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Friday, 8 June, 2001, 22:05 GMT 23:05 UK

Women MPs sweep to power

The general election in Northern Ireland has seen the historic elevation of three females to the House of Commons.

And one of those women will sit alongside her husband in the hallowed halls of Westminster.

Ulster Unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon was the first woman in the province to be elected to parliament since Bernadette Devlin in 1969.

Ms Devlin, a civil rights campaigner, broke all records when she found herself at Westminster. At 22 she was the youngest woman ever to be elected to the Commons.

In comparison, Lady Sylvia is a lawyer and academic.

She will represent the constituency of North Down, after taking the seat from Bob McCartney of the United Kingdom Unionist Party.

After her victory, she said she hoped it would encourage other women to become involved in politics.

"It's a very good message to send out," she said.

She also joked that she thought her husband, the former RUC Chief Constable Sir Jack Hermon, would cope all right without her at home.

"It's amazing what he can do when I'm not in the kitchen," she said.

Lady Sylvia was told that her royal blue suit gave her a striking resemblance to a well known former Tory leader.

She replied: "I wouldn't want to be confused with Margaret Thatcher because I don't carry a handbag, so there's no danger of anyone being handbagged by me."

The second female to be declared was the DUP's Iris Robinson who will represent the formerly male bastion of Strangford.

Mrs Robinson, a 51-year-old grandmother, is already a high-profile politician. She is a councillor in Castlereagh and an assembly member for Strangford.

Her election marks a double celebration in the Robinson household.

She is married to the deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Peter Robinson, who was returned as MP for East Belfast.


" Thank you darling, I'll see you in Westminster "
Iris Robinson to husband Peter

After her victory, as her husband congratulated her, she said: "Thank you darling, I'll see you in Westminster".

Once happy to let her husband get on with politics while she stayed at home, Mrs Robinson, is now a battle-hardened campaigner.

"I have always loved campaigning," she said.

"I throw myself into them body and soul. This was a tremendous campaign and I have no regrets. I'm looking forward to being at my advice centre in Killyleagh in the morning."

Since her election to the assembly, she has juggled her work and family commitments.

"Three Saturdays out of four I go round to satellite surgeries. I have a family, a home, shopping to do, but I also have a passion for what I do.

"It's not a job, it is a way of life. Peter was born a politician, but I have grown into it."

Michelle Gildernew was the last MP to be elected on Friday night, following a recount in Fermanagh South Tyrone.

She is 31 and hails from a family associated with the civil rights movement of three decades ago.

Her elevation to Westminster marks an historic moment for her party. She is the first woman MP for Sinn Fein since Countess Markievicz in 1918.

Ms Gildernew said she wanted to thank the electorate for "this stunning victory".

"Twenty years ago the people of Fermanagh South Tyrone elected Bobby Sands and then Owen Carron, and 20 years ago the people of Fermanagh South Tyrone stood by the prisoners at their most challenging time.

"Today they have stood by Sinn Fein and today they have embraced the peace process."

However, Sinn Fein do not take their seats at Westminster and Ms Gildernew is unlikely to do so either.

Although there were female winners, there were also female losers.

Political celebrity has come late in life for Northern Ireland agriculture minister Brid Rodgers of the SDLP.

At the age of 64, she battled for the vote in West Tyrone against Sinn Fein's Pat Doherty, but lost out.



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