One of the main factors involved here is the failure of women's groups, women candidates, and political parties to identify and pursue issues that will actually affect the status of women. In the 1981 General Election, Fine Gael correcttly assessed the disgruntled feeling of women in the home and came up with the £9.60p allowance for stayspouses. This issue dominated and largely obscured all the other women's issues that were raised in the run-up to the general election. Yet, this is not an issue that would, or could in any way, substantially improve the position of women.·
Since the '81 election, the publicity whirlwind about the £9.60p has died down and has been somewhat discreedited by the opposition of Fianna Fail, the lack of support from some Fine Gael deputies and the failure of the vast majority of women to avail of the scheme. As a result, enthusiasm for women's rights issues generally, as an inntegral part of electoral politics, has dwindled.
The extent to which the economic issues will dominate the election will also tend to further obscure women's issues, although this needn't be the case since so many of the fundamental issues - most notably a policy of positive discrimination in the public service and the desegregation of our schools - do not involve further public expenditure.
However, this feeling that the economy, specifically the budget, is the only issue is so strong that, as yet, women's groups are not organising any other campaign. The Ad Hoc
Committee which formed during the last election and formulated a charter of minimum demands has no plans for this election. The local group which organised a pre-election meeting in Limerick last time hasn't done anything since. Even the Women's Political Association, usually prepared for anything, has been caught off the hop and will probably run a less intensive campaign than usual, concentrating on circularising women who have attended their annual semiinars, canvassing for women candidates and holding a press conference for the women candidates. According to WPA Chairperson Mavis Arnold: "I'm afraid it will be a bad elecction for women."
None of the parties has an impressive track record on women's issues. Fine Gael TD Nuala Fennell argues that it was simply a matter of time, and the fact that the ecoonomy was the priority issue: "It was obvious from the beginning that the big obstacle was the budget ... howwever, we had lots of new women in the Parliamentary party. We are asserting ourselves, we were not shy or innhibited. We had to accept that there were urgent priorities, but there were also issues that could be tackled that would cost nothing." She had begun, she says, seeking out standing legislation which discriminated against women that could be easily changed, and within the last week had writtten to Minister for Justice Jim Mitchell about the 1956 Citizenship Act (which holds that the spouse of a male Irish citizen can claim citizenship, while the spouse of a female Irish citizen can not).
However, there were no crucial women's issues tackkled during the Coalition's short term of office, and dissatisfaction was already setting in, particularly over Garret FitzGerald's failure to utilise the opportunities he had to appoint women to state boards. The biggest blunder was the failure to appoint any women to the constitutional review committee. (One woman was finally appointed after several public statements by women's groups.) Within Fine Gael, Senators Gemma Hussey and Catherine Bulbulia were calling for a women's ministry to ensure women's issues wouldn't be sidetracked or ignored.
During the last election, Fine Gael committed itself to seeking an all-party Oireachtas committee on women. After sustained pressure from women in Fine Gael, Garrett FitzzGerald wrote to Charles Haughey proposing the establishhment of this committee. After another letter and a'Tong delay, Mr. Haughey replied that he was in favour of the idea, but disagreed with the terms of reference. He suggessted that Dr. FitzGerald propose a team to negotiate the terms of reference with Haughey's team. Dr. FitzGerald did indeed propose a negotiating team, but that was as far as it got when the Dail was dissolved.
The response of Fianna Fail to the idea of an all-party committee on women's rights has been lukewarm. So lukeewarm, in fact, that when a prominent woman member of the Dail congratulated Eileen Lemass on being appointed Fianna Fail spokesperson on women's affairs, she reporteedly replied, "Oh yes, thank you, but it doesn't really mean anything." This echoes her statement in an earlier interrview with Status last year: "I'm not like Gemma Hussey, I have nothing to do with policy."
Labour Party policy on women's issues and actual perrformance in Coalition are two completely separate things. The party's policy is radical and decisive and straightforrward on contentious issues such as divorce. However, legislation on marital breakdown has been relegated to the never-never land. of a committee (meant to be an all-party committee but which Fianna Fail cynically refused to participate in - they formed their own committee). There was no Parliamentary Labour Party campaign for a more radical approach.
Eileen Desmond (Labour), in her capacity as Minister for Health had at least committed herself to reviewing the workings of the Family Planning Act and initiating new legislation if necessary. One election promise, under her control, that was implemented was the re-establishment of a "combat poverty" type committee. The new agency was to be headed by Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy.
During the last election campaign there were several groups active in raising women's issues - the Women's Poliitical Association, the Women's Ad Hoc Election Committee, the various single-interest groups such as the Rape Crisis Centre and Cherish, the Galway Women's Group, the Cork Women's Collective, the Limerick Federation of Women's Groups, the Wexford Women's Group and the conference organised by Status magazine. Even wtih this level of presssure and publicity, women's issues were side-tracked into the £9.60p debate and received minimal attention in the 22nd Dail. In Election '82, without the public campaign initiated by women's groups, it is likely that women's issues will die a death.
It is also possible that without a public awareness of women's concerns, women candidates will suffer a similar fate. Lasttime around, women candidates amassed a mere 6.2 per cent of the total national vote. Alice Glenn, Carrie Acheson, Mary Harney, Mary Flaherty, Eileen Lemass, Nora Owens and Maire Geoghegan-Quinn face strong challenges within their own parties. Probably the only happy women politicians are Gemma Hussey and Sile de Valera - both of whom nearly made it last time and look forward to a second chance. •