Opinion: Can Arlene Foster save Ulster from misogyny?

North has lowest rate of female participation in parliament in UK and Ireland

‘The DUP’s opposition to gender quotas makes Foster’s rise more intriguing.’ Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty

‘The DUP’s opposition to gender quotas makes Foster’s rise more intriguing.’ Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty

 

Arlene Foster has been appointed Northern Ireland’s first female First Minister. Foster is also the first female to lead the Democratic Unionist Party, a traditionally male-dominated party. Is this a sign that gender equality is improving in political life in the North?

Northern Ireland is out of step with its UK counterparts: in terms of devolved assemblies, it lags significantly in terms of elected representatives. While the Scottish Parliament has an average of 37per cent of female elected representatives and the National Assembly for Wales has 45 per cent, Northern Ireland, lags considerably at just 17per cent.

Across the UK, over the past 15 years, in successive local, national and European elections, Northern Ireland has been beaten hands-down in the push for gender diversity among elected representatives. The problem is more acute within unionist parties. In the Northern Ireland Assembly, Sinn Féin has 28 per cent of seats held by women, the DUP 15.7 per cent and the Ulster Unionist Party only 13 per cent.

In Foster’s party, gender quotas remain largely unpopular. Drawing on the results of the DUP membership survey carried out in 2014, the DUP relies on candidacy through meritocracy. Yet, as a male-dominated party, incumbency often curbs the space for women to contest seats. The DUP’s steadfast opposition to gender quotas makes Foster’s rise through the party ranks all the more intriguing.

Reluctance within the DUP to utilise positive discrimination stems directly from the legacy of policing reform that mandated positive discrimination. For the grassroots member, gender quotas are considered as tokenism and undemocratic. Therefore, a gentler or informal mechanism to redress the gender imbalance within the DUP may well be more likely for the lead party of government.

Within and beyond unionism, Northern Ireland has a problem electing women at the national and devolved levels of politics. It is a place apart, with the lowest female representation of all the comparable devolved institutions in the UK. Since the 1998 Belfast Agreement, political life has been focused on addressing the legacies of 40 years of violence and the dominance of partisan politics has marginalised alternative societal cleavages, such as class, race and gender. The lack of women in political life in the North is also a hangover from the Troubles, where the masculine nature of politics, paramilitarism and public life dominated.

Supportive

Public opinion is largely supportive of more women in politics. The Northern Ireland General Election Survey 2015 confirms that it is not the voting public keeping Northern Ireland out of step, but rather the political parties. The survey found that 64.5 per cent strongly agreed or agreed that there ought to be more women MPs and MLAs. If there is support for more women in politics, the barrier lies with the parties specifically in relation to the candidates they are selecting. The outlook following the Northern Ireland general election in 2015 is bleak: only half of the parties seeking election had more than 30 per cent of female candidates and women won only two of 18 seats.

Why are more women not being elected in Northern Ireland? Is it that there are not enough female candidates to vote for? Is it the case that voters would simply prefer to vote for a male candidate? Or are parties just not selecting enough female candidates?

This year brings fresh elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly and marks a pivotal moment in thinking through the steps that can be taken to improve female representation. With the introduction of quotas to increase the number of female candidates going forward for elections in the Republic of Ireland, is it time for Northern Ireland to follow suit?

One key initiative has offered potential for change. Northern Ireland’s political parties have agreed a Gender Equality Strategy 2006-2016, which seeks to identify the causes of gender inequality and tackle the structural inequalities that can perpetuate them. But despite this strategy, gender equality in Northern Ireland remains elusive and casts doubt on the commitment of the political parties to solve the issue of female under-representation.

Lesson

The parties themselves can take one lesson from recent election trends: female candidates do not lose parties votes in Northern Ireland, and that holds true within unionism as well as nationalism. In fact, in the 2011 Northern Irish Assembly election, it was statistically advantageous to be a female candidate. Which leads to the crucial question: why are parties not standing more women?

Ahead of the summer elections it is important to recall that in the last Assembly election none of the four largest parties would have reached the 30 per cent gender quota for candidate selection that has been implemented in the Republic. Research suggests that lack of gender diversity in Northern Ireland is not a result of structural factors, such as the voting system, but stems from the attitudes within the parties themselves.

Through their role as gatekeepers, political parties determine not only the volume of candidates but also the identity of those standing for election. Thus, within the Northern Irish Assembly, the issue is largely one of party candidate supply rather than systemic inadequacies.

Gender parity in elected political life in Northern Ireland is not something that can wait for generational change.

Dr Máire Braniff lectures in sociology at Ulster University and Dr Sophie Whiting is a lecturer in politics at the University of Bath

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