Making politics a warm house for women…?

More soberly in yesterday’s Irish Times Fionnuala O’Connor noted (subs needed):

Despite the novelty of cyber-launches and blogs, the campaign on all sides is more slog than storm. It is also massively, shamingly male: a total 46 women out of 256 candidates. The SDLP is rightly proud that 14 of those 46 are theirs, the outcome of a deliberate and protracted effort.

Although few of the SDLP women standing will have much of a chance of winning a seat, Sharon Haughey is the exception rather than the rule, some of the party’s rivals efforts seem puny in comparison:

Alliance is running seven women out of 18 candidates. By contrast, the Ulster Unionists produced an election broadcast introduced and concluded by a sweet-faced young female student. It was presumably an attempt to compensate for the pitiful sight of their 38 candidates. The party with the longest history and deepest roots in civic society found just one woman to represent them. Some statement whatever way you approach it: that UUs think women unsuited to politics, or that women do not find Ulster Unionism attractive?

Something of an embarrassment for a party who’s only MP is female! It’s something Noel Thompson took Reg Empey to task over on Hearts and Minds, and ellicited a promise from the UUP leader that his party would have 10% women candidates by the time of the super council elections, expected in 2009. Putting some of them in places where they stand a reasonable chance of election would help too.

Unionists will admit, even boast, that theirs is a conservative political world. Reactions to women who break with convention can be primitive, and for a long time went unchallenged. When the two Women’s Coalition representatives spoke in the ambitiously-titled “Forum for Political Dialogue”, half of the DUP group made moo-ing noises. Iris Robinson, proud to be anti-feminist, made a point of laughing appreciatively.

That was in 1996. Political parties are increasingly aware that it makes sense to have more women members, if only to attract more women voters. Of the DUP’s 46 candidates, six are women. On the day the party was required to say something to the media in response to Sinn Féin’s policing ardfheis, the cameras accompanied a Paisley strollabout on Stormont’s pathways. Sunshine and a big black hat dominated, but the unmistakeable profile leaned towards keen, young Arlene Foster, alertly listening, leaving the lesser men unconsidered in the background.

This using of women as photo op stars rather than as serious political operators she argues began with Sinn Fein, the party with “probably more women at all levels than any other party”. Those in public life who have take on senior roles have also taken a fair amount of personal flak. If Northern Ireland drifts behind other parts of the UK and Ireland, there may be some perfectly sound historical reasons for it:

For years, many in unionist and nationalist political life slept with guns by their bedsides. That danger, plus the harsh exchanges in what few political forums existed, made politics deeply unattractive to many men and even more women. Among devolution’s benefits should be encouragement to women to move into politics.

Who knows – there might even be a female High Court judge some day.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty