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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 13 Dec 2018

Vol. 262 No. 5

Centenary of 1918 General Election and Irish Women’s Right to Vote: Motion

Contributions to the debate on the motion will be confined to group spokespersons who may share time.

I move:

That Seanad Éireann, on the 100th anniversary of the 1918 General Election, which was the first election in which Irish women had the right to vote:

salutes the struggle of the Irish suffrage movement which fought for many years for that right;

notes the significance of:

- the suffrage movement in Ireland, including the Dublin Women’s Suffrage Association founded by Anna Haslam, and the Irishwomen’s Suffrage and Local Government Association which had branches across the country;

- the brave actions taken by the Irish Women’s Franchise League founded by Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Margaret Cousins in 1908, who took direct action in their campaign to highlight votes for women;

- the centenary of the election of Countess de Markievicz to Dáil Éireann, who was elected as the first woman Member of Parliament in Westminster;

- the centenary also of Winifred Carney running for election in East Belfast;

- the centenary in February of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which extended the vote to all men aged at least 21, and women aged 30 or older who were university graduates or owned a certain amount of property;

- the centenary in November, of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918, which enabled women to become MPs on the same terms as men;

pays tribute to the work of the cross-party Vótáil 100 Committee which worked with the Oireachtas Communications Unit in organising a series of commemorative events this year in collaboration with cultural institutions and historians including:

- an historical conference organised with the Royal Irish Academy;

- an exhibition located in the Seanad ante-room curated in conjunction with the National Museum of Ireland, the National Library of Ireland and the Sheehy Skeffington family;

- a portrait by artist Noel Murphy of all current 53 women members of the Oireachtas unveiled on International Women’s Day and now hanging in Leinster House;

- ‘Díospóireacht na nÓg’, hosted by Seanad Éireann with 16 Transition Year students from across the island speaking on the topic of women’s suffrage;

- a photograph of all current and former women members of the Oireachtas to record the incremental growth in representation since the 90th anniversary of the 1918 election;

- an exhibition in the National Gallery entitled ‘Markievicz: Portraits & Propaganda’ with a performance piece including members of the Oireachtas;

and resolves in this centenary year:

- to ensure that the legacy of the women of the suffrage movement is remembered; and

- to continue to work towards the increased representation of women in the Oireachtas so that we can reach true parity in politics reflective of Irish society.

I second the motion.

I thank the Seanad Leader and colleagues for facilitating the marking of this important anniversary. Tomorrow, 14 December 2018, marks the exact centenary of the 1918 general election in which women in Ireland first had the right to vote and in which Constance Markievicz was elected as the first woman Teachta Dála and MP. I am delighted to propose this motion as chairperson of the Vótáil 100 committee which was set up in the Oireachtas to mark that centenary and organise events noting the event. I thank those who have served with me on this all-party committee, including Senators McFadden, Conway-Walsh and Higgins, as well as Deputies Catherine Martin and O'Loughlin. I acknowledge the presence in the Gallery of Dr. Audrey Whitty and Ms Sandra Heise from the National Museum of Ireland, with whom we worked very closely in the past year. It has been a pleasure to work with them.

I also acknowledge Jean and Tara Spain who are here because they have donated to the National Museum of Ireland one of only two examples found of an original Irish Women's Franchise League badge. It belonged to their family and was passed down through the years and it is now in the possession of the museum. It is only the second one to be in its possession. One of our actions in the year has been the reproduction of the Irish Women's Franchise League badges. They have been very successful and it has been a pleasure to wear the badges and remember this important centenary.

As we mark Vótáil 100 and the centenary of women's suffrage with our series of events, including a Díospóireacht na nÓg organised by Ms Ursula Quill and a range of other activities, we have also been highlighting the continued low representation of women in public life and the need to ensure we have more women in politics in future. It will be the enduring legacy of the Vótáil 100 programme and the message we want to send as we reach the end of this significant year.

I thank colleagues for their support of the motion and note it states the Seanad:

resolves in this centenary year:

- to ensure that the legacy of the women of the suffrage movement is remembered; and

- to continue to work towards the increased representation of women in the Oireachtas so that we can reach true parity in politics reflective of Irish society.

Ireland was changed fundamentally on 14 December 1918 and it has seen many transformations in the 100 years since that day. One of the significant changes on the day was that women were allowed to vote for the first time and the other was that a woman was elected for the first time. What would those who fought for female suffrage think of present-day Ireland?

I think they would be pleased about some aspects and not so much with others. They would see a very different country. The role of women has changed in that 100 years and there have been huge improvements of the involvement of women in law, medicine, education and commerce and many other areas that used to be male dominated.

