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More women will make Stormont fairer, not better

By Fionola Meredith

Published 18/03/2016

Unelected: Emma Pengelly
Unelected: Emma Pengelly

Well, that's Stormont done for another term. It has grouched, preached, whined and bellowed itself to a conclusion, to little substantive effect, despite the 72,000 questions asked during the past five years.

In his headmaster's report outgoing Speaker Mitchel McLaughlin said the Assembly must do better by bringing in more women. He described the current situation, with 23 female MLAs out of a total of 108, as "indefensible" and "a record of dismal failure".

McLaughlin added that "if we were to truly represent the community that we are elected by, then we should have 51% of women in this Assembly".

So would a ramped-up number of female representatives automatically make the Assembly a better, more enlightened, more progressive place? No, I don't think it would. Heresy, I know.

But the basic fact of more females on those blue leather benches, currently occupied for the most part by complacent male rumps of the middle-aged variety, is no victory for women in general.

There is no reason to assume it would improve the lives of the female half of the population, or anybody's lives, one iota. Indeed, depending on their political values - think Jim Allister in drag - their presence could be detrimental to women's rights and reproductive freedoms.

Besides, it's not like some of the gals we've got are doing such a great job. Look at Sinn Fein's Caral Ni Chuilin, whom we must laughingly call our Minister for Culture. Do we really want 10 more just like her?

One female representative, DUP junior minister and former special adviser Emma Pengelly, hasn't even been elected. Apparently she's "passionate about making a difference". To whom?

There's no reason to assume that female representatives are automatically pro-women. In fact, due to the insuperable power of the tribal vote politicians' first loyalty - whatever their gender - will almost always be to the party. Solidarity with those who share the same biological functions rarely gets a look-in. Sorry, sisters.

The funny thing is I used to work for an organisation, now defunct, called Women into Politics. That was the point, you see - encouraging women to run for office, to get involved with public life. It was an educational experience. I met clever, funny and engaging people, pragmatic and principled, who would be an asset to whatever party they chose to represent (not that any of them did, to my knowledge. Perhaps they had better things to do).

I also came across a small number of rancid, warped and embittered individuals who would make Donald Trump look like a de-clawed pussy cat if they ever got near a podium. Fortunately, their fear and intense self-loathing has so far held them back.

Back then I had my doubts about the "more women" mantra - though I kept them to myself - and those doubts have stayed with me, even when I spoke in favour of gender quotas as the only feasible means of changing the line-up of political candidates if you don't feel like hanging around for a century-and-a-half, waiting for the entitled males to eventually budge over. They probably are the only way, but I no longer feel comfortable arguing in support of positive discrimination.

Here's why. It is an absurd form of biological determinism to claim that women, by virtue of their gender, will make good politicians or improve political discourse.

More than that, it is anti-feminist, predicated on restrictive, repressive and essentialist ideas about women's nature that have held us back for centuries.

It relies on the erroneous assumption that women have certain innate qualities - that they are warmer, calmer, more nurturing, geared more towards consensus than conflict - which will transform public life. Where is the evidence this is the case?

Don't get me wrong. I would be delighted to see the monolithic tedium of Stormont shaken up by people who weren't uniformly male and the colour of raw sausage meat. I'd welcome a far greater diversity of candidates with a wider range of political perspectives. And I'd love to see individuals challenging the idea that authority accrues exclusively to privileged old men.

But it's facile in the extreme, not to mention deeply patronising, to argue that more women automatically equals improved government. Fairer, maybe. But not necessarily better.

Belfast Telegraph

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