Donegal County councillors this week called on the council to appoint a women’s officer from within the council, the second motion they have adopted stemming from the council’s Women Into Public Life Project.
Fianna Fáil Cllr. Rena Donaghey brought forward the motion, saying that women’s representation on local authorities has been consistently low for decades.
“Donegal County Council has never had more than four female councillors and currently only have three females out of 29,” Cllr. Donaghey said. She pointed to such factors as the lack of family-friendly policies, the political culture, women’s lack of confidence and feelings of disconnect from the political system as factors.
“Within the structures of the council and the strategic policy committees, on some of them women are not represented at all,” Cllr. Donaghey said. And there are no women on the council’s senior management team, she noted, saying, “Women are not going forward for management positions because of the reasons I’ve outlined just previously.”
Donegal County Council is the lead partner in the EU-funded Women Into Public Life Project (WIPL) and Cllr. Donaghey said the council has been pro-active in areas of developing opportunities for women. But she said the key challenge is “ensuring the work is undertaken and the lessons learned are not lost.”
Liam Ward, council’s acting director for corporate services, said the council will engage with Derry City Council, which employs a women’s officer, to learn more about the role. He said the public-sector moratorium restricts council appointments, but they will explore options to facilitate the role within what he called “the very limited staffing resources currently available”.
Sinn Féin Cllr. Jack Murray seconded the motion and Labour Cllr. Frank McBrearty Jr., who took part in the WIPL mock council earlier this year, and Fine Gael Cllr. John Ryan also expressed their support.
But Fianna Fáil Cllr. Liam Blaney said there weren’t many more than three women candidates in the last local elections. “It was the people’s choice,” he said.
Sinn Féin Cllr. Marie-Therese Gallagher said a women’s officer could work to a women’s agenda within the council, to identify reasons why women were not coming forward and to consider what could be done to alleviate some of the problems.
“It needs to be identified that there are barriers out there,” she said.
Betty Holmes, spokesperson for Donegal Action for Cancer Care, had brought forward the motion calling for a woman’s officer at the WIPL mock council meeting. She attended Monday’s council meeting to see the motion adopted.
“I suppose one of the things that came out of that was the realisation that we as people on the ground, if we learn the system we can take steps to influence policy and change,” Mrs. Holmes said. She said concerned women must now follow the issue “to make sure it happens”.
Noirin Clancy, WIPL co-ordinator, said on Tuesday, “I suppose the issue is where does it go from here?” That’s the challenge. It’s up to the council to make it real.” She said she looked forward to working with Derry City Council to see how the role was implemented there.
Ms. Clancy also highlighted initiatives the council had already embraced, such as a mentoring programme, and the council’s social inclusion unit, as well as the County Development Board’s gender focus groups.
“Projects come and go but the problem is sustaining this work and building on it, and that’s where the women’s officer would make a difference,” she said.
Ms. Clancy said she has heard from other local authorities that wanted to replicate the mock council WIPL organised in the spring. In a reversal of the gender representation on the council, the mock council included three men and 26 women.
Earlier this summer, the council adopted another motion that had its roots in the WIPL mock council, when councillors agreed to have the county development plan “gender-proofed” during its ongoing review. Ms. Clancy said WIPL will soon hold a workshop on gender-proofing.
At Monday’s meeting, Cllr. Donaghey thanked the members for their support and said the council will put someone in place “to take charge of this work and keep it going”.