We take a look at balance in local politics after the 2019 elections.
The dust is settled on the 2019 Local Elections and Donegal has a new council.
There are a few new faces and change-ups among councillors. But as focus turns more to gender balance in business and in politics, the new council didn’t make much headway.
In the last term, Donegal County Council had the poorest representation of females in Ireland at 8.1%.
Now it’s 10.8%, with four women elected to the 2019-2024 council. They are Marie Therese Gallagher (Sinn Féin) in Glenties, Niamh Kennedy (Independent) in Donegal, Rena Donaghy (Fianna Fáil) and newcomer Noreen McGarvey (Fianna Fáil) for Glenties.
Across Ireland, the total proportion of female councillors in local authorities increased from only 21% to 23%. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown made history as the first ever council with 50-50 gender split.
As councillors are elected to represent the public, is 10% a fair representation of the women of Donegal? At the same time, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that there are still no councillors of different ethnicities or from a migrant background this term.
Donegal Woman talked to Cllr Niamh Kennedy, who topped the poll in her area of Donegal twice in the last two local elections.
She said it is disappointing to see a low number of women being elected this year again. But unless elements of local politics change, neither will the balance.
Cllr Kennedy said: “I think there are ways to get more women elected. Another thing is I believe there should be no such thing as co-option and there should be a retirement age. This is no reflection on any individuals, but you see people co-opted because they are friends.
“It’s the same old rhetoric and that has to change. When there is a casual vacancy there needs to be an election or by-election. That will keep it fresh,” she said.
Across Donegal’s seven electoral areas this year, there were 17 female candidates out of 85 running. No woman ran in the Lifford-Stranorlar area at all.
The weekend’s results leave Letterkenny, Milford, Carndonagh and Lifford-Stranorlar with all-male councils.
Three women ran in Cllr Kennedy’s own constituency, but why did so few get over the line across the county?
She said: “I’m disappointed certainly. I don’t know what it is that can make people change.
“In council, you can be strong, but if you are too strong people think you’re a bitch. But if you’re mild they say she’s useless.
“You learn to speak when you need to speak, you be polite, and that’s in my nature.
“But you know, when you are knocking on doors people won’t say they’ll vote for you because you’re a woman. People don’t think in that way.”
Cllr Kennedy said she sees potential in many female leaders in her community. However, the very nature of a political career does not suit many women.
She said: “The backbone of all our community groups is women. They are doing the work, the applications, in the Tidy Towns and Parish Councils, they are chairpersons and all well capable.
“Politics is a massive commitment and it is nerve-wracking. You are putting yourself up for massive scrutiny, your life is not your own. If you have young children it’s really hard to do.
“It’s so male-dominated that you have to have a tough skin. I work well with men and women in all parties,” Cllr Kennedy said.
In principle, councillors are elected to represent every one of their constituents. But with low gender balance, do issues which may affect women more get left behind?
Cllr Kennedy said she believes some issues on the agenda in recent years would not have been raised if women were not in the chamber.
She raised a motion on adoptee rights this year, while Cllr Marie Therese Gallagher called for action on the CervicalCheck scandal last May.
On the ground, Cllr Kennedy said she gets approached by women in need of help with specific personal issues on housing and health.
“I find that women with more emotional issues would contact asking where to go for help. Women from minority groups would feel more free speaking to you in confidence.
“What you find among women when you are knocking on doors is huge isolation and loneliness.
“We need to get more women out together to beat isolation. Men’s Sheds are fantastic and the Women’s Group is good as well. There’s work to be done with women and I want to help as best I can, especially women dealing with isolation, they might be divorced or separated, the children are gone and that can’t get back to work.”
Cllr Kennedy said her work promoting the Community Employment Scheme in Killybegs is one way of recognising women’s economic and social needs. She is also keen to encourage young men and women who are thinking about starting local businesses, saying: “I’m there for them, 100%”.
Cllr Kennedy said she would recommend local politics to other women. “It is a bit daunting at first going into a room full of men but after a while you don’t notice. You what you have to do and you do your work.”
As she looks ahead to a new term in the council, Cllr Kennedy is planning to begin on a clean slate with new goals.
“I left my job in 2014 because I was fed up and I wanted to see a change in my community. I’m all about the community and about helping everyone to have a nice quality of life. That’s what it’s all about.”