Is Northern Ireland's Political Future Female?
I’ve often said that Northern Ireland is twenty years behind the rest of the United Kingdom. While this remains largely true, it has surpassed it’s mainland counterparts in one key area - female representation in politics. The new Stormont Executive has an equal 50:50 split of men and women, with both the First Minister and Deputy First Minister being women. After years of falling behind the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland has achieved something that Westminster has not - putting as many women around the top table as men.
A new decade, a new approach and a new look for Northern Ireland politics.
This is largely due to the peculiarity of the Northern Ireland Executive. It’s made up not of any one party, but the five major political parties. It’s undeniably a massive step forward for a political institution that seems all too caught up in the past.
Alongside Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill is the SDLP’s Deputy Leader, Nicola Mallon as Minister for Infrastructure, Alliance Leader Naomi Long as Minister of Justice, Sinn Fein’s Deirdre Hargey as the Minister for Communities and former DUP MEP Diane Dodds as Minister for the Economy.
This increase in female representation in Northern Ireland’s politics isn’t limited to just the Executive. Of the 90 MLAs, 30 of them are women, a change which came primarily from the 2017 Assembly Election. For decades, Northern Ireland’s politics was dominated by men, a by-product of the nature of our politics and the troubles. Women were more likely to work with volunteer groups than be at the front line of politics.
The Executive’s new 50:50 split is not the only recent win for women in Northern Irish politics. Last year’s European Elections returned an all-woman set of 3 MEPs for Northern Ireland, two of whom are now Ministers in the Executive.
With all of this in mind, the common barriers still exist for women at every level of political office, particularly those preventing women from being selected as political candidates, as well as general attitudes towards women in politics. This was most recently highlighted by Kate Nicholl, an Alliance Councillor, when she brought her seven week old son to a Belfast Council meeting and received backlash online.
Perhaps in this new decade, with a new approach, these female leaders can inspire the next generation of Northern Ireland’s politicians to tackle the country's unique challenges. As someone who knows first hand the impact of having a strong female role model, maybe the future of Northern Irish politics is about to get a little brighter.