The next general election could see quotas for women candidates introduced in the Republic of Ireland - and political parties have been warned they could lose half of their state funding if they fail to comply.
The clause is included in the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill 2011, which says that political parties will face a cut of half their State political funding if they do not have at least 30% women and 30% men candidates at the next general election. This is to rise to 40% after 7 years, and discussions are expected to start this month.
The Centre for Women and Democracy, to which I belong, reports that Ireland is currently at the bottom of the western European league table, with just 15% women in the Dáil, the Irish Parliament. France has 19% and Italy 21%, with the UK, at 22%, just above them.
Nan Sloane, Director for CWD, spoke at a recent conference in Dublin on 'How to elect more women?' to discuss the Irish government's proposed legislation bringing in quotas for women and men candidates at the next general election, and says the event was heavily oversubscribed, with more than 400 people attending.
Nan says the clause has aroused considerable interest and support: "Already some parties are discussing the possibility of increasing the scope of the provisions either to increase the level to 40% immediately, or to include the 2014 local elections, or both."
High ranking Irish politician and academic Ivana Bacik explained why quotas are so important in this report which she wrote last year, and why Ireland is lagging behind other European countries:
"Ireland has an appalling record on women's representation in politics.
"In 1990, when Mary Robinson was elected as our first woman President, we were in 37th position in the Inter-Parliamentary Union rankings of women's representation in the lower or single house of national parliaments. By February 2011, we had fallen to 85th position, with 23 women Deputies, or 13.8% of the full complement of 166 TDs.
"We are well below the world and European average and the internationally recommended figure of 30%. Perhaps the worst finding is that we have disimproved in the last 20 years. It is not that the number of women in our Parliament has changed greatly -- the Dáil representation has never exceeded 14% - in other words, it has always been at least 86% male -- but the fact is that other countries have improved their position since 1990, moving up the rankings.
"In particular, other European countries have adopted legislation requiring political parties to select a minimum percentage of women candidates - and this has changed their ranking.
"In 2009, I initiated the production of a report by the Joint Oireachtas Justice Committee on women's participation in politics. This was published in October 2009, and it recommended the introduction of legislation requiring political parties to adopt targets for the selection of women candidates, based on the model used in other EU states like Belgium and Spain.
"It is vitally important that this sort of legislation is introduced. Without it, voter choice will continue to be severely restricted in Ireland. In five constituencies in the 2007 general election, there were no women candidates at all, so voters could not support a woman no matter how much they wanted to.
"Local elections in 2009 were no better. Only 16% of councillors elected were women and that figure fell from previous local elections when a magnificent 17% was reached.
"Voter choice remains restricted in the current general election, with women representing only 15% of the total number of approximately 560 candidates running nationally - depressingly, this is an even lower percentage than the proportion of women candidates in 2007.
"We need to address the ongoing absence of women in politics as a matter of urgency."