Moves to encourage more women MLAs
The Assembly should consider changing its daily timetable in a bid to encourage more women to become MLAs, Stormont's speaker has said.
Mitchel McLaughlin also suggested parties take steps to ensure women fill some of the four various speaker positions in the chamber - posts that are all held by men at the moment.
Mr McLaughlin outlined potential reforms as he hosted an event in Parliament Buildings to mark International Women's Day this weekend.
The speaker presides over an Assembly where only 21 of the 108 MLAs are women.
He said one way of correcting the gender imbalance could be with "family friendly" working hours.
At the moment, the Assembly sits in plenary session from 12.00pm on Mondays and 10.30am on Tuesdays.
Debates often extend long into the evening - with the close of business hard to predict.
Potential reforms could see the introduction of a cut-off time, earlier starts or even the allocation of more plenary sessions in the week.
Mr McLaughlin said he had a responsibility to take a lead on the issue.
"All of us acknowledge that there are still too few women in the Assembly and we need to look at what more we can all do to create a better gender balance in future mandates," said the speaker.
"Following the Stormont House Agreement, parties are working on the detail of changes to how the institutions work in future including opposition, the number of Members and, as was announced this week, the number of Departments.
"However, I do think this also creates an opportunity to look at some wider areas of how this Assembly operates. One of those is certainly how our business is organised and the unpredictable length of many our sittings.
"There are many reasons for that, including how the Executive schedules its business and Assembly procedures including our method of voting. However, the result is that it produces a work pattern which is not particularly attractive to many.
"Addressing these issues is ultimately a decision of the Assembly, but I am looking at how I might use my time in office to encourage consensus amongst our parties to reform some of our procedures to improve our effectiveness - and this will be one of them.
"Yes, we do need to get business through the House and ensure it is thoroughly scrutinised. Why should that be incompatible with family friendly hours? I would like to see us make progress on that front by the beginning of the next Assembly mandate.
"Reform of the Assembly would undoubtedly have a significant impact in encouraging more women to come forward and be part of it.
"I believe that would be a positive step towards encouraging more female Members of the Assembly, but frankly I think it would be welcomed by Members and staff of this Assembly of all genders and with young children or none."
On Monday, Parliament Buildings will be lit up in purple to mark International Women's Day - the first occasion the landmark has been illuminated in a different colour.
Inside the chamber, MLAs will debate a report from the Assembly and Executive Review Committee on Women in Politics.
Of the five main Executive parties, five of the DUP's 38 MLAs are women; nine of Sinn Fein's 29; two of the SDLP's 14; two of the UUP's 13 and two of the Alliance Party's eight.
Guest at this evening's event at Stormont was Dame Rosemary Butler, who is Presiding Officer of the National Assembly for Wales.
Mr McLaughlin noted that Dame Rosemary presided over an Assembly in which two of the four main party leaders are women and highlighted that women held many of the many positions in the Scottish Parliament as well.
"This all indicates the distance we have to travel," he said.
"My period as Speaker would not last too long if I was to encourage my female colleagues to launch leadership challenges in their respective parties, but I can address issues closer to home.
"I have a very good team of deputy speakers. Our strong working relationship is a positive influence on the Assembly but I am conscious that we are not reflective of the Assembly as it currently is or as I would like it to be.
"Therefore, I have written to party leaders and the Committee on Procedures to ask them to consider introducing a measure for the next Assembly, similar to the arrangements at Westminster, to ensure greater female representation among the speaker and deputy speakers.
"I am open as to whether that can be done through a change to Standing Orders or through an informal agreement between parties when nominating candidates. No matter how it is done, I believe that it would send out a significant signal of intent from this Assembly.
"Why should we not aim for a day when two or more of the speaker and deputy speakers would always be female or one of the speaker and principal deputy speaker would always be female? "
"By our current rate of progress, it will be some time before we achieve a gender balanced Assembly so we do need to look at other measures.
"I have highlighted two issues on my agenda but encouraging more women into politics will require many more initiatives from a wider range of stakeholders and decision makers."