Women’s contribution to public life has been in the spotlight this month; first with the announcement that a bronze casting of suffragist Millicent Fawcett is to become the first statue of a woman to be built at Westminster’s Parliament Square; and, secondly, with the airing of the BBC NI documentary Peacemakers: Wave Goodbye To Dinosaurs.
The film charted the birth of the cross-community Women’s Coalition party which in 1996, having received 7,731 votes in the Northern Ireland Forum elections, secured two seats at the peace talks table. Director Eimhear O’Neill described them as brave women who spoke out.
University lecturer Monica McWilliams, who was elected along with community worker Pearl Sagar, in a recent Belfast Telegraph article recalled the hostility of some male politicians to the party. When taking their seats they were told ‘go home and breed for Ulster’; they were mooed and booed at when they stood up to speak.
Today’s political landscape is much different. Since 1998 Northern Ireland has seen five female party leaders: Arlene Foster (DUP), Michelle O’Neill (Sinn Féin), Naomi Long (Alliance), Margaret Ritchie (SDLP) and Dawn Purvis (PUP). Currently, 3 of our 5 main parties are led by women. Should the DUP and Sinn Féin reach a deal to resurrect the Executive we can expect to see the roles of First Minister and deputy First Minister both held by women for the first time.
Yet how well are we really doing when it comes to encouraging women’s participation and election to public office? The Northern Ireland Assembly’s Research Matters blog The representation of women in public life: where does Northern Ireland stand (now)? (published 8 March 2017) makes for interesting reading.
In March’s snap Assembly election, 27 of the 90 seats went to women (30%). The Scottish Parliament’s tally stands at 35%; the Welsh Assembly’s at 42%. In the short-lived May 2016 – January 2017 Northern Ireland Executive 4 of the 10 ministers, and 1 of the 2 junior ministers, were women. At May’s UK general election 4 of 18 MPs elected were women.
Recently on Northern Slant we’ve asked why don’t we build more statues of our politicians, and whether the gender gap in Northern Irish politics is closing. We’ve also been analysing the most recent LucidTalk opinion polls, which suggest that the majority of voters here want to see the Executive up and running.
This month we’ve rightly celebrated the role women played in bringing gender equality to the ballot box, and more locally in bringing peace to our streets. Will the women leading the ‘big two’ parties bring about the restoration of Stormont any time soon?
Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill (left) and the DUP’s Arlene Foster (right).
Professor Monica McWilliams.
Much has been written on the history and successes of the Women’s Coalition.
Naomi Long was elected Alliance Party leader in 2016.
Margaret Ritchie led the SDLP between 2010 and 2011.
Dawn Purvis served as leader of the PUP between 2007 and 2010.
Also published on Medium.