Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: MEPs' gender completely irrelevant ... it's what they actually stand for that counts

Insulting, patronising claim that women are natural peace-makers is an anti-feminist myth, says Fionola Meredith

From left, Martina Anderson, Naomi Long and Diane Dodds at the count for the European elections
From left, Martina Anderson, Naomi Long and Diane Dodds at the count for the European elections
Fionola Meredith

By Fionola Meredith

Did a little tear of sisterly pride and joy spring to my eye when I saw our three new female MEPs take to the podium this week? Did it heck. Far too much has been made of the fact that Naomi Long, Diane Dodds and Martina Anderson happen to share the same chromosomes. That's about all they share, as far as I can see, and it means diddly squat. Despite all the trumpeting, their gender is the least relevant thing about them as politicians.

Yes, it's true that the election of three women to represent us in Europe - for however long or short a time they may actually have a job there - is historically unprecedented.

And I'll admit it does make a change from Ulster's gammonish, male-dominated past, where you had to resemble a sausage in a pin-striped suit even to be selected as a candidate.

Those days of overt sexism and blatant prejudice are long gone, thank God. Authority no longer belongs solely to privileged old men.

The reality, however, is that mesdames Dodds and Anderson have already been knocking around Brussels for years, without noticeable improvement in the lives of any of us. The fact that they'll now be joined by Long does not exactly herald a feminist revolution.

I'm cynical about all this, you see, because I have history with the cause. Many moons ago, I worked for an organisation that was specifically set up to get more women involved in politics and public life.

Hilariously, I don't believe we succeeded in getting a single female nominated, let alone elected - perhaps they had better things to do than join Northern Ireland's toxic, revoltingly polarised political system, and I don't blame them one bit.

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Even then, however, I was troubled by secret doubts. I mean, look at Margaret Thatcher. How would it benefit anyone if there were to be 10, 20 or 100 more women, just like her, entering parliament?

I kept such terrifying thoughts to myself, but they continued to haunt me. And I also found it increasingly hard to swallow the prevailing myth that women are intrinsically better suited to politics because they are more consensual, less confrontational - basically nicer, more kind and nurturing and cuddly - than men.

That was our article of faith, which we clung to in the face of any evidence to the contrary. Blame the Women's Coalition.

Women sort stuff out, we said. They get things done and they aren't troubled by overweening ego and macho swagger in the way that men are. Whatever their differences, they find ways to connect with each other, build bridges and sort out a compromise that makes everyone a winner. Don't they?

Utter garbage, I'm afraid. To anyone who still wishes to perpetuate this tripe - and I've heard and seen plenty of it on the airwaves and online this week - I give you two names: Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill.

These nice, cuddly, consensus-building women, as leaders of the two main parties, are responsible for the howling vacuum where Stormont should be but isn't. They are not victims of the system: they preside over it. They are the prime architects of Northern Ireland's current political dysfunction.

Put it this way: the mutual possession of a pair of ovaries doesn't seem to be helping much.

The claim that women bring beneficial, gender-specific qualities to the political arena is not just arrant nonsense. It's also deeply un-feminist. It puts women straight back into the corner where they've been imprisoned for millennia - as natural home-builders, nurturing breeders, loving peace-makers.

If women want to be taken as seriously as their male counterparts, this fluffy stuff will have to go. Don't tell me anyone actually believes it anyway. To those that do, I ask - where's your evidence?

Look again at our two freshly re-elected MEPs. Martina Anderson is a former terrorist whose party has never renounced the politically motivated murders of the past. Diane Dodds represents a party which denies women their basic reproductive rights and opposes same-sex marriage.

Not exactly brimming with the milk of sisterly kindness, are they? It's absurd to celebrate either of them as feminist role-models.

Given that women make up more than half the population, our politics would certainly be more representative, and in that sense fairer, if more of them played an active part. And of course, there should be no barriers placed in the way of anyone, of any gender, who wishes to seek election.

But equally, there's no reason to think that more women means better politics. We're all human, after all.

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