Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Rise of women in Northern Ireland politics a real positive

The announcement that Michelle O'Neill is the new leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, while Gerry Adams still remains president of the party, will focus minds on the growing role of women in politics.

Mrs O'Neill's appointment, foreshadowed by her even higher profile recently, means that for the first time in Northern Ireland three women are at the helm in local politics.

Arlene Foster is leader of the DUP, Naomi Long leads Alliance, and now Michelle O'Neill leads Sinn Fein.

These are notable individual achievements, given the fact that - for many reasons - Northern Ireland historically has not been a place with a strong female representation in politics.

Nevertheless, Margaret Ritchie was leader of the SDLP in the recent past. Now, with female leaders in Scotland and Wales, and Theresa May as Prime Minister of the UK, the appointment of Michelle O'Neill makes Northern Ireland more modern and inclusive in this respect.

There is no doubt that Mrs O'Neill has earned her place as leader.

As the former Agriculture and now Health Minister, she is regarded as a hard worker who has travelled extensively in Northern Ireland in both roles.

She appears to be a people person, engaging well with those she meets.

She is also a working mum who knows the realities of finding a balance between her challenging public career and her personal life.

Mrs O'Neill is a modern, young woman of ability who has made her way upwards through the ranks of Sinn Fein as a councillor, then as an MLA and eventually gaining ministerial portfolios.

She appears confident and self-assured, and she has no baggage from the republican militarism of the past.

Crucially, it will be interesting to see what relationship she will develop with Arlene Foster. We wish her well.

The current Assembly includes 30 women, and hopefully we will stop focusing on such matters when the electorate returns at least 50 per cent of the MLAs to Stormont, and no-one bats an eyelid.

At present, some 28 per cent of our elected representatives are women, compared to 22 per cent in the Dail.

At the last election, women topped, or came close to topping, the poll regularly, and this alone points to changing times.

Such developments should be welcomed by everyone.

Belfast Telegraph

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