Women of Northern Ireland- we need our own political party

The so called ‘trickle down’ effect is one of the most hallowed ideas projected onto social justice issues. But it’s also one of the most flawed. 

 

Women in Northern Ireland have been told for years to bide our time and wait for gender equality to trickle down. Female representation at Stormont and Westminster has been dire for decades, but, so goes the myth, there’s nothing we can do about it except sit and wait for the tide to turn naturally. 

 

Yet, here we are in 2015 little better off than our mothers and grandmothers. 

 

The list of politicians battling it out for the Northern Irish seats in the Westminster election were revealed yesterday. The DUP isn’t running a single female candidate, it is fielding 16 men for 16 seats. In total, across all parties just 24.6% of the Northern Irish candidates are female.

 

At the last election, when Naomi Long sensationally swept to victory at Peter Robinson’s expense in South Belfast, we had the biggest ever number of female Northern Irish MPs- 22%. An improvement, but hardly a revolution.

 

 

Yet, this year, it looks like we could actually see a reduction in the already meek female representation. Naomi Long’s East Belfast seat is facing serious challenge from the unionist unity candidate and Michelle Gildernew’s Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat hangs by a knife edge. 

 

The combination of reigning female MPs facing serious challenges to their seats, mixed with the paltry offering of female candidates in other seats, means that we’re facing the very real possibility that we’ll see even fewer Northern Irish women in the House of Commons come May.

 

The trickle down effect for female representation in Northern Ireland’s political landscape has dried up to a paltry dribble. And it’s not enough.

 

 

Nowhere near enough is being done to increase women’s participation in political life in Northern Ireland. The DUP’s decision to not run any female candidates in the election is a two fingered salute to its electorate. 

 

The other parties’ paltry 24% amounts to nothing more than an indifferent  shrug in female voters’ directions. 

So, my challenge to women in Northern Ireland is this- isn’t it time we set up our own women’s political party?

 

Some of you might remember the Northern Ireland’s Women Coalition of the nineties. It was a passionate, but short lived experiment which saw the party elect two MLAs to the fledgling Northern Ireland Assembly of 1998. 

 

Whilst it garnered some interest at the time, it was generally agreed that Northern Irish politics had bigger fish to fry in 1998, and was soon left by the wayside as the peace process was forged.

 

That was 17 years ago, and Northern Irish women are still side-lined by the male, middle aged behemoths at Stormont and Westminster.

 

Given the recent re-emergence of main stream feminism around the world, and ongoing local debates about abortion rights and legislation of prostitution in Northern Ireland, now could be the perfect time for a revival of a party like the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition.

Women in Northern Ireland have been politely waiting for the main parties to start taking us seriously for far too long. Yesterday’s release of the election candidates shows that progress is stalling. Perhaps it’s time for Northern Irish women to take matters into their own hands and demand equal representation in parliament rather than accept our local parties’ paltry offerings.

 

 

Siobhan Fenton is an election reporter at The Independent.

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  • Ernekid

    Yvonne Galligan at QUB has written extensively about female involvement in politics. She suggests that the biggest barrier to women in politics is at the party nomination stage. It’s a problem with the parties here. The death of the women’s coalition proved that any party based around gender or feminism doesn’t have any legs. It’s up to the parties themselves to change and I doubt they can.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    I thought this nonsense was put to bed when the Women’s Coalition crashed and burned.

    We can’t keep starting political parties that have only one single policy focus. People who want to change politics here should bite their lip, bury their ego, and join one of the existing parties (there are many) and work to change it from within.

  • Rónán Ó’Cinnéide

    I’m doing my PhD on this very subject. The fact is that the type of power-sharing that exists in NI massively disincentives groups who try and engage politically around so called ‘other’ political ideologies. The GFA and Stormont are legacies of institutionally privileging ethno-national identity at the expense of everything else. Its a cop-out to say that ‘a gender based political party wouldn’t survive’, thats only because the entire political system is designed to only be inclusive of Orange and Green. That may have been necessary in 1998 but 16 years on I think it might be time for a change. Parties of the centre like the Greens and Alliance are unfairly written off as middle-class wasters.

