Gender Equality in Northern Ireland
Posted by Bronagh Hinds WNC Commissioner for Northern Ireland
Even Northern Ireland’s cynically hardened journalists were surprised to find how moved they were at recent political developments in Northern Ireland. The Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, two apparently implacably opposed opponents described by some as arch enemies, sat together on 26 March to announce they had agreed terms to share government. And just a week later they agreed on how to carve up Ministerial posts. Roll on D-Day - 8 May - when the Assembly and the Executive will really start business.
But what does all this mean for women?
The 2007 Assembly Election did not demonstrate a model of good practice in political leadership in advancing equality for women. Overall, there were three less women candidates this year than in the last election. Disappointingly, the same number of women of MLAs were elected in 2007 as in 2003 – so no advance there. In fact, women did proportionately worse in all political parties, even in the one party in which the number of women MLAs increased. Why? Because when parties increased their votes the extra seats went to men. When parties lost votes women were casualties.
Sinn Fein was better than other parties, increasing its women MLAs to 8 with its 9 women candidates running mainly in winnable seats. While 40% of SDLP candidates were women just 4 were elected – one less than in 2003. The DUP was also one woman down from 2003 with 3 women MLAs, while the Ulster Unionist Party’s sole woman candidate failed to get elected. Alliance retained 2 women MLAs; and Anna Lo is the first MLA from a minority ethnic background and the first Hong Kong Chinese person to be elected to any European parliament.
But electing women is only half the story. The other half is what is the Assembly going to do for women?
Women’s organisations got together before the election to prepare a Women’s Manifesto. It is really time the parties did something for women. Here are some things that women want prioritised:
· Strong Ministerial leadership of a Gender Equality Strategy for Northern Ireland that is properly resourced
· Adequate funding for the infrastructure of women's organizations rather than fostering competition and division
· Consultation with women on all policies and services
· Gender proofing of all public policy
· A programme to end trafficking and violence against women
· Investment in entrepreneurial activity by women
· Support for family planning and education on sexual health for young women
Every party made demands before they would share power, allow others into government, decommission weapons, join policing arrangements or whatever. Yet women are still waiting for ALL parties to make good on these promises to women in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement: ‘the right of women to full and equal political participation’ and ‘the advancement of women in public life’. We know from experiences in legislatures where women form a critical mass – like those in Scotland and Wales – that there are new perspectives, policy priorities change, outreach and involvement are more inclusive and cultures are transformed. There must be more women appointed as Chairs and Members of public bodies; and parties must select equal number of female and male candidates in winnable seats in all future elections starting with the next Council elections.
Bronagh Hinds is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Governance, Queen’s University Belfast with interests in equality, democracy and governance. She previously held posts in the voluntary sector and has been active on gender and other matters at European and international level. As Deputy Chief Commissioner of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland she led the introduction of the statutory duties on equality and good relations. She was a founder of the Women’s Coalition and involved in negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement. She runs DemocraShe to improve women’s access to politics and public life and is a partner in an initiative to advance women in local councils. She is a Member of the Local Government Staff Commission.