Belfast Telegraph

Friday 9 October 2015

Days of male-dominated Northern Ireland politics now over

By Claire McNeilly

Published 10/05/2010

Michelle Gildernew held onto her seat in Fermanagh and South Tyrone
Michelle Gildernew held onto her seat in Fermanagh and South Tyrone

Who would have believed that, after the General Election, Northern Ireland would have women MPs representing virtually every shade of political opinion?

When Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew held onto her Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat by the narrowest of margins on Friday afternoon, it meant that Ulster would have, for the first time, four females in Westminster seats.

A decade ago we had precisely none — but times have clearly changed and, it seems, the days of male dominated politics here are well and truly over.

In the previous parliamentary session, the province’s ‘girl power' comprised Ms Gildernew (albeit in an abstentionist capacity), Lady Sylvia Hermon and Iris Robinson.

The much-troubled Iris has now departed from the Commons, of course — as has her husband Peter, sensationally ousted from his East Belfast seat by charismatic Alliance candidate Naomi Long in the early hours of Friday morning.

The other female newcomer to the corridors of power at SW1A is feisty new SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie, who succeeded retiring party colleague Eddie McGrady as MP for South Down with plenty of votes to spare.

And the elegant Lady Hermon, standing as an independent in North Down, emphatically proved that her popularity among voters could easily withstand the fall-out from her split with the Ulster Unionists.

Let’s not forget either the growing influence of the DUP’s Arlene Foster, who has yet to attain a Westminster seat, but who has already this year been acting First Minister in the beleagured Mr Robinson’s absence — and is a short-odds bet to ultimately replace him as party leader.

But it's Ms Long's stunning victory over the First Minister that will go down in history as the talking point of this — and possibly any other — election fought in Northern Ireland.

It prompted shockwaves similar to those of 40 years ago when the nationalist Bernadette McAliskey (then Devlin), aged just 21 at the time, was elected MP for Mid-Ulster. She was the first Ulster woman parliamentarian — and remains Westminster’s youngest-ever female member.

Monica McWilliams, co-founder of the now defunct Northern Ireland Women's Coalition (NIWC), believes Naomi’s achievement will inspire more Ulster women.

“When we see strong, bright, articulate women being elected as members of parliament, that will encourage others to think about a political career,” said Mrs McWilliams, Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC).

“These ladies have all proved themselves to be tough politicians with strong track records in their constituencies and they have all helped to dispel the myth that women can’t do this type of job.”

She added: “We certainly need more women in politics.”

Ironically, the first-ever woman MP, Countess Constance Markievicz was, like Ms Gildernew, an abstentionist. And the reason? Britain’s ‘involvement’ in Irish affairs. . .

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