    I would also say that while getting more women involved in ‘ capital P politics’ is important, its the right answer to the wrong question. I think something like the Civic Forum would be useful in the short term to bring in other perspectives that the electoral/political system freezes out. There is a commitment to this in the Stormont House Agreement, but the established parties don’t like people challenging the ethnic hegemony of their current system.

  • Rónán Ó’Cinnéide

    The entire NI political system is effectively built around single issue parties. It just so happens that this single issue consumes the whole system.

  • Granni Trixie

    Although a feminist, I would not dream of leaving Alliance to join a new women’s party. The WC did make a difference (I believe though many are dismissive of their impact). Getting involved in mainstream politics is where it’s at.

    I also don’t agree that Naomi’s win in EB was not,in its own way, a revolution.

  • barnshee

    Do women not have the vote?

    Find an existing political party whose policies you support
    Join the party you support
    Go to party meetings
    Network-Put in the ( believe me) dreary hours of party support
    Help select candidates

    Unless I am mistaken a womans vote = mans vote
    get off your posteriors and engage

  • barnshee

    The “single issue” IS the system
    Take it away and the house of cards falls

    It also depends on electorate ignorance, disinterest or studied avoidance of the facts. This allows SF in particular to carefully ignore the detail that NI floats on obscene amount of subsidy from the UK government– whilst screaming foul when this is marginally cut. This subsidy also provides a comfortable funding for the politicos and their hangers on– another uncomfortable truth carefully skirted.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    The political system reflects the will of the electorate, not the other way around.

    I agree with you that the designations are stupid and do more harm than good. But the designations would be abandoned in a flash if “other” parties became stronger. Getting this message across to the electorate is extremely difficult as the entrenched fear of the “other” lot “getting in” or somehow being perceived to be victorious still overrides all other concerns.

  • Jag

    Bring back Iris Robinson now! And is there nothing to be said for Ruth Patterson? And what about Roberta whats-her-name who thinks it’s acceptable in 2015 to express her feelings about “taigs” on Twitter? Can’t recall the Mini-me Jimbo who has a similar reputation for cave(wo)man hostility towards themmuns, but she is a woman.

    Face it Siobhan, we just need better politicians regardless of gender, and there’s plenty of evidence that the female of the species is just as thick as the male.

  • Turgon

    At one level I feel a bit guilty commenting on this thread because I am a man and despite this handicap I feel that Ms. Fenton is talking some sense …up to a point.

    There are too few women in Northern Ireland politics. However, her solution to a political system with parties which prioritise one issue (the constitutional position) over all others is…er to have a party which prioritises one issue over all others: just a different one.

    Furthermore as Jag has pointed out many women in Ni politics have been at least as partisanly vocal as their male counterparts.

    The counter to that is that the one politician who seems to transcend the current political system is a woman. Not Naomi Long who (along with Alliance as a whole) sits in the middle of the system rather than being separate to it. Clearly it matters in North Down only less so.

    Rather the closest to transcending the current system is Lady Sylvia Hermon who is now an independent and does not identify excessively with either the constitutional issue (though she is a unionist) or at all with the gender issue (though clearly a woman).

    Lady Hermon’s success is centrally, however, to do with the fact that North Down is the least classically Northern Ireland constituency in terms of its politics. For the rest of the province the constitutional issue is the most politically important.

  • Ernekid

    ‘Parties of the centre like the Greens and Alliance are unfairly written off as middle-class wasters’

    That’s because they are. They’ve totally failed to get support from working class communities and from rural areas outside of the greater Belfast region. There’s this idea of a mythical non sectarian centreground in Northern Irish politics that certain people say is growing but at election after election it fails to materialise. The people of Northern Ireland have voted primarily regarding their stance on the constitutional issue since before the state of Northern Ireland has existed. It’s not going to change anytime soon.

  • Korhomme

    I read something similar recently in the press. It’s the local constituency party that chooses the candidate, that is it’s the activists who decide. As a reaction to this, there are ‘all female’ lists drawn up by party HQ. Whether this is democracy isn’t clear to me.

  • Barbara Hart

    Read your history, the NIWC was a successful party for 10 years and achieved impressive results. They significantly improved the quality of the talks, the terms of the agreement, and the campaign for a Yes vote.

    The current parties aren’t taking women’s participation seriously. The systematic gender exclusion will not change unless they all make change a priority. Until then…we all lose out and get to suffer the ignorance of an all-male Justice Committee.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    I think it might change if people start to see that voting this way has consequences.

