Women clear election winners as they outshine male counterparts in Northern Ireland
New influx of highly capable female MLAs set to shake up corridors of power at Stormont, says Suzanne Breen
Women politicians emerged the clear winners of the Assembly election as female candidates in key constituencies out-polled their male running-mates.
In South Belfast Emma Little Pengelly surprised most observers by polling very strongly and coming in almost 1,000 votes ahead of party colleague and local councillor of 11 years standing, Christopher Stalford.
In the same constituency the SDLP's Claire Hanna substantially out-polled her running-mate, Fearghal McKinney. And the Greens' Clare Bailey, a relative newcomer to politics, seemed set to snatch the sixth and final seat in South Belfast at McKinney's expense.
In neighbouring East Belfast, two female candidates passed the finishing line notably ahead of the male field, with the DUP's Joanne Bunting topping the poll. Just 56 votes behind her was Alliance's Naomi Long.
In Upper Bann the DUP's Carla Lockhart, secured almost 8,000 votes, an awesome achievement in her first Assembly election. Her party leader Arlene Foster topped the poll in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. In the same constituency Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew came in comfortably in front of her male colleagues. The SDLP's Nichola Mallon looked set to retain the North Belfast seat she took over from party veteran Alban Maginness earlier in the year.
But it was Little Pengelly's easy win that was the most unexpected. "I am very pleased with my vote," she said. "Especially since, from 10pm last night, I was unemployed.
"A lot of media commentators underestimated how I would perform at the polls. But I proved them wrong. I had a warm reception at the doors and I grafted for this. My motto has been 'work hard in silence and let success make the noise'."
In a red dress and red stilettos, Little Pengelly cut a dramatic figure at the count. Cartoonist Brian John Spencer, who was sketching candidates from a range of parties, said he found her intriguing. "Emma reminds me of an Anglo-Irish lady with her poise, elegance and dress. She has a touch of Countess Markievicz about her. She really is eye-catching," he added.
A fierce-looking Foster, with her fist raised in a Carsonesque pose, glared out from one of Spencer's cartoons.
"Arlene is very confident, very comfortable in her own skin. She reminds me of Margaret Thatcher. She can just give you that look," Spencer said.
Little Pengelly was surrounded by her family as she waited to be elected. Her dad Noel, who was convicted of gun-running offences and campaigned tirelessly for his daughter, posed for pictures with her.
Her mum Maureen, who has won competitions in Love My Garden for photographs of her roses, was also there. "I'm so proud of Emma. She is very determined and nobody works harder than her," she said.
Billed as a battle between Little Pengelly and expelled DUP councillor Ruth Patterson, South Belfast ended up an easy victory for the former Spad who out-polled Patterson almost 10 to one.
"I'm just waiting to see if I pick up any of Ruth Patterson's transfers," Pengelly said pointedly. As it turned out, she secured 59.
DUP MEP Diane Dodds said she was delighted with the success of women candidates in the election, particularly those from the DUP.
"The electorate is endorsing strong, articulate women," she stated. "For years there was a dearth of women on the unionist side, but no more. I'm particularly pleased for Carla Lockhart in Upper Bann. In her, we have a young woman who really connects with voters."
But it wasn't just the DUP's day as Alliance celebrated Long returning to Stormont. The feeling is David Ford will step down as leader imminently and pass on the baton to her. But Naomi loyally insisted there wasn't a vacancy.
"David has said he is waiting for the men in grey suits to knock on his door and tell him it's time to go. I'm in a turquoise cardigan and I've no intention of doing that anyway," she said.
But change is in the air. Don't be surprised to see another able female politician join Mrs Foster in becoming a party leader.