Election Essay 4: Women at Stormont

(Written for Stratagem, 03 May 2011)

In the first election to the Northern Ireland House of Commons, in 1921, two women, Dehra Chichester and Julia McMordie, were elected to its 52 seats, both Ulster Unionists. In the course of Stormont’s history, eight more were elected to the lower chamber (six unionists, an independent and a Liberal) and two to the 26-member Senate. There was only one woman member of the Stormont House of Commons when it was prorogued in 1972 (Anne Dickson, later leader of the UPNI).

The record of the institutions elected immediately after the fall of Stormont is not much better. The 1973-74 Assembly had four women members out of 78, Anne Dickson as an independent unionist, Eileen Paisley for the DUP, and Shena Conn and Jean Coulter as unionists; the same four were elected to the 1975 Constitutional Convention. Only three women were elected to the 1982-86 Assembly, all new faces: Dorothy Dunlop and Mary Simpson for the UUP, and Mary McSorley for the SDLP, the first nationalist woman elected at regional level, though she did not take her seat.

Things had changed by 1996. Of the 110 people elected in the Forum/talks election, fifteen were women – five Sinn Féin, three DUP, three SDLP, two from the Women’s Coalition, one Alliance, and only one from the UUP. The electoral system that year was unique, in that voters chose not individual candidates but pre-approved party lists, so the proportions represent more the preferences of the party leaderships than their supporters.

The Assemblies following the Good Friday Agreement have kept to roughly this level. The 1998 Assembly started with thirteen women and ended with fourteen – five from SF; two SDLP, increasing to three when Annie Courtney replaced John Hume; two UUP; two Women’s Coalition; one Alliance; and one DUP. The 2003 Assembly elections saw success for eighteen women: seven from Sinn Féin (one of whom was replaced by a man when she resigned from the Assembly, and another of whom later resigned from SF); five SDLP; two Alliance (one of whom was appointed Speaker in the Assembly’s last few months); two DUP; and two UUP (both of whom subsequently joined the DUP); and the numbers went up to 19 when Dawn Purvis filled the seat of PUP leader David Ervine after his death.

The four closest races in 2007 involved five women candidates, Michelle McIlveen of the DUP winning by 31 votes in Strangford, Mary Bradley of the SDLP edging out her party colleague Helen Quigley by 101 votes in Foyle, Josephine Deehan of the SDLP losing to the DUP by 358 votes in West Tyrone, and Diane Dodds of the DUP losing her seat to SF by 481 votes in West Belfast.

The overall result in 2007 as in 2003 was eighteen women elected – eight from Sinn Féin, four from the SDLP, three from the DUP, two from Alliance and one from the PUP (now sitting as an Independent). Since then the number has dropped to fifteen, thanks to resignations from the SDLP, DUP and Alliance ranks.

From the figures alone, it’s difficult to judge how easy or difficult it is for women to get viable candidacies in political parties. But one set of figures which I will be crunching after this year’s elections is the comparison between the success rates of male and female candidates in each party. In 2007, the differences were striking. Only for Sinn Féin and the PUP were female candidates actually more likely to be elected than men. The most visibly male party was the UUP, with only one female candidate out of 38 (and she lost, and is not standing this year). This time, apart from the minor socialist parties, the UUP still have the least female slate, though their 10.3% now is better than their 2.6% four years ago.

Of the other parties, the DUP are running slightly more women candidates, 16% this year rather than 13% and SF have also increased from 24% to 27.5%. But the other parties have posted decreases, Alliance down from 39% to 32%, the Green Party down from 31% to 16%, the SDLP rather drastically down from 40% to 14%, and the PUP even more dramatically have gone from two women out of three in 2007 to just one, male, candidate this year. I would expect that we will see fewer women elected in 2011 than in 2007. (The most gender-balanced party are the BNP, one of whose three candidates is a woman, putting them therefore technically ahead of Alliance.)

In this election, the most gender-balanced ballot paper will be in South Down, where four candidates out of eleven are women. (There are also four women candidates in East Belfast and Upper Bann, but more men in both cases.) Immediately to the west in Newry and Armagh, however, voters will be faced with an all-male ballot paper.

Will it make a difference to the election results? Not directly. But democracy can only benefit if those elected are a good reflection of the society they have been chosen to represent. The structure of the Assembly has been designed to take into account the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland; the much more fundamental divide of gender is barely addressed. But it is a matter of huge importance for the sort of society we want to be. Two female MEPs out of three do not mean that emancipation has been achieved; still less four Westminster MPs out of 18.

I know, as a former party election organiser (and a former election agent for two women candidates), that improving the gender balance of your party’s representation is not straightforward. Women themselves are often reluctant to put themselves forward as candidates, and the masculine abuse that sometimes passes for political debate is off-putting. But that should not stop any of us from trying to improve the situation.