Andrée Murphy is a Columnist with the Andersonstown News
Sitting in my living room on Thursday night seeing three women leaders of the local parties and two male leaders on the two fringes made me chuckle.
I tweeted it was hard to believe that it was Michelle O’Neill’s first time in the spot as leader, such was her composure and capability. But then I also realised that it was also Naomi Long’s first time in that position too. I suppose Naomi has long been in a leadership role and has had that type of media profile for so long she really did look at home. I ended up taking her for granted. I hope she isn’t insulted by that. Arlene is only a year into the job but she was the old hand by the standards of these times of change. To say she looked a tad drained by it all would hardly be unfair.
What are the differences having three women at the centre makes?
In terms of the substance of the debate on Thursday, it was very much business as you would expect. Issues of RHI, public confidence in government, Brexit and political donations, along with who will work with who, under what circumstances. All the gravitas and expertise you would expect was there. Colum Eastwood and Mike Nesbitt were completely at the races and everyone gave as good as they got. Although for me it was a little more respectful and less of the shouting over each other that has happened in recent years.
But, given that the substance and style of the debate was pretty familiar, here I am wondering does having three women leaders give us a different form of politics?
In an election framed by the word equality, this must be viewed as a physical manifestation of a growth in equality in our body politic. Young women can now look at political leadership and see the potential opportunities rather than the physical barriers. That is huge. They see confident women of various backgrounds and politics having a real voice and making a real impact. No longer window dressing for the photo opportunities, but going toe to toe with male counterparts and each other.
After the election the talks to form a government will be really interesting on a whole lot of levels. But will we see a new approach re ensuring women’s equality on a practical level?
Will discussions on legacy include a specific reference to the experience of women harmed by conflict? A matter disgracefully ignored until now. Sinn Fein’s election manifesto explicitly says they will raise it. The civic society intervention on gender principles to deal with the past could surely assist.
Could a new programme for government include specific mention of the potential devastating impact of Brexit on women? There will be particular economic and social impacts on women that must be planned for and addressed. Unless highlighted they simply will go under the radar. Could there be a taskforce specifically established to ensure that women will not be disproportionately affected by Brexit in the way they have been with welfare cuts?
Overall if we are to ensure real gender equality it nearly always comes down to asking the extra question. Do we need to apply a gender lens to this? Do we need to work harder to ensure equal representation? And maybe that is the biggest difference having women at the top can make. Everyday questions to make every day life better. Sure isn’t that what politics is about?