The report from the World Economic Forum shows that there is parity between the genders in Ireland in areas of educational attainment. The health and survival index shows that only a small gap remains to be made up by women. When we look at the economic participation and opportunity index, however, a more significant gap is apparent and we rank 65th in the world. While the participation of women in politics is improving, as Senator Bacik has said, there is still quite a bit of ground to make up. In the 2016 general election, 123 men were elected. In the full 100 years since women gained the right to stand for election, there have only ever been 114 women Deputies.

However, the biggest problem that faced women in 1918 remains their biggest problem today, namely, that one in four women will experience physical or sexual violence from a partner and one in three experiences severe psychological abuse. Domestic sexual and gender-based violence are crimes that occur in all social classes among people of every background, from all ethnic groups and cultures, and are violations of human rights. They are crimes perpetrated on women because they are women and have their foundations in gender inequality. If the suffragettes were here today with us, they would be at the forefront of the campaign for gender equality. They would be arguing loudly that we as a society should see gender equality not as a gift to be bestowed on women by men but as a fundamental human right. This paradigm shift would be the finest tribute of all to those brave pioneers and Ireland where these values were at the heart of all our actions would be the truest demonstration that their campaign was a success.

It is a great privilege to be in this House on the centenary of the 1918 election. It was rightly a seismic event. After seven years without a general election, the changes which had taken place in Irish society were laid bare in one important event which shook the foundations.

In remembering the 1918 election the single greatest theme which emerges is democratisation across a host of areas in the participation of women, both within the electorate and as candidates and the participation of young working-class men. In early 1918 the Representation of the People Act had granted the right to vote to women aged over 30 years, which was discriminatory, who met a certain property requirement, and all men aged over 21 years. They were not even generous enough to give the vote to women on the same terms as men.

This saw Ireland’s electorate grow from 700,000 to more than 1.9 million. These newly franchised groups spoke out against the militarism and conscription which threatened to absorb even more of the youth of Ireland. They spoke out in democratic acceptance of the need for the establishment of the first Dáil and independence. They spoke out in electing a woman for the first time. With regard to women’s suffrage, it is accepted, 100 years on from that moment, that we have still not completed the journey which saw its first major milestone achieved in 1918.

It is correct that we should use this milestone to reflect on the road ahead, but we should see the achievements of 1918, and indeed 1922 for what they were, which was a step forward. One hundred years ago Éamon de Valera secured a democratic mandate which was heard throughout the world. In the 1918 general election, the party he led won a victory so dramatic and so overwhelming that it changed the direction of history. His was a towering personality which won for the cause of Irish independence a profile and a respect never before shown for a revolutionary movement in a small country. The victory in 1918 is the moment when the momentum towards the establishment of an independent Irish State started building. We in Ireland were the first colony and we were the beginning of the end of the British Empire. This was a major achievement.

There is no political figure in Irish history before or since de Valera who overcame so many obstacles on his way to becoming a national leader. I should add that Count Plunkett who was elected in the 1917 by-election in the winter and snow was the first republican to be elected, from County Roscommon, but that was prior to the new voting arrangements.

It is important to recognise, 0honour and show our gratitude for the pioneering work of the suffrage movement that secured women’s right to vote. It involved women like Margaret Cousins from Boyle, County Roscommon; Hanna Sheehy Skeffington who founded the Irish Women’s Franchise League and Countess Markievicz, the first woman elected to parliament in a general election in 1918. She was appointed as a Minister and we had to wait until Charles J. Haughey to appoint Máire Geoghegan-Quinn as a Minister in 1979, which was a major step by a very progressive Taoiseach. No Taoiseach before him had appointed a woman as Minister since Countess Markievicz. Máire Geoghegan-Quinn was a great Minister and Mary O’Rourke was appointed after her.

I regret that the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government tried to abolish this Seanad which has had more women representatives than the Dáil. It would have been a major loss to women in this country had this House been abolished because women are making a major contribution in this House and will continue to do so. Had Deputy Enda Kenny had his way, this House would have been abolished and there would have been no women Senators here today had the unprogressive Fine Gael-Labour Party Government which never did anything for women in this country-----

This is supposed to be about women, not about Fianna Fáil.

I will tell Members something that is degrading in today's debate. Three women spoke at the beginning and took two minutes and Senator Leyden insists on getting five minutes.

It shows what happens if you let a man in.

Excuse me, I was informed that I had five minutes.

No, the Senator had two minutes. I tried to stop him.

I was informed that I had five minutes.

What I read said two minutes.

