Voters in Northern Ireland have returned a record number of women to the Assembly.
Of the 90 MLAs elected to Stormont, 32 are female, an increase from 33% in 2020 to just over 35%.
The first Assembly formed after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 had just 13% female representation.
Among them were Monica McWilliams and Jane Morrice of the Women’s Coalition, Sinn Fein’s Bairbre de Brun, the DUP’s Iris Robinson, Joan Carson for the UUP and Brid Rodgers of the SDLP, who was a minister in the first Executive. While change was slow, prior to the ousting of Arlene Foster last year there were four female party leaders in the Assembly.
Newcomers include Kate Nicholl of Alliance, who was elected in South Belfast where three of the five new MLAs are female, and the DUP’s Diane Forsythe in South Down.
Alliance’s Patricia O’Lynn made history as the first female MLA ever elected in North Antrim. She unseated DUP veteran Mervyn Storey.
Another new female face at Stormont is the Alliance’s Sorcha Eastwood, who fronts up a lot of the party’s media appearances and was elected in Lagan Valley along with colleague Connie Egan in North Down.
On being elected, Ms Egan noted that the last time a woman was elected in North Down was 2003. “It’s so important that our elected representatives look like our society,” she said.
Another Alliance newcomer, Nuala McAllister, was elected in North Belfast, knocking out Nichola Mallon and leaving the SDLP with just two women on its Assembly team.
Among them is Cara Hunter, elected for the first time having been previously co-opted to replace the late John Dallat in East Londonderry.
Both Ms Hunter and Diane Forsythe were subjected to misogynist intimidation during the election campaign.
Sinn Fein had the highest number of female candidates.
Michelle O’Neill and Caral ni Chuilin were both re-elected, and relative newcomer Aisling Reilly, who faced her first election after being co-opted last October, retained her seat in West Belfast.
The Ulster Unionists have no female MLAs, with Rosemary Barton losing out to colleague Tom Elliot after the party ran two candidates in Fermanagh & South Tyrone.
Out of the top 10 vote-getters, four were women, with Sinn Fein’s Sinead Ennis polling the most first preferences of any candidate with 14,381 votes — ahead of DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson who received 12,626 first-preference votes.
Other female poll toppers include Michelle O’Neill with 10,845 first-preference votes, Cathy Mason with 9,963 and Deirdre Hargey with 9,511.
All the top female poll toppers are in Sinn Fein. Eight of Alliance’s 17 MLAs are women.
Of the DUP’s 25 MLAs, six are women. Sinn Fein has 14 women among their 27 MLAs. The SDLP has been left with just two female MLAs, Cara Hunter and Sinead McLoughlin, and independent unionist Claire Sugden was also re-elected.
Aoife Clements of the lobby group 50:50 NI, which campaigns for more women in politics, said: “It’s clear from these results that when women are put on the ballot the electorate has no problem voting for them.
“About 35% of the candidates in the election were women and we have returned an Assembly that is made up of 35.6% women. It’s clear here that in order to have 50% of our elected representatives made up by women, we need 50% of our candidates to be women.
“There are lessons to be learned from the UUP. They only selected nine women to run in this election, the majority of which were either placed in unwinnable seats such as West Belfast or were simply running mates to more established male colleagues.
“They now have no women in the Assembly. This is in contrast to Sinn Fein who ran a gender-balanced ballot.
“The women running for this party were placed in many safe seats such as South Down and Mid-Ulster. Sinn Fein as a result has returned a gender-balanced group of MLAs.”