In the midst of the biggest housing crisis in the history of the state, the longest ever hospital waiting lists, and the potential outcomes for Ireland in the ongoing Brexit negotiations, you might think that an obscure political summer school in rural Donegal would find it hard to get national media attention. However based on the reports we’ve seen over the past week, you’d be wrong.

The MacGill Summer School was established in the village of Glenties in 1981. While it never gained much traction with the general public, in the decade after it was founded it became a safe and discreet place where politicians, academics and civil servants from both sides of the border could come to meet, debate and exchange opinions in an informal and friendly environment.

MacGill, which runs for a week in July and is a significant boost to the local economy, has over the decades continued to attract the great and the good of the Irish political and academic elite. However its usefulness has waned to the point where it has now become a backslapping irrelevancy, and an excuse to decamp from Dublin to one of the more scenic parts of the country. Don’t expect to find controversial names or dissenting opinions at MacGill.

So how did such an obscure and generally innocuous event manage to grab the headlines from the more pressing issues facing Irish society? The volunteer organiser of the event, Joe Mulholland, brazenly chose what he thought were the best qualified people to debate topical issues and generally ignored the gender of those he invited.

It’s not as if Mulholland was “gender blind”, a crime now seemingly worthy of the death penalty in the eyes of many in the liberal left commentariat. Mulholland simply states that he sought suitably qualified women, but failed to give them more than a 25% share on the panel of speakers.

Such was the umbrage taken by some, that the co-leaders of the Social Democrats, Róisín Shortall and Catherine Murphy, stated their intention to boycott the event, at which they were due to speak, until there was a better gender balance.

If you are even slightly cynical you might suggest that the leaders of a party which has been generally treading water for years and struggles to get over 1% in opinion polls, might be deliberately creating controversy in order to get publicity. However such was the media furore about this supposed slight to Irish womanhood that you have to believe that something bigger was going on.

At the heart of this storm in a bubble is the conflict between two divergent visions of what constitutes public representation. On one side is the traditional view that people should be chosen based predominantly on qualification and merit and while this method is prone to subjectivity, it has the advantage of picking, at least notionally, the best people.

Against this is the idea that gender must play a part in selection, and as women make up 50% of the population they must also make up 50% of the representatives. The problem with this gender based selection is that when you apply it to fields with smaller pools of qualified women than men, a compromise on the required qualifications becomes necessary.

Politics is one such field where men have traditionally dominated. You could say that this is solely because of the patriarchal nature of Irish society in the past, but there is more to it than this. Even today if you attend meetings of political parties, go canvassing or watch political debates, you will see more men in attendance. The undeniable fact is that even today more men than women are attracted to political discourse.

To address the supposedly detrimental consequences of this, the last government introduced gender quotas for general elections. To get taxpayer funding, 30% of a party’s candidates must be female. This figure will increase to 40% and may be a requirement in the next general election, depending on when it happens.

The 2016 General Election saw the first use of gender quotas, but despite every party meeting the 30% quota, only 22% of the elected TDs were women. While some might suggest that this was a demonstrated failure of the quotas, it has to be remembered that we now have the highest ever number of female TDs and that in the election more male TDs had the advantage of incumbency.

However it was the way that the parties met the 30% threshold that demonstrates one of the major problems with gender quotas. In order to meet the quota, Fianna Fáil had some “women only” selections where men were not allowed to put their names forward. This has resulted in an ongoing legal challenge by Brian Mohan, who was not allowed to stand Dublin Central.

In Fine Gael the quota was met by the late addition of several female candidates, after the selections were completed. None of these were elected. In Sinn Fein and Labour, the quota was met by running female candidates in patently unwinnable constituencies. Does this really do women in politics any favours?

A bigger question is that if you believe that a mirror image of demographics is more important than merit, why stop at women? Why not have a gay quota, a disabled quota or perhaps most obviously a quota for the one in six living in Ireland who were not born in the country? Many of these people come from countries that have found solutions to health and housing. However they are almost unrepresented in Leinster House and political parties seem to be uninterested into tapping into their expertise.

Also if you believe that quotas are a good idea, why stop at politics? Should 50% of every profession be women? Should we enforce equality instead of allowing people to choose their preferred career paths? Should 50% of our police and military be women?

Is gender equality the end game or even a good thing in itself? Is the current Dáil any better for having more TDs who are women? Would the standard of debate at MacGill be any better if more women were involved, or are gender quotas simply another way for the state to dictate to individuals what is good for them and what voices they ought to hear?

Perhaps focusing on what people have between their ears is more important than what is between their legs. Perhaps the octave that our political representatives use to speak is largely irrelevant compared to the lack of diversity in what they say.

Posted by Keith Mills