Women took the lead on Donegal County Council proceedings today as part of a unique initiative to show what local politics could look like if women held as many seats as men do now.

The ‘gender reversal’ for International Women’s Day was led by Cllr Niamh Kennedy, a member of the Western Midlands and Northern Regional Caucus, as part of a regional demonstration to promote more female representation.

Four women and 33 men were elected to Donegal County Council in the last local election. Those figures were flipped today, to have 33 women and four men voicing their views on what Donegal County Council can do for women, and to get more women involved in local politics.

Cathaoirleach Liam Blaney said there are many reasons why so few women are in local politics. One of those reasons, he said, was the idea that “You can’t be what you can’t see”.

Cllr Blaney said: “We are used to looking at a sea of men and accepting that is what our body of politics looks like.

“Today is a vivid picture to jar us out of complacency.”

The International Women’s Day “gender reversal” in the Lifford County House

The council is missing the expertise of women, Cllr Blaney said. “This is not about women being better than men, or men being better than women, it’s about getting the balance right. I look forward to the day when something like this (meeting) is not needed, when we have equal numbers of men and women here.”

Cllr Niamh Kennedy who chaired today’s meeting, said: “I found it extremely enjoyable to listen to everybody and hear what they all had to say.

“There was great support for each other, to air different voices.

“It was interesting to hear from employees of Donegal County Council and to hear from the women from different directorates in Donegal County Council.”

Some of the youngest attendees of the International Women’s Day council ‘flip’: L-R: Politics student India Kennedy, Maura Gallagher (Foóige), Donegal Youth Council members Seána Sheridan and Rowan Cannon and Cllr Niamh Kennedy

Women represented in the room included Donegal County Council staff, members of the Donegal Public Participation Network (PPN), members of the Donegal Youth Council, the Older Persons Council and community volunteers. Some women are involved in the ‘See Her Elected (SHE)’ school, with ambitions to take part in local government. It was noted that women from minority and ethnic groups were invited to take part in the meeting, but those who were asked did not accept the invitation.

The senior executive was made up of women who have progressed to leadership roles in council departments. 

Some of the key points discussed were whether more women would put themselves forward for election if there was a mandatory 50% divide in genders, and how to make council business relevant to young men and women. Sexism, women’s health eduation, early intervention on domestic violence, and better collaboration between community groups and the local authority were also discussed.

Dr Michelle Maher, the SHE Programme Manager, said there has been a persistent pattern of women’s voices not informing the decision-making in the Lifford County Chamber. 

There have only ever been 11 women elected to Donegal County Council since the foundation of the State. 

Despite this, Dr Maher said that a lot of women are the backbone of their communities, helping out and volunteering, and they know where the gaps in services are.

Dr Michelle Maher, SHE Programme Manager, speaking to the ‘flipped’ council

The four male councillors in attendance were Cathaoirleach Liam Blaney, Sinn Féin Cllr Gerry McMonagle, Independent Cllr Nicholas Crossan and Fine Gael Cllr Martin Harley.

Cllr Gerry McMonagle praised the event, adding that he believed that women’s views and voices are being heard in the chamber.

Cllr McMonagle said: “Despite only four women in the chamber, the four female councillors raise issues of women very well. I am married, I have daughters and granddaughters, who regularly advise me and I raise women’s issues. A lot of councillors are involved in local communities.

“I think it’s important that we as local politicians encourage more women to be more involved, we also need to make politics work for women.”

Three main themes came to the fore during the meeting: A call for Donegal County Council to examine how to encourage more women to enter local politics, leadership roles and more diversity; a call for greater access to political education in schools; and how the conduct of council business can be changed so that it can be more family-friendly, that being a councillor is a more attractive job and that councillors are protected on social media.

A motion was agreed upon to petition the Minister for Education to make Politics available as a subject in all secondary schools. The meeting heard that Politics and Society is only available as a Leaving Cert subject choice at St. Eunan’s College Letterkenny, an all-boys school. 

Today’s meeting was a follow-on from a ‘See Her Elected’ event in Donegal Town last month, focusing on raising awareness of the importance of women getting more involved in politics and possibly running in the 2024 local elections.