Two minutes is too short.

The Senator took five minutes just because he was a man.

Senator Higgins is next and has two minutes.

It has been an honour to be part of the Vótáil 100 committee in the Oireachtas and to work with colleagues across the House in marking the centenary of women partially achieving suffrage. There were many events during the year, including visiting England with the portrait of Countess Markievicz and visiting Eva Gore-Booth's grave. There was a very powerful transition year debate in which young people from across Ireland participated. In that, we looked back at the past century to the radicalism and the struggle to achieve suffrage then, but we also looked forward to what we hope for in equality and equal participation in politics in the future. It was a very important moment for us. Looking to the past and the diverse traditions from which the women, and men, who fought for suffrage came, and then looking to the future and seeing the young people today all acknowledge that we have not achieved equality, but that they all want it and that the momentum is there, it was clear, hearing them speak, that we are at a particular moment which is also part of history.

In 2018 we are at a moment when women's equality has moved from issues of potential access or representation or being able to enter systems to a point where women across politics, the arts, science and every area of public and collective endeavour are saying they do not want merely to participate but to shape these areas and determine them. We are looking for systemic change for a politics that is deeply equal, not just equal participation in politics.

There is that momentum and that is the sea-change at which we are looking. There is a backlash and there are authoritarian elements who wonder when the sharing of power is being pressed forward.

This is a wonderful moment in history and we honour the incredible vision of those who lived 100 years ago. It is very important that we do not now say that is the part of our centenary celebrations where we celebrate women because it is not over. There were women such as Winnie Kearney who put an incredible socialist vision of what the nation might be into her manifesto when she ran in Belfast and Constance Markievicz who was a Minister for Labour and sat in the First Dáil. It is very important that we keep a focus on the contribution, actions and ideas of women in shaping the First Dáil and its programme and the rest of our history. I look forward to ensuring that remains part of our discussion on this centenary. It has been an absolute honour to work with my colleagues in these Houses in this year and I look forward to working with them in further commemoration and further transformation of the country.

I too commend the Vótáil 100 committee under the chairmanship of Senator Bacik. We had a very successful year and it was great that the committee crossed parties and everybody made a contribution. I also commend the individuals and the organisations throughout the country and beyond that organised events to mark the anniversary of 100 years since women got the vote, the suffrage movement, Countess Markievicz and the 1918 elections.

Last Saturday was a poignant and memorable day as our Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle was held at Lissadell House, the home of Constance Markievicz and Eva Gore Booth. Countess Markievicz was a Sinn Féin Member of Parliament, MP, who, like the other 72 Sinn Féin MPs elected at the time, refused to take her seat at Westminster. The next woman MP to be elected was Sinn Féin's Michelle Gildernew in Fermanagh South Tyrone in 2001. They were among the women and men who came together from every class, creed and background and from rural communities, the slums of Dublin city and everywhere in between. These women rejected the confines of class and privilege to join the combination of the national women's movement and the labour movement declaring that they stood for the Republic.

The campaign for women's suffrage had started years earlier and women refused to participate in the 1911 census on the basis that if women do not count, they did not want to be counted. We should remember Winifred Kearney who stood in East Belfast. She was a socialist, trade unionist, feminist and republican. I commend the 1916 relatives association and National Graves Association on the wonderful tribute they organised in Milltown Cemetery earlier this year. I also commend Deirdre Hargey, the Lord Mayor of Belfast, for the portrait unveiling last month. Dr. Kathleen Lynn, a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, was another revolutionary, patriot, suffragette and proud Mayo woman. She gave her entire life to health care. I ask that all Members of this House join the campaign to name the national children's hospital after Dr. Kathleen Lynn. The aim of these women was the same as that of Wolfe Tone, to break the connection with England and to assert the independence of our country. Their story is one of determination, independence, idealism and self-sacrifice in pursuit of the freedom of the Irish people. We continue to be inspired by them today as we continue the struggle for an Ireland based on equality, freedom, peace and prosperity.

A century on, it is timely to reflect on the progress which has been made in breaking the glass ceiling. While these were the most unmanageable of revolutionaries, they forged the road on which we still have far to go. Women are still something of a novelty in political life. There are things we need to do, including closing the gender gap, creating lives free from violence, providing affordable childcare, ending economic inequality and bringing more women into political life. As there can be no liberation without women's liberation, the struggle for equality will continue.

I commend everybody who has been involved in Vótáil 100. It has captured people's imagination. As somebody who often has guests and friends in Leinster House, it has been great to have the exhibition in the ante-chambers. It has been a real privilege to show people these wonderful artefacts and memories of a very important campaign at a very important in Irish history.

