Belfast Telegraph

EU Election 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: Why we should celebrate Northern Ireland having three female MEPs

Martina Anderson, Diane Dodds and Naomi Long are not token politicians, but women who go to Brussels on merit, says Eilis O'Hanlon

Naomi Long
Naomi Long
Martina Anderson
Diane Dodds
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

It's a remarkable thing about election results that you can get them to say almost anything, given the right amount of spin.

The final tally of European Parliament votes in Northern Ireland was no different, being either a stunning victory for the centre ground, if you just look at Alliance's success in winning the third seat, or a message to "deliver Brexit", according to the DUP's Diane Dodds, after winning a slightly higher percentage of first preference votes this time than she did in 2014.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald gave the most stunning demonstration of this selectivity beyond the call of duty when, asked about the disastrous showing in the Republic's local and European elections, she declared that the party was "not simply about winning elections".

Sinn Fein even tried to suggest that the reason its vote was down by 33,000 first preference votes north of the border was because hardened republicans switched tactically to Alliance to ensure another pro-Remain candidate won. When it comes to grasping at straws, that surely takes some beating.

It's hard to argue that Alliance has bagged top boasting rights. Naomi Long more than doubled the Alliance vote, attracting 60,000 extra first preferences than Anna Lo did when she stood for the party back in 2014, and the party has become the first to describe itself neither as unionist nor nationalist to take a European Parliament seat for the constituency.

Some people will deny that last part. There are always conspiracy theorists on the farther edges of either political tradition who claim to know what Alliance "really" stands for.

It also remains to be seen whether the results represent a permanent shift away from sectarian politics or just a recalibration of the centre. Another low turn out suggests voters here don't give EU elections that high a priority, even after three years of scare stories about the effect of a no-deal Brexit. The Remain vote only went up fractionally on the 2016 referendum.

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What's definitely historic is that the three MEPs sent to represent Northern Ireland in Brussels are all women, a detail which, to be honest, I hadn't even noticed until it was pointed out to me. That makes two things worth celebrating. The first is the increasing prominence of female representatives in a society which has been male-dominated for too long. The second is that their presence has become so familiar that it's becoming possible to not even pay close attention to their gender.

Some might wonder whether the female politicians in Northern Ireland are that much of an improvement on the men. The current impasse at Stormont has been presided over by the DUP's Arlene Foster, Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill and a female Secretary of State after all.

That is to miss the point - and those who champion the entry of more women into politics often miss it most spectacularly.

Alexandra De La Torre is coordinator of the women's peace project the Next Chapter. Last month she said that the real question to ask about the growing number of female politicians in Northern Ireland is: "Are they representing all women? Or are they representing the male-oriented politics of their political parties?"

With respect, that isn't the "real" question at all. It's not women's job to clean up the political sphere, any more than it's their job to clean the house. It doesn't matter if women make anything better. Women have every right to be as useless at politics as the men who came before them.

What matters is that they're there at all, which is why every woman who wins an election represents another small victory, not least in Northern Ireland, where, those totemic leadership roles aside, they're still in a minority politically.

There is something to be said for the argument that having female leaders masks the fact that women still don't have a strong enough voice, but part of the problem is the belief that women have "a voice" when the truth is they have lots of voices.

Too often women in public life are told that they must say and believe certain things in order to earn respect, especially from other women who call themselves feminists, but whose feminism mainly seems to consist of telling other women what to think and haranguing them when they refuse.

Feminists who still think the "wrong" sort of women are winning elections are just as guilty of doing down women as the misogynists who think the corridors of power are no place for a woman.

What's refreshing is that the three women who now speak for Northern Ireland at EU level are standing there on their own merits and on the platforms of their respective parties, rather than playing the "female card". They each see their role, rightly, as to represent everyone in Northern Ireland.

That they're all so different, in character and background and attitude, is noteworthy too. Diane Dodds was a teacher; Naomi Long, an engineer; Martina Anderson... well, let's just say she was out of the job market for a long time.

When it comes to Brexit and the Union and other issues, their views span the whole spectrum of opinion. To give one example, Diane Dodds is opposed to any attempt to dilute the law on abortion; Naomi Long believes that terminations should be decriminalised and made available in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality, but does not support extending the 1967 Abortion Act fully to Northern Ireland; Sinn Fein wants abortion liberalised immediately along the lines of the Republic. That seems broadly representative of views across Northern Ireland.

There are other differences too. Diane Dodds is from a rural background; the other two grew up in the city, one in Belfast, one in Derry. Anderson is also the only one of the three to have blown up a furniture store in her teenage years, whilst Naomi Long found minor fame as a schoolgirl by appearing on the quiz show Blockbusters. Readers must decide for themselves which was the more admirable adolescent pastime.

The important thing is that they are all distinct politically in ways that have little to do with their gender.

As it happens, they're unlikely to get a chance to take up their seats in the European Parliament anyway. The Tories have been so spooked by the rise of the Brexit Party that the new prime minister will feel bound to get the country out of the EU by the October 31 deadline rather than face another general election.

All three seats were filled by women here for the first time, but it was probably also the last time. Just let no one say that the achievement is any less symbolic for that.

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