Monday, 20 June 2011
The Presidency should not be about tokenistic gestures
It was during the Presidential election in 1997 that I first began to have misgivings about the reasons we choose our head of state.
It seemed odd that we had gone from a situation in 1990 where we'd never had a female president before, to one where four out of five of the candidates were women.
Having elected Mary Robinson in 1990, we had an orgy of self-congratulation about how liberal we were, how her election was a symbol of progress and inclusiveness.
A thought briefly crossed my mind in 1997, that the Presidency might be becoming a tokenistic way of making us feel good about ourselves. However one election was not enough to prove the theory one way or another.
This idea began to surface again a number of years ago, when speculation on Mary McAleese's successor began. I started to suspect that the Presidency was becoming a way for us to feel as if we're more inclusive to groups who have been excluded from power traditionally.
Thus, before Fianna Fáil's implosion, Munster MEP Brian Crowley, who is disabled and uses a wheelchair, was the favourite to win the election.
Until the recent controversy over his interview with Helen Lucy Burke, David Norris, who is gay, was the favourite to become President. The fact that he is gay has been mentioned as a reason we should elect him, to symbolise, like we did with Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, that we are an inclusive society.
Unfortunately this is all a sham, as the Presidency is a powerless position.
Brian Crowley is a very articulate politician, but he should be aiming to become Taoiseach, not President.
David Norris may be a bit eccentric for the Dáil, but we should not vote for him purely as a symbolic gesture of solidarity with the gay community. If we want to improve the rights of the gay community we can do this in a real way without tokenistic symbolism, by giving them equality in law regarding marriage and any other areas in which they are discriminated against.
It is now over 20 years since Mary Robinson's election. For all its symbolism, that victory did almost nothing for women in politics.
We have one of the lowest percentages of women in parliament in the Western world. We have never had a woman Taoiseach. We have never had a female leader of any of our major parties, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour. In fact, we've never even had a likely female contender for leadership of those parties.
What we have shown since 1990 is that we are prepared to elect women to a powerless, symbolic position, and nothing more.
When you compare Ireland to other countries, you can see how ludicrous our self-congratulation on electing a woman to the Presidency is.
Below is a list of some of the countries that have elected a woman prime minister or executive president. Among them are countries such as the Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan (recently declared as the third worst county in the world for women).
The Philippines, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have, in fact, elected two female executive Presidents.
Compare that to Ireland and our achievement in electing two women as figurehead presidents isn't all that much to boast about.
The Government's recent announcement on gender quotas is a welcome development and should increase the number of women in the Dáil.
While Presidential elections may make us feel good about ourselves, the day we have a female, gay or disabled Taoiseach will be the day we can say we are a truly inclusive society.