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Friday, 6 April, 2001, 16:52 GMT 17:52 UK

Maiden speeches in short supply

by BBC News Online's Marie Irvine

This election will undoubtedly bring new blood to Westminster from Northern Ireland but if there are rookie MPs will any of them be female?

There are certainly more and more women taking up positions in political life in these islands. The UK has had a woman prime minister and Ireland has had two women presidents.

The House of Commons intake of women MPs increased dramatically in 1997 mainly with New Labour's so-called "Blair babes".

Women in politics

  • Welsh Assembly 40%
  • Scottish Parliament 37%
  • Westminster 18%
  • NI Assembly 13%
    In Belfast the Northern Ireland Assembly has 15 members out of a total 108 and two ministers of the 12-person Executive are women: the SDLP's Brid Rodgers
    and Sinn Fein's Bairbre de Brun.

    But its figures are much lower than in other parts of the UK.

    And a report last year by the independent think-tank, Democratic Dialogue, had a few damning things to say about the Assembly's treatment of women.

    'Mini-skirted Castro'

    Author Margaret Ward found: "The general public remains unaware of the hostility experienced by many women trying to make speeches in the chamber."

    One woman cited a lack of respect from male, mainly unionist colleagues. They would comment on her hair and clothes while she was speaking.

    Others point out that though the situation is not ideal at Stormont at least women are represented.

    So why are the hallowed halls of Westminster the last bastion for NI's few female politicians?

    The last time Northern Ireland elected a woman to parliament was in 1969.

    Bernadette Devlin broke several records at the time. She was the youngest woman ever elected to the Commons and the youngest MP in 50 years.

    She took her seat on her 22nd birthday remarking that hers was: "The arrival of a peasant in the halls of the great."

    " The last time Northern Ireland elected a woman to parliament was in 1969 "
    The civil rights campaigner's career in parliament was nothing if not eventful.

    Once called "a mini-skirted Castro" by a unionist and "an Irish Joan of Arc" by an admirer, her maiden speech was described as "electrifying" by the Conservative Sir Norman St John Stevas.


    Other episodes included a spell in jail for her involvement at the barricades during civil disturbances in the Bogside in Londonderry.

    Then there was her announcement that she was to become an unmarried mother.

    Most memorable was the time the diminutive MP punched the Home Secretary Reginald Maudling in the House.

    She accused him of lying over the events of Bloody Sunday in Derry in which 13 unarmed men were shot dead by the British Army after a civil rights march.

    It was a colourful career by any standards but does the past provide any clue to the present or future?

    It is certainly the case that the nationalist parties have a slightly better record on promoting women as candidates than their unionist counterparts.

    Sinn Fein practises a policy of positive discrimination and five of its 18 MLAs are female.

    Of course no-one is going to stand or get involved in Northern Ireland politics on the basis of their gender alone.

    No-one wants to make a mark as a token candidate but why is there still zilch representation for local women politicos at Westminster?

    Long slog

    Illustrating the gap is the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition. This party is the only one in Britain or Ireland set up specifically to give women a voice.

    Formed in 1996, it draws support from both Catholics and Protestants and took two assembly seats in 1998.

    Its most significant contribution to date had nothing much to do with feminism though.

    It was the drafting of the section of the Good Friday Agreement on how the victims of the Troubles would be treated.

    But despite Northern Ireland having a party specifically aimed at empowering women for a career in politics most have taken a more traditional route through the mainstream parties.

    And undoubtedly it is a long slog for these politicians to make it from the party to the country.

    Close fought

    Where does the path to "girl power" start? Well, presuming a woman makes a name in local government politics perhaps her party will notice this and she may be selected.

    Once this is achieved she still must capture the nomination for a winnable seat. Then the electorate has its say.

    Less than 15% of the candidates standing in Northern Ireland for the general election this time round are women. Of these four merit particular mention.

    They are: Brid Rodgers of the SDLP who will stand in West Tyrone, the DUP's Iris Robinson in Strangford, Sylvia Hermon in North Down and Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew in Fermanagh.

    These seats will be close fought but all four are winnable.

    It perhaps says much about the political landscape in Northern Ireland that even to reach a situation where three women are standing in such seats is a big step forward no matter what the result.

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