Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 29 November 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

On the Hill: New bid to increase number of women MLAs at Stormont

Sinn Fein ministers Caral Ni Chuilin and Michelle O'Neill with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness
Sinn Fein ministers Caral Ni Chuilin and Michelle O'Neill with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness

More family-friendly sitting hours, childcare facilities and parental leave arrangements are among the proposals under consideration to try to attract more women into Stormont.

Out of the present – count 'em – 108 MLAs, fewer than one in five (only 20) is a woman.

Yet many of the ladies of the legislature punch well above their weight – not least as ministers and chairs of key committees.

The fact nonetheless remains: when it comes to equality of the sexes, Stormont isn't the worst in Europe – but it comes close.

With the exception of Dail Eireann, the Assembly has the lowest female representation of the devolved and national legislatures in these islands.

But the introduction of quotas for female candidates in the Republic in its next election has the potential to alter the picture there.

Research carried out for MLAs also shows that compared to other devolved institutions, the Assembly has some of the lowest rates of female representation in Western Europe – the other exceptions being the Italian regional legislatures.

A report prepared for Stormont also argues that its gender equality strategy recognises the right of women to full and equal political participation.

The report states that the "prevalence of men in political power generates a culture that is male, which can exclude or deter women".

Among its suggestions for transforming the dominance of men in politics are:

  •  A cross-party group for women.
  •  Policies to promote equality.
  •  Policies for prohibiting discrimination and harassment.
  •  A review of institutional behaviour, such as use of language, practices, environment and so on, from a gender perspective. The research also hammers home the impact political parties have by selecting women to stand for election in winnable seats.

"Linked to this is the need to encourage and support more women to stand to ensure a supply of eligible female candidates and counter barriers to participation they may face," the report states.

"Elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly are an excepted matter, requiring Westminster legislation to change the system.

"The Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002, however, permits political parties to practice positive discrimination in relation to the selection of candidates."

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