Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

We need more women in politics... but only on merit

Vote winners: if women such as Sarah Palin and Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin are to be successful it must be earned

I believe in getting more women into politics. Always have. In fact, that was once my job. I worked for an organisation that encouraged women to find their political feet and run for public office.

The point was to cut through the habitual outer layers of twittery self-effacement (‘Me? Go into politics? Oh, I could never do that ...’) and get in touch with their inner political amazons: confident, articulate, ready to knock down the barriers to full representation with one kick from an elegantly-shod foot.

It felt like a worthy cause and I loved getting the ladies riled up and filled with feminist fury. Often it was the mousiest ones who would surprise you.

I remember one Ballymena woman, who started off barely able to utter a word in public, standing up to denounce the macho climate of the Northern Ireland political scene. You said it, baby.

Bringing more women into politics sounds like a no-brainer. We make up more than half the population, yet only one out of five MLAs at Stormont is a woman.

Simple logic. And it's become accepted wisdom. All our political parties agree on the need to get more women involved. Of course, actually doing something about it is another matter.

But I was always troubled by one unspoken question back then — and I still am today. Is it really a better deal for women, in general, if more female representatives are elected?

In fact, can we even talk about ‘women in general'? Surely, we are too diverse a group to be lumped into one catch-all category. Should the possession of a pair of ovaries be enough to bond us together forever?

I call it the ‘Sarah Palin’ issue, after the gun-totin', God-fearin', anti-choice hockey mom from Alaska who ran for the Republican vice presidential nomination in the last US election.

You know, the one who talked confidently about standing shoulder to shoulder “with our North Korean allies”, or accidentally coined new words like “refudiate”, then claimed she was merely following in a rich Shakespearean tradition.

If nothing else, you have to admire Palin's chutzpah. But how would it benefit women, as a category, if she was in power?

Likewise, is my life improved by the presence of Ruth Patterson as deputy Lord Mayor of Belfast? Are my rights enhanced in any way by having Caral Ni Chuilin as arts and culture minister? Would 10 more Margaret Ritchies take us 10 steps closer to a gynocracy? Would it heck.

In fact, gender is even more submerged in local politics because of the power of the tribal vote. Our politicians' deepest loyalties — here more than anywhere else — are to the party, not to the progress of their sex.

The truth is, I'd rather vote for a man that stood up for reproductive choice, same-sex partnerships, genuinely equal opportunities, than for a woman who would deny or dismiss, these important rights.

And yet, for all that, I still believe in getting more women into politics. I welcome the Irish government's introduction of legislation designed to ensure more female candidates at the next election.

It means that half of the state funding for political parties which fail to select a minimum of 30% candidates of either gender will be removed — a bracing encouragement for politicians to get their heads round the issue. Maybe the thought of losing cash will succeed in concentrating minds.

And fair play to Alex Attwood for floating the idea of quotas for future council elections here in the north. I prefer the idea of a meritocracy, but in the glaring absence of that and in the presence of all kinds of invisible barriers to women's participation, such blunt, imperfect measures are necessary.

Let's not subscribe to all the woolly, sentimental guff about why more women should run. They shouldn't enter politics because they're mums and peace-lovers and we wouldn't — ever — have a war if they were in charge. That's patronising rubbish.

We should not be in politics because we're nicer. We shouldn't even be in politics because we will make the world a better place for other women.

Women should be fully and fairly represented in government because it is fair. It is a matter of basic equality.

We make up more than half of the electorate and to be so radically under-represented is a serious restriction of our rights — not to mention voter choice in general.

It is only right that we get a fighting chance to take our seats.

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