Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland Assembly urged to end gender imbalance

Report raps one of most unequal legislatures in western Europe

By Adrian Rutherford

The Assembly should consider more family-friendly sittings to encourage women into politics, a report has said. Northern Ireland has the lowest representation of female politicians in the UK.

Less than a fifth of MLAs are women, compared to 40% in Wales, 35% in Scotland and 23% at Westminster.

We also compare poorly to all but one of similar devolved institutions across Western Europe.

A report by Stormont's Assembly and Executive Review Committee said the under-representation of women in politics was a serious issue which needed to be urgently addressed.

It said the Assembly, Executive and political parties all have key roles to play in addressing the gender imbalance. Its key recommendations include:

Urging parties to consider developing targeted membership strategies to encourage more women to get involved;

A review of parties' media strategies to ensure a greater visibility of female politicians;

Adopting measures from other regions and countries to create a "gender sensitive" Assembly;

A review of voting mechanisms used in other legislatures as a means of facilitating family friendly sittings;

Greater engagement with the media, schools and civil society to profile the work of female MLAs;

And securing a commitment from Executive ministers to address gender inequality in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Féin MLA Caitríona Ruane, who sits on the review committee, said the role of women in politics must be promoted by everyone in public life.

Recently the Irish parliament - it has an even lower female representation than Stormont - introduced quotas for women candidates at future elections.

But MLAs on the committee could not reach agreement on introducing quotas here.

Ms Ruane said they should be considered to ensure gender equality. "Political parties also need to be made aware of the necessity of promoting women and perhaps we should be exploring the possibility of financial penalties for parties who do not comply as has happened in the south," she said.

"At the current rate of change it would take 250 years to bring about 50/50 representation. So now is the time to act and for all parties to actively support and promote gender equality."

Independent MLA Claire Sugden said there was a "gross disproportion" of women in the Assembly, but said changes must be meaningful.

"Women in politics are entirely necessary, not as a token, not as an antidote to men, not as colour in a sea of grey suits, but in our own right as capable representatives of half the population in Northern Ireland and across the world," she said.

Ulster Unionist MLA Jo-Anne Dobson said change needed to be inspired, not forced.

"It is only by making politics more attractive to young women that we will truly see that future becoming a reality for the next generation of our political leaders," she said.

As part of its inquiry, the committee visited the Welsh and Icelandic parliaments, both of which have introduced initiatives to increase the participation of women. MLAs also heard from Jane Morrice, a former MLA and deputy speaker of the Assembly.

She recalled "incessant attempts to demean, humiliate and treat (women) with disdain".

Factfile

Northern Ireland Assembly: 108 MLAs, 21 women (19.4%)

Welsh Assembly: 60 AMs, 25 women (41.6%)

Scottish Parliament: 129 MSPs, 45 women (35%)

Westminster: 650 MPs, 148 women (22.7%)

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