The grand marble staircase at Stormont has often been the backdrop to high political drama, from resignations to police raids, but never before has it set the stage for an event quite like Alternative Ms Ulster. Tomorrow night, scores of women from all walks of life will step, sashay or stomp down the stairs – bypassing the life-size bronze statue of Lord Craigavon, the first prime minister of Northern Ireland – and arrive at a podium in the ornate Great Hall. Here, each one will have five minutes to hold the floor, describing what exactly needs to happen for Northern Ireland to become a better place for women to live.
The International Women’s Day event – sponsored by Steven Agnew of the Green Party NI and hosted by writer and comedian Nuala McKeever – is intended to highlight gender imbalance in public life. They have a point: out of the present 108 MLAs at Stormont, fewer than one in five is female, and a recent report by the Commissioner for Public Appointments found that only 33 per cent of public board members are women, down from 35 per cent in 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement – with its famously progressive section 75, intended to promote equality of opportunity – was enshrined into law.
Event organiser and Green Party activist Clare Bailey came up with the idea for Alternative Ms Ulster in response to outrage over the proposed staging of a real beauty pageant, Miss Ulster, at Stormont last year. It was due to be hosted by NI21 leader Basil McCrea, and judged by Dolores Kelly of the SDLP and Jo-Anne Dobson of the Ulster Unionist Party, but was withdrawn when it emerged that the rules for the contest required entrants to be no older than 24, at least 5ft 7in tall and – most controversially of all – no larger than a size 12.
DUP representative Arlene Foster compared it to the Lovely Girls competition from Father Ted , and there were many quips, much of them at McCrea's expense, about lovely bottoms. But for Bailey, the issue was less about the proportions of contestants, more about the bizarre proposal to hold a beauty pageant in Northern Ireland's seat of government. "The media focus on the rules about dress size allowed them off the hook," she says. "For me, the context was the issue, and there wasn't nearly enough critique of that."
Although it promises to be colourful and chaotic, with women kitted out in anything from burkas to onesies to ball-gowns, Bailey wants the night to be more than a knees-up or (in true Stormont style) a talking-shop. “I want to encourage people who have similar ideas to connect with each other,” she says. “Just because we don’t have public power doesn’t make us powerless. There’s a lot of good work going on, but it remains unco-ordinated and untargeted. If we want to get serious about equality, we need robust public policies that everyone can be held accountable to. We already have the studies, the rhetoric, the conversations – now we need action to create change.”
The night will end with Stiff Little Fingers performing Alternative Ulster , the punk band's 1978 howl of defiance against the strictures of life in the North. The lyrics – "is this the kind of place you wanna live? Is this where you wanna be?" – still seem apt. Yet something must have changed, if the gates of Stormont can be thrown open on a Saturday night, for wine, conversation, fun and dancing. Are the politicians feeling threatened? Clare Bailey laughs. There's a glint in her eye. "Not yet," she says.
WOMEN'S DAY DOS : SATURDAY EVENTS
International Women's Day always brings a host of colourful small happenings: At Sligo Wellness Clinic, there will be sound massage treatments offered all day, or a special group sound-meditation bath (no water).
- The Kerry Women Writers' Network celebrates its launch with an evening of prose, poems and dramatic monologue in Tralee.
- Culturlann Uí Chanain, in Derry, promises an encounter with some of the best female musicians on the trad scene.
- In Dublin, the National Women's Council of Ireland is placing a soap box on O'Connell Street, and inviting women to hop up and have their say.
- Also in Dublin, there's a female-friendly computer coding workshop at the GameSpace Incubator.
- At Christ Church Cathedral in Waterford, acclaimed musicians Annette Cleary and Rachel Quinn will be performing music for piano and cello.