Historically in Ireland, women have made up 51% of the population but only 15% of nationally elected representatives and 16% of those elected locally. In 2013, The American Ireland Fund made a commitment through the Clinton Global Initiative to tackle this underrepresentation of women in Irish politics. The American Ireland Fund recognized that in order to truly address this issue, a combination of hard measures (for example, gender quotas) and softer measures (including training programs, mentoring and women's political networks) must be provided.
The American Ireland Fund has supported Women for Election from 2013-2016 as a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization striving for a balanced participation of women and men in political life in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Their initial project plan was to support Women for Election to deliver its nonpartisan, issue neutral, three tiered political training program consisting of Inform, Inspire and Equip modules. Since The American Ireland Fund set out this initial project plan, the following main activities and milestones have been accomplished:
- The Ireland Funds awarded Women for Election 80,000 (approx. $90,000 at time of payment) over 2 years through the Flagship Investments Grant Round, a competitive funding program that offers core funding for a small number of exceptional non-profit initiatives in Ireland and Northern Ireland;
- The Ireland Funds Young Leaders contributed an additional $10,000 to Women for Election at their 4th Annual Summit in January 2015; Women for Election were invited and highlighted at The Ireland Funds inaugural Women's Luncheon in September 2015;
- The Local Election 2014 saw an increase of female candidates running to 33%. Before 2014, this figure had never been higher than 15%. The initial aim was to assist Women for Election in increasing this figure to 25% which shows an 8% increase on the original goal; In the Local Elections 2014, the number of elected females grew to 21% (up from 16% in 2009). Although the original target was not reached of 23%, this target did show a significant increase. At the end of 2015, Women for Election had trained over 50% of current female counsellors across Ireland;
- Women for Election have run a number of Inspire masterclasses including a Fundraising Masterclass (15 participants) and a Summer School program on Finding your Voice and Volunteers (70 participants). These events acted as training events which contributed to the increased access to political campaign strategy for women; Since 2013 over 600 women have been through Women for Election's core training programs in the past three years that include INFORM, INFORMSU INSPIRE, EQUIP and tailored Masterclasses including General Election 2016 Masterclass series. Women for Election have trained women across 17 European states in that time. (An additional 200 women were trained in our inaugural year 2012). The original target for this goal was 1,000 women. On review, as these programs were newly designed and in their infancy, they proved to be more time intensive, requiring increased individual support with less participants. The indirect lives affected through these programs is estimated at 19,000 people through the effect on family members, friends and the wider communities across Ireland. This is a 2,000 person increase on the original goal;
- The Ireland Funds supported the EQUIP program in 2016 through the Flagship Funding program. This event took place from 7th-9th September 2015 in Athlone, Co. Westmeath. Fifteen women took part in this intensive three day course which contributed to increased access to political campaign strategy for women. The participants represented a broad range of diversity of age, constituency, party affiliation and position. Some of these women had previously been elected to the Seanad and Council and some were running for the first time. This schedule of EQUIP featured a mix of high level former politicians and experts which really benefited participants. Participants gained invaluable training in the mechanisms of polling, campaign planning, strategy and tactics, crisis management training, canvassing, media and broadcast training, good campaign governance and how to ensure that rules regarding fundraising and receipt of donations are followed;
As of February 29th 2016, counting for the Irish General Election 2016 is still continuing in a number of constituencies, but at this stage it is clear that there will be a significant increase in the number of seats won by female candidates relative to the level won in 2011, while there will also be a notable increase in the number of votes won by female candidates. At the 2011 General Election, female candidates won just 25 of the 165 Dail seats being contested. Female candidates won 332,821 first preference votes nationally, amounting to 14.8% of the national first preference votes. The low female vote levels/seat levels were, in part, due to the small number of female candidates contesting that election, with only 86 female candidates (out of a total of 566) contesting this election, 15.2% of the total. An additional two women won seats during the life-time of the Dail following by elections bringing the number to 25; For the General election 2016, the 2012 Irish legislative action to promote gender equality representation has in part resulted in a significant increase in female candidate levels, with 163 female candidates contesting the election (out of a total number of 551, amounting to 29.6% of the total number of candidates). In total 35 women won seats in this election, amounting to 22.29% of the 157 seats being actually contested in the 2016 General Election. The overall support level for female candidates also increased notably. Female candidates won over half a million first preference votes (533,092 votes) for the first time in an Irish general election amounting to 26% (over one quarter) of the first preference votes cast in this election; Of the 35 women elected in the General Election 2016, 19 were elected for the first time and 17 of the 35 were elected in Dublin constituencies. Of these 19 newly elected women, eight of them (42%) came through core Women for Election training programs; This election saw the 100th woman ever elected to the Dail (Maria Bailey for Fine Gael in Dun Laoghaire); Additionally, 12 incumbent TDs who contested this election spoke on panels, participated in events, spoke at training events organized by Women for Election including Fine Gael Ministers Heather Humphreys and Frances Fitzgerald, Tanaiste Joan Burton and party leaders, Joan Burton (Labor), Lucinda Creighton (RENUA Ireland) and Deputy Leader of Sinn Fein Mary Lou McDonald;
- The American Ireland Funds will continue to support Women for Election by increasing their access to The Ireland Funds global philanthropic network.