If expectations in Wexford are replicated in other counties, there could be a surge in the number of women elected as local councillors.

Wexford has only four female county councillors at present, but that might soon change, according to speakers at a high-energy equality event held in Wexford’s Spiegeltent in October of last year (2018).

With their eyes fixed on local elections next year, and beyond, the conference asked, ‘Are We There Yet?’. The question, related as it is to women’s advancement, feels particularly timely in this, the centenary year of women in Ireland getting the right to vote.

There are 34 councillors on Wexford County Council and, at present, 88% of them are male.

At the conference – which was addressed by Emily Logan, chief commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission – it was announced that training is to be provided free-of-charge to anyone from Wexford thinking of standing in next year’s local elections.

“There is a long road to travel before women and girls in Ireland are truly living in an equal society,” noted Logan. “Although Ireland is fourth in the world on the UN development index, we fall to 23rd place when it comes to gender equality.”

Logan drew attention to increasing levels of female participation in politics, pointing to the 94% increase in voter turnout by women aged 18 to 24 in the referendum on the Eighth Amendment.

“I think we will see this year, historically, as an important one when we look back. Whether it is in politics, sport or in society, we have never spoken like this before. You can feel the energy, the passion and the creativity of the new generation of young women who are more than ready to pick up the torch,” she said.

The training for Wexford’s future aspiring politicians will be provided by an organisation called Women for Election, in collaboration with Wexford Local Development (WLD).

Some of the event's speakers

Some of the event’s speakers. Photo: Ger Lawlor.

Equality is core at Wexford Local Development

Wexford Local Development organised the Spiegeltent event.

The community organisation is committed to making a positive impact by promoting employment, inclusion, education, supporting enterprise and addressing inequalities in Wexford.

Its core purpose is to enable specific individuals and communities to achieve a better social and economic quality of life by improving their opportunities for employment and by addressing inequality.

There is a rich legacy of activism among Wexford women and, in organising the Are We There Yet? event, WLD wanted “to examine the local context, 100 years after women were given the right to vote”.

Dubhain Kavanagh, Esther Brennan and Anna Marie Bergin of Wexford Local Development

Dubhain Kavanagh, Esther Brennan and Anna Marie Bergin of Wexford Local Development. Photo: Ger Lawlor.

The names of strong Wexford women of the early 20th century – Una Brennan, Maire Moran and the Ryan sisters of Tomcoole – are remembered with pride in the county.

The 2018 event was part-funded through the Social Inclusion and Community Activation Programme (SICAP). Women are one of the programme’s named target groups and equality is a theme that cuts across all actions under the programme.

WLD noted: “While women actively participate in a wide range of organisations at a community level, and within families, research shows that when women and girls prosper, entire communities in Ireland succeed.”

Are We There Yet? aimed to encourage the empowerment of women to take on more leadership roles in local communities.

A matter of confidence

Ciairín De Buis, CEO of Women for Election, said the organisation has trained half of the country’s city and county councillors, and 40% of the most recently elected female TDs in the Dáil.

Confidence is one of the big issues addressed.

“Through our training, we help women on the confidence side,” said De Buis. “And we can help in terms of the culture within parties.”

“Women for Election will be working with Wexford Local Development early in 2019 to make this support available within the county,” she confirmed.

Councillor Barbara Anne Murphy described her own experience as one of the four female councillors currently sitting on Wexford County Council: “When I started in politics, I never expected that we would need quotas. Here we are in 2018 and we are not anywhere near equal.”

Minister of State Paul Kehoe, TD; James Browne, TD; and Councillor Barbara Ann Murphy

Minister of State Paul Kehoe, TD; James Browne, TD; and Councillor Barbara Ann Murphy. Photo: Ger Lawlor.

She acknowledged that “most women aren’t prepared to go through what you have to go through to get elected. However, we’re going to have to be the ones to do this”.

She hopes she will “live long enough to see the day when we will have full equality”.

Nora Furlong, a youth worker from New Ross district, stressed the political importance of community work and non-formal education.

Michael Wall, chairperson of Wexford Local Development, said: “The battle against misogyny is a battle for all of us because a misogynistic society degrades us all. Men must step up to the plate. We cannot accept progress in 50-year slots. The struggle for equality is not just for movie stars; the women who are most exploited are the ones with the least power to resist. The future is in our hands. I hope our work will speed this along.”

Michael Wall, Chair of Wexford Local Development, on stage at the event

Michael Wall, Chair of Wexford Local Development, on stage at the event. Photo: Ger Lawlor.

Hearing from local women

Polly Connors and Elizabeth Berry are community health workers with Wexford Local Development and their stories showed how participation in the labour force impacted on their lives.

“My family and my job are the two most important things in my life. Both of them have brought me through a lot of grief and hard times,” said Polly.

Elizabeth spoke of her pride and satisfaction being “part of a team of Traveller women who really want to help their community to move forward”.

Both women encouraged people in their community to embrace education and to think of a career.

The event was chaired by Madeleine Quirke, former CEO of Wexford Chamber of Commerce. Other speakers included positivity coach Jacinta Kitt, secondary school students from across the county, and more.

The conference drew to a close to the strains of the Rising Voices Community Choir.

Additional reporting by Siobhán O’Brien, the policy, evaluation and monitoring coordinator at Wexford Local Development.