Yeats wrote about how peace comes "dropping slow" but so also does change. It is interesting to reflect that, in addition to the great women campaigners for women's suffrage, it also took a certain shaming of the authorities in the wake of the First World War, having regard to women's very necessary contribution in the factories and so on, to realise what was long overdue in the granting of women's suffrage.

The best practical tribute we can make in these Houses is to make our workplace much more family friendly for the benefit of women and men. This week the Seanad sat until 2 a.m. That is not the way to support the aspirations of women and men to take their place in political life in a way that is harmonious with their other aspirations and responsibilities.

If the Senator had not gone drooling on, we would not have had the late sitting.

It is equally relevant to women and men.

The Senator thinks women should be at home.

I am not making a political point. I am simply talking about how the ordering of business in the Dáil and the Seanad could reflect that priority but that is of equal relevance to women and men.

We should all commit ourselves to working hard on behalf of all the women in other parts of the world today who are denied basic respect for their dignity and rights. In recent times we have talked, for example, about Asia Bibi who languished in prison in Pakistan. However, the denial of voting and other basic, ordinary rights of everyday life, inappropriate arrangements for marriage and so on continue in many parts of the world today. There is much that we need to focus and work on together.

I acknowledge the wonderful recognition that Vótáil 100 brings to women's suffrage. It is only 100 years ago that women were given the vote. That extended democracy in Ireland and we should all be proud of and acknowledge the role played by those women. We owe those leading lights a huge debt of gratitude.

I think today of one my relatives, Eithne Coyle, who was a leading activist in Cumann na mBan and a member of the Gaelic League. From Falcarragh in County Donegal, she was a republican activist and visionary who set the tone for the Ireland we have today. We are very grateful for people like her.

We have great Irish women here now. Some of them are in the Seanad Chamber today, playing their role. Politics is a difficult place for women. There are some great women councillors but we could have more if politics was a more forgiving career path and it is not always that way. I agree with Senator Mullen that, even in the Houses of the Oireachtas, it is very difficult for a woman, for instance, from a rural part of the country to have to commute to Dublin. We have to be more forgiving. That is an area that needs to be addressed, as does the pay equality issue for women. Maybe women can provide even better for society than we can. If my wife is a reflection of that, I am sure she provides more than even I do.

The Senator is being too modest.

I am being modest. That is not hard to do, as Senator Wilson said.

I commend Senator Bacik and others, like Senator Ruane and other great advocates in the Seanad, on the work they do on behalf of women.

Finally, I call the father of the House, the ageless Senator Norris.

It is astonishing to think that 100 years ago women did not have the vote. I find it extraordinary that we excluded more than half the population from the vote.

I pay tribute to all those brave people who fought for votes for women. I am thinking, in particular, of the Sheehy Skeffington family, with whom I have been friendly for many years. Many members of the family have contributed, including Francis Sheehy Skeffington, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Owen Sheehy Skeffington who was a distinguished Member of this House. Today, Dr. Micheline Sheehy Skeffington in the National University of Galway is still fighting for human rights for women and complete equality. I salute them all and am honoured to be able to say these few words here today.

I call the Leader to respond.

Cuirim fáilte roimh na daoine ó chlann Spain, go mórmhór Jean Spain, ata i láthair don lá an-tábhachtach céiliúrtha seo. As Senator Norris said, it is extraordinary that we actually excluded women and that they were precluded from voting. We celebrate this very important day with our colleagues. I genuinely and wholeheartedly commend all of our colleagues involved in Vótáil 100. It has been an unbelievable success. I hope we can keep the display in the anteroom in perpetuity.

It does not have the names of the women pictured. It would be nice to know who they were.

It is a wonderful moment in history, as Senator Higgins said. Despite the intemperate remarks of Senator Leyden, we remember-----

Excuse me, they were not intemperate. How dare the Senator make that suggestion.


Please, Senators.

We remember-----

There was nothing intemperate about my remarks. Everything I said was factual.

We remember all of the women who contributed throughout history. In my own case, I remember the late Ms Eileen Desmond of the Labour Party who was the first woman Member elected from Cork to be a Minister. We also remember people such as Ms Nuala Fennell who was appointed, if Members can remember, as the Minister of State with responsibility for women's affairs and family law. People are appointed today not because of being a woman but because of ability, in which we celebrate and rejoice. As many of our colleagues have said, we have much more work to do also. Today, however, is a day of celebration, of remembrance and thanking those involved in Vótáil 100.

I thank the Leader.

Question put and agreed to.