Women in Stormont: The Fight Isn’t Over

#AE16 has returned more female MLAs than at any other point in the institution’s history. Danielle Roberts examines this and the new ‘Women in Politics’ report, finding that more work still needs to be done.

The 2016 Assembly election has returned the highest number of female MLAs to date. There are now 30 female MLAs in the Chamber (making up 28% of the whole). This is a big increase from when the Assembly was dissolved, where after co-options women made up 21% of MLAs. It is also a significant jump from the 20 women (19%) elected at the 2011 elections, and from 14 women (13%) when MLAs were first elected to the Assembly in 1998. We also saw a rise in female candidates: 27% of candidates were women, up on 17% in 2011.

Barriers to women in formal politics

The under-representation of women is very much a live issue, with Stormont publishing a report on the subject in 2015, and a new cross-party women’s caucus being launched on International Women’s Day earlier this year. This focus on improving women’s level of representation coming from with the political institution is welcome, however has not been followed up by any action plan.

The main barriers to women’s political participation are known as the ‘5Cs’: Cash, Childcare, Confidence, Candidate Selection and Culture. In addition to these barriers, NI has a few of its own. The conflict has been said to have had ‘a dampening effect on women’s political ambition’. Both communities have traditionally held socially conservative views of women and their role in society, tending to see women as generally suited for support roles rather than decision-making ones – but this is changing.

Stormont-Parliament-BuildingThe recent Women in Politics report produced by the Assembly highlighted the adversarial nature of the institution. The report also highlighted sexism within the Assembly Chamber. I would hope application of the code of conduct will avoid sexist remarks and behaviour towards women MLAs, such as Jim Wells’ comment that Megan Fearon didn’t give way to him in a debate because ‘The honourable Member for Newry and Armagh clearly does not like my aftershave’, or mooing noises made at members of Women’s Coalition when the Assembly was first established. As much as the ‘Women in Politics’ report is welcome, it is disappointing in that while it highlights a lot of issues, it doesn’t have an action plan to tackle them, nor does it require parties to do anything.


Election 2016 statistics

Even with these recent increases, the NI Assembly still lags behind other devolved institutions which held elections on the same day – women make up 35% of the Scottish Parliament and 43% of the Welsh Assembly. The Assembly, however, has overtaken Dáil Éireann on this front – where 22% of TDs elected in the recent election were women, the highest it has ever had due to the introduction of quotas.

There is only one constituency, South Belfast, where women outnumber men (4 to 2). 4 constituencies have 3 men and 3 women, and 4 have no women at all. This is the status quo for 3 of the constituencies which retuned no women in 2011. But one is new – Foyle. With the election of Eamonn McCann PBP shaking up Foyle, and the return of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Maeve McLaughlin SF lost her seat.  Eamonn McCann noted the lack of women representatives in his acceptance speech, stressing the importance of taking ‘women’s issues’ such as reproductive rights seriously. 

All 8 female DUP candidates were elected. 3 of them topped the first preference votes in their constituency overall, and another 3 received the highest first preference votes of any DUP candidate in the constituency.  Of course, Arlene is particularly notable for receiving the most first preference votes of any candidate over all 18 constituencies. In Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Michelle Gildernew came second to Arlene Foster, interesting after the controversy around her non-selection and subsequent selection. Jenny Palmer (UUP), previously a DUP councillor who blew the whistle on the Red Sky scandal, was elected in Lagan Valley where her former party lost a seat. In Upper Bann Joanne Dobson received the most first preference votes (by the numbers) of any UUP candidate, including Mike Nesbitt. Also in Upper Bann, first time MLA candidate Cat Seely polled a lot higher than John O’Dowd outgoing education minister. In Newry and South Armagh Megan Fearon, first time standing after being co-opted in the last assembly, topped the SF vote for the constituency. In fact, a number of previously co-opted women MLAs were elected in their own right this election.  


Emma Pengelly MLA (Pictured Right) is a DUP MLA for Belfast South.

Why does it matter?

An instructive case on why representation matters so much is the one made by Anne Phillips in ‘The Politics of Presence’. Written in 1995, some of its subsequent ideas and theories have built on and critiqued this work, but the main points still hold true. Phillips writes about ‘Descriptive Representation’ where representatives reflect those that they represent (she calls this ‘The Politics of Presence’, as opposed to the politics of ideas). Phillips argues that diversity is key to democracy, but that predominately diversity of ideas tends to be taken into account, rather than diversity of identities. Descriptive representation has been criticised for its essentialist assumptions – for example, can any woman represent all women? And it’s true that women can be ‘anti-women’ or their party’s stance on an issue may not advance women’s interests; look at speeches by Emma Pengelly and Dolores Kelly, which oppose limited liberalisation of abortion law. However, it is only fair and just that women should be involved as representatives in legislatures. From across the political spectrum, an emphasis on lived experiences is key – if one group is over-represented, their interests will shape policy and others will not be considered.

Women are not a homogenous group, so it would be wrong to say that more women automatically results in a greater focus on what may be termed ‘women’s issues’. However, it does mean different views and experiences are brought to the table.

While this election has dramatically increased the number of female MLAs, Stormont on the whole still falls very short in providing a balanced representation of NI society, as a representative democracy should. Women are still under-represented, with BAME and LGBT people faring even worse in terms of descriptive representation. No BAME or openly LGBT candidates were returned.