Belfast Telegraph

Monday 20 October 2014

DUP women aren't radical feminists, but there's no more making the tea

They used to be in the background, but the DUP is making efforts to increase its quota of high-profile women. They'll have better success with that than trying to woo Catholic voters, says Liam Clarke

The success  of MEP Diane Dodds is an example of how women are coming to the forefront of the party
The success of MEP Diane Dodds is an example of how women are coming to the forefront of the party

Women in the DUP have come some distance and they have to come further as the party attempts to increase its reach.

We all know women's traditional role as bun bakers and fund-raisers in Northern Ireland politics and its churches, and in the case of the DUP, church and party are linked.

The female focus group set up by Dr Tonge, Dr Maire Braniff and their colleagues noted "in a church based, or a faith based organisation, that is what the women do. They make the tea, they stay in the background.... They will let the men stand out in the front and be the face of things."

The researchers unearthed an early 1990s 'Ulster Home Cooking' book compiled by 'Lady Members and friends of the Londonderry DUP'.

It is a real period piece, with instructions on "how to cook a good husband" and "make a Bible cake" using such evangelical staples as a pinch of Leviticus and half a pound of Jeremiah.

DUP women included in this survey don't strike us as radical feminists, but they have moved on since then. There is now a DUP 1928 Committee, named for the year women got the vote, chaired by Michelle McIlveen. It means business but it still has a homely ring to it. A line from Margaret Thatcher was quoted at its first meeting: "Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running a country."

The DUP, men as well as women, are opposed to the use of quotas to improve female representation. Instead they have adopted a system by which the party centrally is allowed to add names to local lists of candidates. Constituency associations are also obliged to bear gender balance in mind.

This could be a slow business, but it is very important because there are proportionately fewer female representatives at Stormont than in any other legislature in the UK or Ireland. As the largest party, and the one with the lowest proportion of female MLAs, the DUP needs to show an example, not to mention attract more support from the 53% of the electorate who are women.

Building up the women's vote is one thing, outreach to Catholics is another. Edwin Poots' plan to attract conservative Catholic votes looks little better than a pipe-dream unless the party adjusts to Irish Catholic culture in other ways that would risk alienating its predominantly Free Presbyterian and Orange activist base.

Mr Poots gave his interview in January of last year. Since then the idea had the perfect test drive when the Catholic hierarchy appealed to voters to consider the attitude of candidates on abortion and same sex marriage when casting their ballot.

It seemed like a nod to the DUP, and Diane Dodds, the Euro candidate, welcomed it in a televised debate. Despite this, it was widely ignored by Catholic voters, who overwhelmingly voted for nationalist parties despite opinion poll evidence of falling support for Irish unity any time soon.

Catholics, even the religious right, don't buy into the flag waving aspects of unionist culture or the DUP's instinctive support for Orange parading rights. Yet it would be a brave DUP leader who would risk changing that.

What they said... voices from inside the party

Female councillor

“We can be truthful about this. There is no problem with women getting selected to stand, but there is an element of councillors that think that a women’s place is at home, and will remind you of that every so often — ‘What are you doing here? You should be at home washing the dishes’.”

Deputy leader Nigel Dodds

“What strikes me about public meetings and residents’ meetings and interaction with community groups, in Belfast, I don’t know what it is like rural-wise, but in Belfast, overwhelmingly, the people who are at those meetings and taking part are women. They will be the ones who turn up to all the meetings and be most vociferous. It will be, ‘we want you men to do this, or we will back you men’. If you said to them, what about you coming forward? ‘Oh, no, no, no’. There is that element. Now that needs to be broken through, but there is a bit of that in Northern Ireland society.”

Female councillor

“The last figures that I was looking at, 53% of the voters in this area are women. There is a vote there. Do they not have faith in their fellow females to hold those types of posts?”

Peter Robinson

On the gender deficit in the Assembly: “We changed our selection system to try and help. In the Assembly we would have liked to have got to the stage where there would be a pretty even show, but it will be a long time before we get to that.”

MLA Peter Weir

“I think the only barrier, in the broadest sense, is a certain level of incumbency. There is at least a residue of a sense of family within the DUP, compared to other parties. Councillor Bloggs, who has been there for 25 years, maybe isn’t the world’s greatest councillor, but there’s almost a feeling that we can’t deselect him.”

MLA Paula Bradley

“I don’t agree with it (a quota of women in the Assembly), absolutely not. But we need to do something. Any job being done there could be done by a woman. And any job a woman does, a man can do. I believe completely in gender equality. But I don’t think a woman should be there just because the law dictates it.”

Male councillor

“There is no point just having a token woman. If they get selected on merit, then they should be supported, irrespective of whether they are male or female. But I would be supportive of more women candidates.”

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