Ireland: an unforseen trailblazer for grassroots gender activism


Picture of Una Mullally
Una Mullally

Writer, LGTBQ activist and 2019 European Young Leader (EYL40)

Una Mullally is an Irish journalist, broadcaster and activist. She is a currently a columnist with The Irish Times and also contributes columns to The Guardian. She is part of the European Young Leader class of 2019.

There are many lessons to be learned from the way in which grassroots activism has delivered real, monumental change in Ireland. The Irish youth have formed the current political landscape by coalescing around issues, not individual political party ideologies or loyalties. The two landmark referenda on marriage equality (2015) and abortion (2018) are great examples of how two interlocking and largely youth-led – but also incredibly intergenerational – movements grew from protest to affect legislative change in Ireland. The outcomes now position the country as a progressive and accepting nation, at a time when many neighbours are retreating into damaging narratives of closed-off nationalism and re-emerging right-wing ideologies.

This trajectory is even more surprising given the extent of Ireland’s hardship in the aftermath of the economic crash and torturous austerity policies that followed, under which many people are still suffering. But the positive developments that have taken place in Irish society over recent years give pause for thought on how such progressive politics and outward looking idealism can be grown, supported and sustained by Ireland’s European Union neighbours.

From a top-down level, the participation of women in politics has been bolstered by the introduction of 30% gender quotas for candidates campaigning for election in political parties. The work being done by the Irish group, Women for Election – mentoring and networking opportunities for prospective female Irish politicians – is an example of the support needed to further promote gender quota policies in politics. Since 2012, the organisation has trained 1,000 women in Ireland and the EU. Of the 196 women elected in local elections in 2014, 50% were trained by Women for Election. Moreover, 40% of the women elected as national politicians in 2016 took part in the training offered by Women for Election.

the top 20 countries in the world for female representation in parliament includes just six European countries

Nevertheless, while different forms of gender quotas exist in various EU member states, including in Ireland, the top 20 countries in the world for female representation in parliament includes just six European countries (North Macedonia, Spain, France, Norway, Finland and Sweden) just four of which are EU member states. Ireland, for example, occupies the 81st position in the global rankings for female representation in parliament. Clearly, quotas need to be expanded, as do the supports necessary to make them impactful.

The type of hands-on approach undertaken by Women for Election brings us to a different network of agents for change: grassroots activism. The grassroots LGBT and feminist activism, which has recently emerged in Ireland, is directly responsible for instigating both social change and exerting pressure on the political structures and legislature that then reflect that change, either through legislation, government policy or referenda.

These movements create a tangible dynamic, moving people from political engagement to political activism, and often serving as the first port of call for involving young people in politics. With this in mind, we must all ask ourselves how can we sustain such movements and the ancillary organisations that emerge from them. This can allow radical voices with new ideas and different ways of approaching politics, as well as ideologies that challenge dominant political narratives and systems, to grow and continue to affect change, long after individual goals are achieved.

The feminist and LGBT movements that emerged in Ireland [sought] to ‘find their people’ and their allies, in all walks of life.

Grassroots activism is, by its nature, messy, which is not necessarily a bad thing. These movements are often led by individuals with a lot of passion, for whom activism is not a ‘job’, but an urgent necessity. However, this passion and energy, while creative and mobilising, can also put undue pressure on individuals, potentially leading to burn out. The movements and the grassroots organisations that emerge from them are ground-up processes, often orientated around non-traditional, informal structures, and can also be non-hierarchical or, at least, less hierarchical than existing structures. Because they are different, they are often not taken as ‘seriously’ by the political and media mainstream, who are not used to dealing with atypical structures.

Traditional political parties operate on the idea of carving out territory for themselves in order to exert power, whether it be by growing membership, winning seats or developing policy based on membership consensus. The feminist and LGBT movements that emerged in Ireland did not seek to carve out territory, but to ‘find their people’ and their allies, in all walks of life.

More broadly, at a European level, we can avoid the approach of carving out territory and instead seek to unite it. This is a collaborative approach that increases discourse and debate, as people who may be from disparate backgrounds or political affiliations are united under a collective umbrella of issues. We traditionally view collaboration as consensus-building but it is, in fact, a state of productive conflict. Focusing on consensus tends to produce compromise, value incrementalism over revolution and prioritise middle-ground ideas, instead of gravitating towards the more radical ideas and objectives that can have a greater impact.

By imagining ways to support grassroots feminist movements, we can ensure that the diversity of ideas, voices, and methods enlightens policymaking and politics long after individual goals are realised.

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