Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

DUP women still under-represented... and there are sharp differences of opinion with men

Brenda Hale
Brenda Hale

DUP women are often regarded as the "backbone of the party", but they are seriously under-represented in both the party hierarchy and among elected representatives.

They also have different views from their male counterparts on a number of issues, particularly women's representation.

Arlene Foster, the Enterprise Minister, speaks of irritation at being asked if she felt guilty at going to work when she had children. "What is really frustrating is that you never ask that of my male colleagues." She adds: "I think Northern Ireland is a very conservative society."

Peter Robinson, the party leader, is the first to admit that he is "very aware" of the gender deficit and has set himself the target of having equal representation for men and women in the Assembly.

At present just 27% of party members are female, and the number tails off among elected representatives, but it is rising.

In 1993 only 8% of DUP councillors were women, but the share rose to 22% in this year's elections. The proportion of DUP MLAs who are women thins out to 13%, and since the resignation of Iris Robinson, not a single DUP MP is female. On the other hand, the party's only MEP, Diane Dodds, is a woman.

The UUP has the same percentage of female MLAs, but most other parties have more. The figures for Executive parties are Alliance 25%, SDLP 21% and Sinn Fein 28%.

Mr Robinson tells the researchers that the party changed its selection system to try and help, but admits "it will be a long time" before representatives in the Assembly are evenly split.

At the last Assembly election three new female MLAs won seats and all were added to local constituency lists by the party centrally. They were Paula Bradley in North Belfast, Pam Brown in South Antrim and Brenda Hale in Lagan Valley. This shows a commitment, at central level, to putting women up for winnable seats.

There are signs that if women had more say in the DUP the party's priorities might shift. For instance, when members were asked what the single most important issue in politics was, the largest number of women (25.3%) chose the health service, a view shared by only 7.1% of men. The most popular issue for men is the Uunion – that was backed by 28.1% of them, but only 15.2% of women. Yet the overwhelming majority of all members (83%) believe it is unlikely there would be a united Ireland within 20 years.

On other topics, men and women are united. Only 9% of each thought the dissident threat is the main issue, while 18% of men and 16.2% of women believe it is the economy.

Sharper divisions come on specifically female issues. 43.2 % of females think women are discriminated against in public life but only 19% of men agree. More than half of women (51.6%) feel that "politics in Northern Ireland would improve if there were more women elected", but only 32.5% of men feel the same way.

Women are marginally more favourable to gay marriage and abortion than men, though most are still opposed.

However, the book finds that women are reluctant to stand as candidates and often had to be persuaded. Ms Brown, one of the new MLAs, says: "It was men and women who encouraged me... if it had been left to me, I probably wouldn't have done it."

Colleague Ms Bradley argues the biggest problem is: "Females don't put themselves forward."

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