    It certainly won’t change by people starting all-women parties, or trying to change the way the voting system works. Indeed such things delay progress rather than stimulating it.

  • barnshee

    “It’s the local constituency party that chooses the candidate, that is it’s the activists who decide. As a reaction to this, there are ‘all female’ lists drawn up by party HQ. Whether this is democracy isn’t clear to me”.

    This is how all politics works .Parties get funded by “supporters” They have members- they select candidates (SF has been particularly good at the funding -tapping the Oirish in the USA not to mention the UK taxpayer)

    Join a party be an activist choose / be the candidate
    Democracy- Shamocracy

  • Catcher in the Rye

    A party which cannot turn short term successes into a long term and sustained presence is a failure by definition.

    Isn’t it also a kind of a failure that here we are, ten odd years after the Women’s Coalition, and the role of women in politics has apparently not advanced at all ?

  • Abucs

    “Gender Equality” is about as stupid and divisive as “Height Equality”, “Hair Colour Equality” and “Smokers Equality”. The electorate vote for people not Socially Engineered Progressively approved categories of political correctness.

    It is interesting that nowhere in this article is it mentioned what this mandated forced system of categorical voting hopes to achieve for Northern Ireland. Just that we have to have it because it fits the Progressive mentality of misdirected equality. Typical.

  • Dan

    so, Fenton would prefer the re-election of an MP who didn’t turn up to do her job for five years over one who would, for one reason and one reason only, and that reason being that she is female….and that’s it?
    How mind numbingly pathetic.

  • Abucs

    According to the last census about 60% of the United Kingdom population are Christians. Could we please mandate that whoever comes to power a clear majority of them have to be self-identified Christians?

    Or doesn’t our academically induced manufactured morality allow us to ‘demand’ such ‘equality?’

  • Robin Keogh

    In next years elections in the South for the first time all parties will have to have at least 30% female candidates, i think this is a great idea as if forces all parties to do whats necessarry to encourage women to step forward and get involved. The quota means that all political parties will have to adapt their culture of operations in a way that makes it easier for women to engage. I am quite proud that SF have been ahead of the possy on this front for some time now.

  • Pete

    Sounds very sexist to me.

  • Robin Keogh

    Deep

  • Dexter

    “Women in Northern Ireland have been politely waiting for the main parties to start taking us seriously for far too long”

    I thought that as many, if not more, women vote in our elections than men.

    If I’m wrong, there’s not much in it.

    That being the case, it seems that women vote, by and large, for the same ‘old, male’ parties as men do. Women vote for DUP, SF, SDLP, OUP in the same way (tribally) as male voters.

    I don’t see evidence of female voters here doing anything to justify a theory that they are awaiting a new political force.

  • Deke Thornton

    Can anyone name an agnostic or atheist MP in Northern Ireland? All leaders of the mainland parties are such. Christianity (and religion in general) are Patriarchal. Start with the obvious.

  • Deke Thornton

    Margaret Thatcher.

  • JoeHassit

    Yeah. Dead on.

  • ElephantPark

    There’s this idea of a mythical non sectarian centreground in Northern Irish politics that certain people say is growing but at election after election it fails to materialise

    Its growing alright, that’s why turnout is diminishing.

  • Billy The Mountain

    a women only party….what could possibly go wrong. Jee…suss

  • tmitch57

    Actually the designations were put in place not based on voter preference but in order to entice those politicians who supported non-state violence to give it up.

  • tmitch57

    Their “impressive results” were obtained thanks to the topped-up franchise used in the 1996 election and not repeated since.

  • Zeno

    ” I am quite proud that SF have been ahead of the possy on this front for some time now.”

    Are you proud of them signing up to borrowing £700 million from their Masters to put 20,000 Irishmen out of work and losing twenty thousand jobs in Northern Ireland?

  • “So, my challenge to women in Northern Ireland is this- isn’t it time we set up our own women’s political party?”

    Go ahead. See what support you get without a wider policy platform than a single gender focus. [But I’m a woman! – Ed] Indeed.

    What’s that? All women think the same?

    [That’s a very sexist attitude to take. – Ed] But no more so than all Catholics think the same…

    “Some of you might remember the Northern Ireland’s Women Coalition of the nineties.”

