Women in Politics in Northern Ireland

The issue of women in politics, or lack of them to be more accurate has been an issue pondered by academics, pressure groups and political parties alike for years.

In September 2013, Michael Potter prepared a research paper on this topic for the Northern Ireland Assembly and his findings make for sobering reading as he states;

The Northern Ireland Assembly currently has 21 female Members out of a total of 108 (19.4%), although 20 women were elected in 2011, the net increase being due to one more female than male co-option by parties replacing Members since the election. 38 female and 180 male candidates stood in the 2011 election (17.4%). No female candidates stood in Newry and Armagh. Historically, there have been 47 female MLAs (of 218 total, 21.6%) since the current institutions were established in 19984. No women have been returned in East or North Antrim since 1998.

We rank well below our Scottish, Welsh and Westminster counterparts for bringing women into the Assembly.

Likewise, we appoint very few women into positions of power when they make it to the assembly. Since 1998, just 9 women have been appointed to the Executive; 5 of these are from Sinn Fein  (This rises to 6 if you include Jnr Ministers) while 3 have come from the SDLP, 1 from the DUP and the UUP have the record of appointing 7 men and no women.

In fairness, the UUP have had a pretty poor record in their previous tenure from 1921-72 as they appointed just one female minister, Dame Dehra Parker, compared to the more than 40 men that sat around the cabinet table during that 50 year period. It was not uncommon for all male cabinets to exist in those days, but the party today does not seem to be doing much to rectify this problem.

The fact that Northern Ireland can say just 10 women in our 90 year history have exercised full ministerial power is not something for us to boast about.

So, why do I bring this up now? Well, during my visits around the party conferences and actually going out and meeting many of the female candidates that are standing, what you see are incredibly serious, determined and capable people. They exist across parties and many of them will be serious contenders for the assembly if not in 2016, perhaps the election after. I cannot help think that as a society we have seriously missed out by persisting with an environment that has allowed so many women to opt out of our process.

How we solve this problem? I am sure many people have their own views about possibility changing the electoral system, gender quotas and other measures like childcare etc, but we do need to continue the debate.

David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs