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Women in Positions of Power in Northen Ireland

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Published: Wed, 28 Feb 2018

Few women have made an impact on politics in Northern Ireland. The political culture and traditions of Northern Ireland politics are very much male-oriented and whilst women have worked hard for change behind the scenes for many years, few have taken the step into standing as candidates in elections, less still successfully winning elections.

Following the Belfast Agreement, things may, slowly, be beginning to change. Mo Mowlam writes enthusiastically of the part that women played in the talks leading up to the Agreement: “one of the most remarkable aspects of the talks process was seeing women, not only in the Women’s Coalition, but also in other parties, sitting alongside their male colleagues and arguing their points. They brought a new quality of debate to the proceeding” (Galligan, Ward & Wilford 1999).Nonetheless, despite the election of three women MPs in the first general election (2001) after the Belfast Agreement, women remain massively under-represented in politics in Northern Ireland. This dissertation examines the reasons for this.

Chapter two looks at the traditional role of women in politics, both in Northern Ireland and in other parts of the world. Election in the UK and policies towards women of other British parties are examined. The chapter also looks at women’s movements abroad, in the likes of South Africa and Nicaragua and analyses how they have affected the political landscape in their own countries. Chapter three takes a general overview of women in Northern Ireland, commenting on how they have reacted to the traditional view and values of the Church and the State in the province. The formation of the earlier Women’s movements is detailed here – although these groups have remained on the borders on mainstream politics, the fact that women have for decades joined together on particular issues is important in the context of women’s involvement in politics. The difficulties face by women in what is a conservative, traditional and often sexist culture is also discussed.

Chapter four looks at the attitudes towards women in politics held by voters in Northern Ireland and analyses whether the small number of women involved is determined by supply or demand factors. Using data from the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, this chapter argues that there is no lack of demand for women to be involved in politics amongst the electorate, rather that a number of factors around the inclination of women to enter into politics and the traditional views that still hold sway in Northern Ireland, are influential. This chapter also makes use of research undertaken in interviewing a number of women councillors in Northern Ireland about their perceptions on why many women avoid political life. Various reason for women to remain outside of representative politics are given – again he traditional culture of Northern Ireland and perceptions about a woman’s role are seen as important,

Chapter five examines in details the attitudes and policies of the main political parties in Northern Ireland towards women’s issues and the role of women within the political parties themselves. Parties in Northern Ireland have traditionally focused primarily on constitutional and security issues to the detriment of women’s issues. Party leadership in parties across the political spectrum have been male dominated. This chapter looks at each of the main parties, examining firstly how party structures and leaderships accommodate female members and secondly how party policy makers address (or fail to address)women’s issues. Chapter six provides a conclusion to the dissertation.

The situation in Northern Ireland where women have traditionally had difficulties establishing themselves within the formal political process has been mirrored, if perhaps not to such an extent, in other Western democracies. Evidence from UK elections indicates a historical prejudice against women candidates, whilst elsewhere in Europe and across the world, there are examples of women having to draw together on their identity as women to challenge their exclusion from politics.

Analysis of general elections in Britain indicates that many fewer women than men are selected as prospective parliamentary candidates and those that are usually chosen for less hopeful seats (Leonard and Mortimore 2001, p97). However, the number of has candidates has grown reasonably steadily since 1996, with parties gradually accepting the need to take steps to increase the number of women selected. The Conservative in particular have found this difficult, largely due to the reluctance of the party leadership to interfere with the autonomy and conservative nature of many of its local associations. The Labour Party has had more success. Its party conference took the decision in1993 to try to increase its number of women MPs by introducing policies of positive discrimination. The introduction of all-women shortlist and quotas proved controversial, with the process being deemed illegal by an industrial tribunal in 1996, yet the drive by Labour to increase women’s representation paid dividends – with the party’s victory in the1997 election, the number of women in the house of Commons doubled to120 (Leonard and Mortimore 2001, p97).

Elections for regional assemblies in Scotland and Wales have seen an increase in the number of women winning seats. The systems of proportional representation used in these elections has allowed Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the nationalist policies to ensure that candidates on lists were alternately male and female. As a result over38 per cent of representatives at Holyrood and 40 per cent at Cardiff Bay have been women (Leonard and Mortimore 2001, p98).

Elsewhere, women have made direct interventions within their political systems to ensure that they are represented within the political process. In Spain, the Women’s Democratic Movement (WDM) began as an opposition group to the Franco regime and went onto lobby for women’s interests during the country’s democratic transition. It successfully pressured the government into ratifying the Convention for Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In Iceland the Icelandic Women’s Alliance (IWA) emerged in the 1980s as a group powerful to win 11.1% of a national poll (Fearon 1999 appendix 1). In Sweden, the issue of women’s participation in politics directly compelled women to join together on a cross-party basis in the prelude to the 1994 elections. As a result, Sweden then elected what Faluditerms “the most female government in the world – a parliament that was41% female with a cabinet that was 50% female. (Fearon 1999, appendix1).

More relevant to the issues around women’s political involvement in Northern Ireland are the examples of South Africa and Nicaragua, where women have acted together to challenge male-dominated political times when their countries have been undergoing periods of transition. In Nicaragua, women achieved political gains during the revolutionary period but, perceiving that these gains were not being fully transferred to the new society after a transitional period, women joined together to form the Nicaraguan National Coalition of Women(NNCW) in January 1996. Under this cross-party coalition women joined together to educate and themselves and prepared themselves to go backend fight elections within their existing parties in October of that year. The aim was to promote the equitable participation of women in the country’s politics, something that was made difficult, as women within the coalition had historically been political or even military enemies. There were certainly some similarities with Northern Ireland and the group had to strive hard to focus on unity and reaching a consensus. The NNCW was able to agree a minimum agenda emphasising women’s participation in civil and political society.

In South Africa, women had become influenced by the experiences of women’s organisations around the world and the ANC Women’s League(ANCWL) sparked a debate across the country about ‘the necessity of organising as women’ (Fearon 2001 appendix1). In September 1991 thirty women’s organisations came together in the Women’s National Coalition(WNC) to discuss the drawing up of a women’s charter on equality. The charter was eventually produced after a huge participatory exercise that included an estimated 2 million women and was made up of twelve articles, one of which called for “mechanisms to enable women’s participation in civic and political life” (Fearon 2001 appendix 1) The charter was vitally important to the development of women in politics in South Africa as it challenged traditional perceptions and values about the woman’s place in political and civic life. Another success of the WNC was to lobby hard for a ruling passed in 1993 that required all negotiation delegations to reserve space for women.

Prior to the formation of the NIWC, the impact that individuals or groups of women had made on Northern Ireland politics had been relatively minimal. There are however a few examples of women who, although not directly involved as representatives in the political process, made their presence known. In the 1970s, two Belfast women, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan won the Nobel Peace Prize for leading a peace movement that aimed to end the violence by way of ‘people power’. Inspired to action following the death of three children in a car chase involving IRA men, the Peace People as the movement was known called on the people of Northern Ireland to reject terrorism and quickly snowballed into a movement that could attract tens of thousands of people onto the streets in outdoor rallies. The movement eventually failed due to internal divisions within the movement, personality clashes and disputes on how to spend the Nobel Prize money. Whilst still surviving today, the Peace People is now a small-scale movement that failed to deliver on the hopes that it once raised.

Helen McKendry was a brave Belfast woman who campaigned to raise the issue of the so-called ‘disappeared’ victims of the IRA, who had included her own mother Jean McConville, taken from the family home in1972 and never heard of again (Independent, March 2, 2005). Following the IRA ceasefire in 1994, McKendry launched a campaign to have her mother’s body returned and eventually pressured the IRA into giving details about the location of her mother’s body and those of other victims.

May Blood was a woman that played a prominent role in the loyalist community for many years, prior to involvement in the NIWC. She was a determined community activist in the Shankhill Road district, concentrating on issues such as housing, welfare, jobs, training, employment and labour relations. Speaking after she had been made across-bench peer in 2000, Baroness Blood stated: “My life is about serving this community, particularly young people. For years they have just been fodder for the paramilitaries. We want the next generation to be real people with real futures.” (Independent, March 2, 2005). It is worth noting that like May Blood, the trend in Northern Ireland has generally been for women activists to concentrate on community development rather than electoral politics. The situation of women in Northern Ireland is not entirely unique. Whilst the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland affect politics at all levels, the fact remains that women in Northern Ireland share common experiences with women elsewhere in terms of the difficulties that they have making an impact in the political arena. Rightly or wrongly, representative politics around the world remains largely dominated by males, and in this respect women in Northern Ireland face the same challenges as women elsewhere.

Analysis of the women’s movement in Northern Ireland or attempters tointegrate women more fully into the political process must understandsome of the cultural traditions and influences that affect women’slives. As Monica McWilliams states: “the role which both the Church andState play shapes not only the more traditional thinking behind some ofthe major institutions, such as the education system or the judiciary,but it also responsible for the extremely conservative ideology forwhich the Province has become infamous” (Hughes 1991, p91). Theattitude of the Church has certainly been that the primary role ofwomen is that of mothers and housewives and this has been somethingthat has held women back from entering into politics. Issues aroundsexuality, the dissolution of marriage or rights in the home or at workhave seen feminists face opposition from clergy, politicians and as aresult, their communities. Again McWilliams summarises the situationstating, “in the face of such traditional Catholicism and Protestantfundamentalism, it has proved extremely difficult for women to organisearound issues which are of personal and political influence to them(Hughes 1991,p81).

Both the Protestant and Catholic Church have maintained a traditionalline on the domestic role of women. They have exhorted mothers to takeresponsibility for their children by looking after them at home andhave largely opposed political initiatives such as the provision of daycare for children as it poses a challenge to the traditional ideologywhich supports the segregated division of labour in the home. The viewof the Church from half a century ago has remained prevalent in modernday Northern Ireland. Bishop McGean had stated in 1945 that “the properplace for the baby is in the home and the proper guardian is themother. Nature decided that and God approved of that decision ofnature” (Hughes 1991, p89).

Women’s groups in Northern Ireland have made gradual progress ininstigating political and social change. They have begun to createstructures that enable individual women to have some measure of controlover their lives. One example is found in the work of an umbrellaorganisation known as ‘The Women’s Information Day’, along withprojects such as Women’s Aid, the Women’s Education Project and theNorthern Ireland Women’s Rights Movement. All of these groups, formedprior to the establishment of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition,were organised in a non-sectarian way, holding meetings in bothloyalist and nationalist areas and raising controversial issues thatwere sensitive to one another’s beliefs. In 1985, whilst campaigning onchanges to the benefit system, a group of Catholic and Protestant womentravelled to London to lobby their MPs to oppose a propose SocialSecurity Bill and were appalled to find that their own politicalrepresentatives were more interested in opposing the Anglo-Irishagreement (which had been launched on the same day) and refused to meetthem on the grounds that they were too busy. McWilliams writes that“they returned home to Belfast on the same night more convinced thanever that their political representatives were much less interested inmatters of social and economic concerns” (Hughes 1991, p92).

One of the most glaring features of life for women in Northern Irelandhas been the hardship of poverty with all its social, financial andpsychological repercussions. Women in Northern Ireland have come at thetop of research tables listing infant mortality rates, unemployment ordependency on social security (Hughes 1991, p92). It is women who haveexperienced poverty as prisoner’s wives, as widows, as single parents,divorced, separated or unmarried, as managers of unemployed families,as single and elderly women living alone, or as low paid wage earners.As a result, women’s groups such as the Northern Ireland Women’s RightsMovement began to offer advice and information to women, producingleaflet to help women in the face of overpowering bureaucracy.McWilliams writes of the pressures upon women in Northern Irelandstating “existing from day to day in the North can often become anintolerable strain for women. Not only must they provide a reasonablestandard of living for their kids, but they have the additional anxietyof worrying about husbands and children when they are out of the home.The years of ‘the troubles’ have added to their pressures and manyrespond y using tranquillisers or smoking excessively” (Hughes 1991,p93).

Women in Northern Ireland have played a leading role in anti-povertycampaigns, a significant political role which tends to be overlooked bymedia, church leaders and politicians. Such groups have remainednon-hierarchical and have refused to let single individuals becomesolely identified with their campaigns. The non-hierarchical structurehas provided the supportive type of environment that women require andeach group has become knowledgeable about the particular issue underscrutiny. Often the women have maintained links after individualcampaigns have been dissolved. Northern Ireland feminists have played apart in various campaigns and community projects over the last fewdecades. Many cut their political teeth in the civil rights movementsof the 1960s and 1970s and had their first dealings with other feministmovements. Female students at Queens University held a public meetingin1975 which formed an action group ‘with the aim of bringing the roleof women in Northern Ireland into line with that of their sisters inBritain’ (Hughes 1991, p93) and went on to form the Northern IrelandWomen’s Rights Movement which successfully campaigned to bring the SexDiscrimination Act to Northern Ireland.

There are of course issues that divide women’s groups in NorthernIreland. Many are related to the national question, which as in allareas of politics in the province, remain difficult to overcome.Whether groups are based on single issues such as Women’s Aid or theRape and Incest Line, or more generic groups such as the Derry, Belfastor Falls Road Women’s Centres, the political affiliations of membersmay be surreptitiously agued in order to clarify the line that theymight take on the national question. The sheer weight of issues aroundthe constitution and security in Northern Ireland make it near onimpossible for the issue to be ignored. Disputes have occurred between,for example, the Relative’s Action Committee and Women AgainstImperialism (which largely supports Sinn Fein) and other women’s groupssuch as the Belfast Women’s Collective and the Northern Ireland Women’sRights Movement. The Belfast Women’s Collective argued that it wasvital to work in as wide a range as possible, including areas which maynot initially meet with a big response because they challengetraditional political and religious beliefs (Hughes 1991, p95). TheRelative’s Action Committee, on the other hand, organising around thewithdrawal of political statues for the H Block prisoners took the viewthat the campaign about prisons should be central.

Regardless of divisions within women’s movements in Northern Ireland,the fact remains that the there is a level of oppression caused by theunique nature of politics in the province. Many women arepsychologically scarred by the deaths of or injury to loved ones. Manyothers are emotionally burnt out by the years of armed troops presenton the streets. Women on both sides of the sectarian divide have seenthe destruction of family life when family members are arrested underthe Prevention of Terrorism Act and possibly held for long periodswithout trial. Women visiting husbands and son in prison have beensubjected to degrading and humiliating strip searches. They live infear for the lives of their children and have had the constant worrythat they will be caught in crossfire, caught up in a riot or killed byan explosion. On top of all of these factors, women have also had totackle continuing economic exploitation and sexual oppression.

Women in Northern Ireland have had to endure an ingrained culture ofconservative sexism that emanates both from the UK and the Republic ofIreland. They have had to fight for equality of opportunity in theworkplace – interestingly, the Equal Opportunities Commission, which isknown to play a more active role in women’s lives than its GBcounterpart, was almost abolished in Northern Ireland (Hughes 1991,p96).

An influential factor in the under representation of women in NorthernIreland politics has been the traditional assumption of gender rolesand values held by many within the province. These powerful politicaland cultural restraints support the theory that the lack of women inpolitics is due to supply rather than demand factors – the electoratehas little problem with female candidates, it is getting women intoposition as candidates for public office that is largely the problem.

There is general support amongst the Northern Ireland public for womento be involved in politics and indeed this support has grown steadilythroughout the 1990s and the development of the Belfast Agreement. Oneof the key questions included in the 2002 Northern Ireland Life andTimes Survey was did respondents think that the greater number of womenin politics since the formation of the Northern Ireland Assembly makethings better or worse in Northern Ireland politics? Whilst 44 per centof respondents remained neutral on the question, 41 per cent thought ithad made things better, with only 14 per cent thinking it had madethings worse (NI Life and Times Survey 2002). Attitudes towards therole of women in politics shifted markedly from the survey completed adecade earlier. In 1991, only one fifth of men felt that at least onehalf of senior government posts should be held by women. By 2002 thisfigure had doubled to 40 per cent, with support from women rising from38 per cent to 50 per cent (Life and Times Survey 2002).

Research carried out in 1993 sought to use the experience of womencouncillors within Northern Ireland to attempt to gauge exactly why sofew women were involved in politics at the time. In 1989, only 60 ofthe 566 district councillors were women, equating to a mere 10.6 percent (Wilford et al 1993, p341). Following changes after direct rulewas introduced in 1972, many functions of local government had beenreplaced by intermediate bodies appointed by the Secretary of State forNorthern Ireland. This situation reduced the tiers of local governmentwith Wilford et al commenting “Thus, aspiring politicians enjoy anextremely limited opportunity to run for elected office” (Wilford et al1993, p343). In addition, council meetings throughout the 1980s wouldoften be used by political parties to argue out their constitutionaldifferences rather than focussing on the relevant issues of localpolitics – the symbolic value of politics in Northern Ireland helps toexplain the paucity of women. Interviews with women councillorsrevealed six main reasons that they believed explained the small numberof women in Northern Ireland politics – psychological, familial,organisational, functional, patriarchal and systematic. All have somerelevance.

Psychological reasons included a simple lack of self-esteem felt bywomen. The vast majority of women councillors had been prompted orasked to stand for election by other members rather than have theconfidence to stand on their own initiative. It seems exceptional forwomen to deem themselves eligible for candidature, yet this is setagainst a backdrop where with relatively few people willing to standfor election in local politics and being successful would be seeminglyunproblematic. One SDLP councillor commented on the issue: “it neveroccurred to me to stand…we (women) had the traditional view that wewere the back up for men: making the tea and the like” (Wilford et al1993 p344).

Familial reasons were most cited reason for non-participation of womenin politics and reaffirm the ideas of traditional cultural valuescontributing to the role of women in Northern Ireland. There is a cleardifferential in the assumed responsibility of men and women for childrearing in Northern Ireland and this impacts strongly on theopportunity for women to enter into public life. At the very least, astrong and supportive partner is needed by women looking to go intopolitics, yet in addition to this it would appear that many women inNorthern Ireland do not simply put family responsibilities firstbecause that is their assumed role – many believe that they actuallyshould put their family first and postpone any political aspirationsuntil their children have reached post-school age. It should also benoted that childcare facilities in Northern Ireland were poor duringthe 1980s and 1990s, a further complication for women that wanted toenter into politics.

Organisational reasons for women councillors are similar reasonscommonly cited by women MPs in the UK Parliament – the unsocial hoursthat politician are required to work. Councillors in Northern Irelandfound that childcare made it difficult for them to attend councilbusiness scheduled during the day. At the time of the survey, Sinn Feinwas the only political party in Northern Ireland that paid thechildcare expenses of its councillors (wilford et al 1993, p344).

Patriarchal reasons for the limited involvement of women in localpolitics in Northern Ireland are based around the attitude of malecouncillors towards their female counterparts. One councillorinterviewed stated: You’re a thorn as a female councillor. Men don’twant you there; they’d prefer it to be all male. They want to be thedominant ones in the council; it’s true everywhere” (Wilford et alp344). Mnay of the women councillors interviewed felt that they werenot taken seriously because of their sex and this was a hugedisincentive to continuing to take an active role in politics. Manyreferred to the cultural belief ingrained in Northern Ireland about awoman’s place and that the arena of politics was very much a mansworld. There is evidence that women were ‘ghettoised’ into certaincommittees that were less important and more focussed on what weredeemed to be women’s issues – home safety committees serve as anexample. Again, the partisanship of politics in Northern Ireland has tobe seen as a factor here – some of the issues likely to be raised bywomen in particular, like pre-school places, education and the NHS,have a tendency to take a back seat to constitutional and securityissues. Finally, under the label of patriarchal concerns were genuineconcerns of sexual harassment within the arena of council politics.Some female councillors reported patronising language as well as outand out harassment.

Systematic and functional reasons for non-participation are also given.The lack of power held by local government in Northern Ireland prior tothe Belfast Agreement has been a disincentive – women are deterred fromsacrificing family life simply due to the fact that there is relativelylittle to do in local politics and little opportunity to instigateeffective change. For the more ambitious women, local government is notseen as a step on the way to better things and many women see the listsof men waiting to become MPs and simply assume that they have littlechance of ever doing so. A final systematic reason for women stayingout of politics is the actual physical risk involved. It is not unheardof for Northern Ireland councillors to be targeted or even murdered byparamilitaries.

Much of the research carried out with female councillors supports thetheory that it is indeed supply rather than demand that limits thenumber of women involved in politics in Northern Ireland. With onlythree women MPs being elected between 1972 and 1990 (Wilford et al1993, p345) there is clearly a problem in attracting candidates.

In looking at the demand for women in politics, whilst there isevidence that the public has a growing desire to see women involved inpolitics, it is also important to examine the reasons that people inNorthern Ireland think that there are relatively few women involved.The 2002 Life and Times Survey asked for explanations as to why thereare so few women in politics:

What is noticeable from this research is that the main factors appearto be based on a conscious choice made by women rather thandiscrimination against them. Women not putting themselves forward ascandidates and putting their families before their political aspirationappear to be more decisive factors than a view that women do not havethe interest in or capability to succeed in politics. Certainly thisattitude has hardened during he 1990s. Whilst in the 1991 survey womensaw the reason for a lack of women as a mixture of barriers andinclination, by 2002 the most important reasons are clearly women’s owninclinations and choices. Another important perception is that aroundwhether or not people assume that women candidates lose votes – in boththe 1991 and 2002 surveys, only around one third of respondents thoughtthat this was the case.

One of the obvious solutions to the fact that there are proportionatelyfew women involved inpolitics in Northern Ireland would be theintroduction of positive discrimination policies by the major parties.Howver, whilst there appears to be a view that women involve themselvesin the political process and be encouraged to do so, there is littleevidence that parties should actually be required to blance theircandidate lists with similar numbers of men and women. When questionedas to whether political parties should be required to put forward aproportion of women candidates, only 19 per cent of respondents agreed– 17 per cent of men and 21 per cent of women (Life and Times Survey2002). The more common view was that political parties should beencouraged to put forward a proportion of women candidates – 55 percent agreed with this (52 per cent of men and 57 per cent of women).The survey also asked whether the parties should put more resourcestowards the campaign of women candidates than men candidates: this metwith a slightly more positive response with 33 per cent of men and 45per cent of women agreeing that more resources should be assigned towomen candidates. A further indicator that there is sufficient demandfor women politicians came from the questions asking respondents tochoose four attributes they would most like to see in Northern Irelandpoliticians and the attributes that they would then use to describeboth male and female politicians.

Clearly, the Northern Ireland see women candidates as most likely tohave the attributes that they see as desirable. Whilst male politiciansare seen largely as aggressive, ruthless and crafty, female politiciansare seen as more likely to be honest, approachable and willing tocompromise.

Attitudes in Northern Ireland towards women politician are generallyfavourable. These attitudes have noticeably become more positive since1991 and voters are now looking to parties to present them with morewomen candidates both in the Northern Ireland Assembly and atWestminster. Whilst barriers to women entering politics remain, theyappear to have been diluted over the last 10-15 years and whilst thereis still some discrimination against women in politics this haslessened. Perhaps most importantly of all in terms of attitudes towardswomen in politics, there appears to be a consensus that the qualitiesthat women bring to political life are closer to the qualitiesidentified in an ‘ideal’ candidate or representative than are of thoseof men in politics.

Other research on specific questions about the role of women inpolitics gives a good insight into the attitudes of the NorthernIreland electorate. Surveys On line asked respondents what proportionof senior government posts should be held by women.

Male Female % % A majority 2 3 About half 18 35 At least some 47 38 Nodefinite proportion 31 21 None 2 2 This would suggest that theelectorate is generally happy to see women holding some of the mostimportant posts in government. Again, this would suggest that there isno problem in terms of demand for women to be involved in politics inNorthern Ireland. Opinions of the general involvement of women onpolitics give a similar picture. Asked about women being elected to anational assembly, respondents felt that there should be:

Again the broad consensus appears to be in favour of women beinginvolved in politics. Research indicates a slight imbalance in thatwomen appear to be more strongly in favour of a greater political role,but men also are broadly in favour of women’s involvement

The attitudes towards


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