    I do. And I remember what happened to them.

    It wasn’t so much the “bigger fish to fry”, than the lack of relevance of the Women’s Coalition to any actual policy debate – beyond their single unifying platform.
    [The people have spoken. – Ed] The bastards.

    “Given the recent re-emergence of main stream feminism around the world, and ongoing local debates about abortion rights and legislation of prostitution in Northern Ireland, now could be the perfect time for a revival of a party like the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition.”
    Or not.

  • Croiteir

    what a coincidence – a call to the sisterhood just when Dawn Purvis does a runner from the Marie Stopes job.

  • Mister_Joe

    I think that this is a really stupid idea. The only realistic method of initiating change is to join (infiltrate?) the existing major parties and force change from within. But good luck with that for the foreseeable future. It might be possible in the longer term – couple of election cycles at least. Slow and easy can work..

  • murdockp

    The wrong answer to a very valid question and real issue. A women’s only party is too narrow. It may get a few seats in the PR system but ultimately will fail in first past the post election. A modern political party with stong female participation and representation is required. The SNP is a good model to aspire to.

  • murdockp

    But the choice of green v alliance is like being asked if you would rather be punched in the head or kicked in the balls. They are no choice at all.

  • Ernekid

    low turnout doesn’t necessarily mean a growing centre ground.

  • Ian James Parsley

    Siobhan

    I sympathise absolutely with the objective – but disagree entirely with the tactic!!

    Absolutely on the contrary, when it comes to feminism, I believe women need to stop exclusively talking to other women!

    If anything, it is men’s attitudes which need to change most when it comes to gender issues; but also it is in all our interests to live in a fundamentally fair society. So the feminist cause must involve them!

    That is to leave quite aside that I’ve never understood why anyone would set up yet another political party which deliberately excludes half the population. To win elections here at any level on any basis other than flag waving, you have to appeal a lot more broadly than that!

  • NIWC was more an NGO party to bolster the peace process; former leader Monica McWilliams doesn’t have any issue with this. It was obvious to all post-1998 Assembly elections that it didn’t know how to function as an ordinary political party (e.g. re-designation debacle). Once McWilliams left there was no one to sustain this non-party.

    As for any new gender-exclusive party, why stop there? Why not race-exclusive and sexual orientation exclusive parties? (Sarcasm.) I pursue my equality differently.

  • Barneyt

    Yes there is under representation, but setting up a what I believe will be a womens party for women? A man can champion feminist causes and feminism is not owned solely by the feminine.

    Such a party would attract the radicalised women and its simple not the way to change politics and how women are treated and represented.

    Clearly a man cannot understand all issues that affect women, but we need “people” in positions, people that can represent everyone and exhibit sufficient empathy to serve their opposite sex.

    I know many men who find it horrendous that another human being can force a pregnant girlwoman to go to term. Its worth remembering that there are many women who would support such a pro-life position. Being a woman does not automatically give you the skills to represent women.

    The answer to this is to generate more interest in politics at the ground level…starting in communities, in schools.

    The type of party you may be advocating here presents danger rather than opportunity. They run the risk of becoming a single issue party or at least restricted by a narrow aim.

    I know you are asking for fairness and equality, but this is not the way to achieve it. We need an Equality Party with core womens issues in its manifesto…along with other important matters. A womans only party paves the way for other very selective parties, which is dangerous

  • Barneyt

    Hi Siobhan, there is a lot of feedback here…much of it taking the view that women need a voice, but do not need to take a separatist or alienating, perhaps even sexist approach to do so. Women need to infiltrate and break down the existing barriers, which is another general response I see here.

    It would be great to hear from you on any of these points below.

  • Sharpie

    yes it does exactly that

  • Granni Trixie

    Deke

    The interesting angle you raise is not one I have previously considered. First thoughts are that you are correct. I do suggest however that as well as believers and agnostics/atheist you have to factor in people like myself who believe in God but who are not church goers – this is significant as a distinction because it means that if you don’t practice your religion you are not in the cultural pool of those who do. In recent times on moral-political debates I have been surprised when many fellow members in Alliance turn out to be church goers. It’s all part of the mix to be managed.

    Meanwhile I will think further on the point you raise.