial quotas in job or educational applications – have been in place for half a century. Not only have they failed to bring about socio-economic equality, they have also encouraged a mentality of group identity which has arguably contributed to a worsening of race relations in recent times. Do we want to promote this attitude here as well?

Do we want an Ireland of equals and a republic of opportunity, or do we want a country of competing groups, some of whom are deemed to need special help, with other groups implicitly viewed as oppressive conspirators?