Belfast Telegraph

Focus on our female MPs a century on from women getting vote

By Claire McNeilly

These are the striking images of Northern Ireland's female MPs captured as part of a unique political project.

To celebrate the centenary of the first election in which some women could vote, 209 female photographers took portraits of the 209 female Members of Parliament.

They include Sinn Fein trio Michelle Gildernew, Elisha McCallion and Orfhlaith Begley; Emma Little-Pengelly (DUP), and independent unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon.

The groundbreaking 209 project opened in London last month and runs until next month before moving to Liverpool.

The republican MPs are not part of the London exhibition, reflecting Sinn Fein's policy of abstaining from Parliament, but will feature in the Liverpool showcase, and are published for the first time today by the Belfast Telegraph.

The project marks 100 years since some women got the vote, and also the year the first female MP was elected. Sinn Fein's Constance Markievicz was returned in the 1918 general election, but did not take her seat. The images, minus the three abstentionist MPs, are currently on show in the Houses of Parliament.

Lady Hermon, who has represented North Down since 2001, said she wanted her picture - captured in black and white - to be taken at the harbour in Donaghadee, which has been her home town since she married former RUC Chief Constable Sir John Hermon there 30 years ago.

"The day we had chosen to take the photos happened to be overcast and rather windy, and so we had to improvise by sheltering behind the sea wall at the harbour," Lady Hermon explained.

"As I sat on the seat looking out to sea, I was thinking about 'Jack'... the moment I saw the photograph, it seemed the perfect choice. Being part of this particular photographic exhibition is a unique experience for me and feels very special indeed.

"I think this exhibition is really important as it gives such an unusual insight into the personalities and, in some cases, the private lives of the women MPs currently in the House of Commons.

"We represent such a broad range of different views, backgrounds and ages that I hope very much it will inspire other women to step forward into political life."

Ms Little-Pengelly, who has represented South Belfast since the June 2017 election, said it was wonderful to be included in the exhibition.

"I feel particularly privileged to take part as a woman MP from the DUP on this significant 100-year anniversary of the right of women to stand for Parliament," she said.

"Many do not realise how many tens of thousands of women across pre-partition Ireland campaigned for these changes, including a huge movement of unionist women from Ulster and beyond, with key advocates such as Edith, Lady Londonderry, whose role in the suffrage movement is still celebrated today.

"South Belfast has a fantastic range of strong female representatives across parties. I am therefore particularly pleased, as a woman, to represent South Belfast on this 100-year anniversary." Sinn Fein said Ms Gildernew, MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone, Ms McCallion (Foyle) and Ms Begley (West Tyrone) were proud to follow in the footsteps of Constance Markievicz.

"She was a proud Irish republican and an abstentionist MP who argued that Ireland and Irish interests are never served on the benches of Westminster," it said.

"The three female Sinn Fein MPs took part in the portrait project to celebrate the centenary of votes for women, to highlight the enormous legacy of those who campaigned for women's rights over the last 100 years, and also to demonstrate that the work of Constance Markievicz and her comrades continues today.

"To highlight Sinn Fein's refusal to participate in the British parliament, the portraits of Sinn Fein MPs will be absent from the exhibition in Westminster."

Academic Hilary Wood, who came up with the idea, gave the photographers and MPs free rein to decide the style of their portraits.

"We wanted to give the MPs the opportunity to present themselves in different ways," she said.

"Some want to steer away from the personal; others are keen to show that they're not just MPs, they're also mothers, or wives, or have outside interests - that they're the same as any other woman working hard in a male-dominated environment."

The 209 Women exhibition will move on to Liverpool's Open Eye Gallery, where the Sinn Fein photographs will be included.

Belfast Telegraph

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