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'We want a society that solves problems instead of always shouting at each other... I gather you do quite a lot of that in Northern Ireland'

Broadcaster Sandi Toksvig has branched out to found a new women's political party. Fionola Meredith heard more when the former News Quiz host visited Belfast at the weekend

Published 31/08/2015

Sandi Toksvig in Belfast at the weekend
Sandi Toksvig in Belfast at the weekend
Sandi Toksvig with her OBE in 2014

I can hear Sandi Toksvig before I see her. She's somewhere in the midst of a Sunday morning gathering of women at the Europa Hotel in Belfast, but those clipped 1940s tones are instantly recognisable above the hubbub of conversation. Devotees of Radio 4's News Quiz, which Toksvig chaired, will know exactly what I mean. She recently left the programme - after nine years, 28 series and over 200 episodes - to co-found a new political grouping, the Women's Equality Party.

Toksvig is evangelical - very much in the secular sense, since she's a patron of the British Humanist Association - about her exciting new cause. She was in Belfast to speak as part of the Lughnasa International Friel Festival, and it's clear she sees it as a great opportunity to spread the word. In fact, the local women surrounding her this morning are here because they are eager to learn more about the fledgling political movement, with a view to setting up their own branch of the Women's Equality Party in Belfast. There's already 60 branches across the UK, which have apparently sprung up spontaneously, and Toksvig anticipates that the number will grow to 100 by the end of the year.

So what's the big appeal?

"We are non-partisan," says Toksvig emphatically.

"We have clear, core objectives and we don't take positions over and above those. It's a brand new way of doing politics."

She's serious, focused, engaged: this is not the whimsical quiz host, or the comedian, or the novelist, or any of the hundred and one things she has done in the course of her varied career. This is Toksvig the politician, and she means business. Dry, twinkling humour is there too, but it's all in service of her message.

"There are certain fundamental things which need to be sorted out," she says. "I don't care if you're from the right or left of politics, there are core objectives we can all agree on: equal pay, equal representation on the media, equal representation at board level, politics, an end to domestic violence. Beyond that, we don't take a position."

Toksvig is not short of fresh ideas. Pointing out that 90% of men do not take time off when they have a child, she says that one possibility is making paternity leave compulsory.

"I'm passionate about this for everybody," says Toksvig.

"I have a son and two daughters and I care equally about all three of them and I want the world to be a better place for all of them. Our main aim is to make a society more at ease with itself and to problem-solve the many problems which we're all facing, together, instead of shouting at each other. I gather that in Northern Ireland there's quite a lot of shouting."

Toksvig roars with laughter as I agree that yes, there's quite a bit of that here.

"But wouldn't it be great if we could change it from an adversarial model, to one where we join the conversation?"

I'm curious to understand how much Toksvig knows about our own political system in Northern Ireland, and in particular whether she's aware of the now-defunct Women's Coalition party, which seemed to share a similar ethos to Women's Equality.

"Well, I'm not an expert on the politics here. It's not possible for anybody to know the nuances of a local situation. The women I met this morning talked about things which have come and gone, and the reasons for them coming and going. But what I've said to them is that they are the ones on the ground who understand how the politics works, and they need to be as inclusive as possible, and try and harness a new energy."

Toksvig has encountered sexism - of both the explicit and the implicit variety - throughout her career as a broadcaster. She was in the running to be the original presenter of Have I Got News For You, but was told that the BBC didn't want a woman in charge. It was a decision which angered her, but also made her feel inadequate. These days, she takes a more caustic line.

"I'm 57 years old and I host a quiz show every single day. I got asked in a recent interview, did I feel that hosting a quiz show helps keep my brain sharp? And I asked - would you ask Stephen Fry that question, who is exactly the same age as me? Somehow I'm managing to stand up and stay cogent despite my incredible age."

Sitting alongside Toksvig is her wife, Debbie Toksvig. Already civil partners, they renewed their vows on March 29, 2014, the day that same-sex marriage was introduced in England and Wales, and in December 2014 their civil partnership was converted into a marriage. How does it feel being in Belfast, knowing that their union is not recognised here?

"I think it's an outrage. I mean, they'd have to recognise it because it's a legal marriage certificate. One of the reasons why we upgraded from civil partnership to marriage is because we travel extensively across the world, and it's important to me that our marriage is recognised internationally."

Sandi Toksvig has seen a lot in the course of her life. In the past she's even had to flee her home, together with her children, due to death threats from homophobic religious extremists. Now she's a happily married woman and a respected public figure. Does she feel she has a responsibility as a role model to others?

"I have a nice house, I could stay at home and count my spoons," she says, smiling.

"But I see how much there is to do. I see how much the recession has been on the backs of working women. So I can do two things - shout at the TV, or get up off my arse and do something about it. I thought I'd go for the second one."

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