Belfast Telegraph

I'm really more worried about human rights than whether Eamonn McCann should have to wear a tie at Stormont

The number of female MLAs has risen to 30, but Fionola Meredith says it doesn't mean there will be better, more open-minded and fairer government.

The question of whether the newly elected People Before Profit member Eamonn McCann will be compelled to wear a tie in the chamber may not be the most pressing issue facing the new Assembly.

But it reminds us that our little parliament at Stormont has a well-deserved reputation as a bastion of macho supremacy, with many a tie-wearing stuffed shirt taking up space on the blue benches. There are high hopes that the influx of new female representatives, who have displaced a few complacent male behinds, will change that culture.

The tie, when you think about it, is a very odd garment. Worn almost exclusively by adult men, this dangly, useless piece of cloth confers substantial social status on the wearer.

Once looped around the neck and folded into a fat knot, the tie says that this man is a professional, upstanding member of society, dignified and worthy of respect. Essentially, he is in uniform, and ready to take charge, ready to play the game. His words will be taken seriously.

Conversely, its absence, as the famously tie-less broadcaster Robert Peston has recently discovered, may be read as a sign of personal sloppiness, fecklessness and disrespect.

The Tory grandee Sir Nicholas Soames took it upon himself to tell Peston to "get a haircut, put on a tie and generally smarten up".

Anthropologists note that the shape of the tie is actually a rather crude piece of power-signalling, a big arrow pointing down at the male genital region. "A displaced codpiece", as one observer put it, indicating the most basic kind of sexual dominance. Now that's something for blokes to ponder as they get ready in the morning.

It's all about authority, you see. Who gets it, who earns it, who inherits it like a divine right, simply by virtue of being a man.

It's not a coincidence that women don't wear ties. We don't have that familiar and convenient marker of power to rely upon. Let's face it, a pearl necklace - much on show among female candidates in the run-up to the election, presumably in an attempt to imply status, though it made me think more of Dynasty-era Joan Collins - doesn't have quite the same effect.

But things must be changing if the number of female MLAs has increased by 50% since the last Assembly, right? A tremendous leap from 20 women elected in 2011, to 30 this time round. With 108 Members in total, there's still a long way to go before true balance is reached, but this is genuine progress. Isn't it?

Well, yes, it is, if the numerical objective is simply to propel more women representatives through the revolving Stormont doors. Beyond that, I'm still to be convinced.

Look, anything that disrupts or challenges the fusty old order of male entitlement, stirs things up a bit, is a good thing. In the interests of diversity, of difference, of basic fairness - given that women make up half the population - there's much to be said for more female voices in the chamber.

But more women does not necessarily mean better, fairer, more open-minded government. It doesn't waft in a fragrant infusion of warm, consensual, mutually respectful political discourse simply because these politicians happen to have a pair of ovaries. And it certainly doesn't mean that female representatives will automatically act in the interests of other members of their sex. Take the issue of reproductive rights which, to me, is one of the greatest injustices our society faces right now.

Which of the new girls will support reform of these barbaric, archaic abortion laws, where you have to be declared crazy to be granted a termination, even if the baby cannot survive, or you've been the victim of rape? Which of them will stand up for the young woman who was recently prosecuted, nominally for inducing a miscarriage, but essentially for being too poor to travel to England? Her name was never revealed, but her motives and her morals were shamelessly trashed.

One new MLA will, I know. Both in word and action, Clare Bailey of the Green party has made her commitment to a woman's right to choose very clear. But many more won't.

Take Claire Hanna, the new SDLP representative for South Belfast. If she claims to be part of a regenerated, youthful, socially progressive party, how much longer can she avoid this vital issue?

There are limits to sisterly solidarity. I'd rather vote for a man - with or without a tie - who supports my fundamental human rights than a woman who ignores them.

Belfast Telegraph


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