A woman's place is in politics

 

In many ways, this should be an electric election in the North. What is it, if not the mechanism to put a staggering combination of figureheads into office? Yet the sparks refuse to fly, writes Fionnuala O Connor

Martin McGuinness wears a fleece to meet carefully-selected friendly farmers at a cattle mart, Ian Paisley takes off his black fedora to make pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. Despite the novelty of cyber-launches and blogs, the campaign on all sides is more slog than storm.

It is also massively, shamingly male: a total 46 women out of 256 candidates. The SDLP is rightly proud that 14 of those 46 are theirs, the outcome of a deliberate and protracted effort.

Alliance is running seven women out of 18 candidates. By contrast, the Ulster Unionists produced an election broadcast introduced and concluded by a sweet-faced young female student. It was presumably an attempt to compensate for the pitiful sight of their 38 candidates. The party with the longest history and deepest roots in civic society found just one woman to represent them. Some statement whatever way you approach it: that UUs think women unsuited to politics, or that women do not find Ulster Unionism attractive?

You can imagine UU senior figures complaining wordlessly to their shaving mirrors that these things change so fast. Hasn't the North's first Polish newspaper just praised their outreach to immigrants? But television long ago decided that a group in grey or navy or black, mostly middle-aged or older, all of them men, only looks impressive if they are very powerful indeed. The DUP has made a point of including at least two women in shot for the cameras at Stormont media events.

Unionists will admit, even boast, that theirs is a conservative political world. Reactions to women who break with convention can be primitive, and for a long time went unchallenged. When the two Women's Coalition representatives spoke in the ambitiously-titled "Forum for Political Dialogue", half of the DUP group made moo-ing noises. Iris Robinson, proud to be anti-feminist, made a point of laughing appreciatively.

That was in 1996. Political parties are increasingly aware that it makes sense to have more women members, if only to attract more women voters. Of the DUP's 46 candidates, six are women. On the day the party was required to say something to the media in response to Sinn Féin's policing ardfheis, the cameras accompanied a Paisley strollabout on Stormont's pathways. Sunshine and a big black hat dominated, but the unmistakeable profile leaned towards keen, young Arlene Foster, alertly listening, leaving the lesser men unconsidered in the background.

Gender is irrelevant to much political debate, and images can be misleading, as everyone knows. It suits to place her in the Paisley eyeline because the intent Foster gaze once focused as respectfully on her then leader, David Trimble. Then Trimble negotiated his way into a compromise the Foster-

Jeffrey Donaldson camp disowned. Her presence in honoured proximity to her new leader is presumably meant to lure discouraged UU voters into a similar journey on March 7th.

Sinn Féin was the first party in the North to play their women as photo-opportunity stars, tromping up the steps to Stormont from their first arrival with never fewer than two females in any delegation. Despite roots in the macho world of a paramilitary army, Sinn Féin has probably more women at all levels than any other party.

But some have had more to do with image than anything else. Once the Lucilita Breathnach trenchcoat seemed the obligatory visual aid to mark republicanism's relegation of violence - as far from the old cliche of the 1940s gunman as the balaclava-ed sniper favoured by later mythmakers. Breathnach was no more a serious player in the collective republican leadership than her successor in today's tableaux, the ubiquitous Mary-Lou.

High-profile women in the North have taken abuse for their pains, but battle on. Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan's recent report reopened the collusion scandal in a way that will not easily be closed down.

The Human Rights Commission, now headed by Monica McWilliams - one of those derided Women's Coalition speakers in 1996 - has repeatedly exposed the conditions of women prisoners, who take the brunt of what it means to have less status in society.

The commission sent a witness to last week's inquest into the death in Maghaberry jail in 2004 of Roseanne Irvine, found hanging in her cell after she had asked to see a psychiatrist. A nurse told the inquest that male prisoners were always treated before women.

For years, many in unionist and nationalist political life slept with guns by their bedsides. That danger, plus the harsh exchanges in what few political forums existed, made politics deeply unattractive to many men and even more women. Among devolution's benefits should be encouragement to women to move into politics.

Who knows - there might even be a female High Court judge some day.