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Assembly Debate - Women in Politics

NORTHERN IRELAND ASSEMBLY DEBATE  14 MAY 2007

UNDER REPRESENTATION OF WOMEN IN THE ASSEMBLY

 

Ms J McCann: I beg to move

That this Assembly expresses serious concerns about the under-representation of women in the Assembly and calls on all parties to commit themselves to addressing the situation; and for the establishment of an all-party working group to discuss these and other issues that have a negative impact on women; and further calls on an incoming Executive to fully implement and resource a comprehensive strategy to tackle the under-representation of women in political life.

Ba mhaith liom an rún a mholadh.

I welcome the opportunity to take part in this important debate on the under-representation of women in the Assembly. In Ireland today women are still not fully represented in either national politics or in local government decision-making structures. Men continue to dominate all our cultural, social, economic, legal and political institutions.

The following statistics graphically illustrate this inequality. In Ireland as a whole women make up 51% of the population, yet in the North of Ireland only 16·7% of MLAs and 21·3% of local councillors are women. In the South of Ireland only 13% of TDs and only 15% of elected councillors are women. In this Chamber only 18 out of 108 MLAs are women — all of whom have been elected because of their abilities and their contributions to political life.

The statistics show that women are seriously under-represented at all levels in the decision-making process. Such under-representation does not happen by accident but is caused by inequalities of power, which are deepened by other factors such as poverty; educational disadvantage; lack of access to housing and appropriate healthcare; violence; rural isolation; inaccessibility for people with disabilities; racism; and ageism. It will take political vision and will to change that, but it can be done.

The primary benchmark in relation to women’s engagement with, and representation in, politics is the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women, which took place in 1995 in Beijing. That conference identified two key strategic objectives: to ensure women’s equal access to, and full participation in, power structures and decision-making; and to increase women’s capacity to participate in decision-making and leadership. It also proposed actions to be taken by Governments, political parties, all other concerned parties and the United Nations itself to facilitate those objectives.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that:

“Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country”.

The Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women also seeks to progress women’s rights in respect of politics. However, women are still largely under-represented at all levels of government. Furthermore, they have made little progress in attaining political power in legislative bodies.

All political parties have a responsibility to ensure that more women are elected to the Assembly and other political institutions. Political parties can and should adapt strategies to increase the number of successful women candidates by using positive action in their recruitment and selection processes to ensure that we are all working towards achieving 50:50 parity. The playing field is not even at the moment, and we should not pretend that it is.

Political parties can engage with women’s organisations that work at encouraging and supporting women to enable them to become more involved in political life. However, there is real need for an all-party group to examine all the issues that lead to under-representation.

All of us in this Chamber can reflect on at least one woman who has had a positive role in shaping and directing our future. Our mothers, sisters, wives, partners and daughters have at some stage contributed towards making us into the people we are, yet despite all the strategies and policies adopted by Government to promote gender equality, extensive discrimination against women in all areas of life still exists. Women bring a great contribution to the development of society. It is incumbent on all agencies to ensure that all possible mechanisms for advancing gender equality are used rigorously.

The under-representation of women in politics and public life has a negative impact on politics and on society as a whole. Women constitute a diverse group with many talents, life experiences and positive attributes to bring to the world of politics. Equality and human rights are at the core of the Good Friday Agreement, and we must ensure that equality for women is a priority. An Ireland of equals can be achieved only in the context of full equality for women.

The female MLAs in this Chamber can be positive role models for women to become involved in politics, but it is not their responsibility alone. Everyone in the Chamber has a responsibility to ensure that the barriers to women’s participation in all aspects of political life are removed. Gender discrimination and equality for women are issues of concern for us all. Therefore, I call on the Assembly to support the motion.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I have received one amendment to the motion —

Ms Ní Chuilín: Le do thoil, a Cheann Comhairle. On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. If the gender equality strategy has indeed been adopted by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM), it will cut across all the Departments and the Executive. However, if it has not been adopted, is the amendment competent?

Mr Deputy Speaker: We do not have any advice from OFMDFM. That will be sought, but at this stage I am advised that the Speaker has accepted the amendment as being a competent amendment.

I remind Members that this is Miss McIlveen’s maiden speech, and that therefore it should be heard uninterrupted.

Mr McNarry: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. In the light of what you have just said, is it your intention that, if a vote should be taken, the information that the Speaker requires as to the amendment’s competence will be relevant to the vote? On this side of the House we should like to hear from Miss McIlveen, and it is a relevant amendment, but if uncertainty exists as to its competence, is it fair to put the House through the strain of hearing it? Is it not possible to give advice now as to the relevance of the amendment?

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Speaker is satisfied that the amendment is competent, and we will continue with the debate.

Miss McIlveen: I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “situation” and insert

“recognises the commitment of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to implementing the Gender Equality Strategy; and believes that individuals should obtain positions on merit, otherwise the argument for greater representation from women can be diminished.”

In order that the Assembly can truly represent the views of Northern Ireland’s electorate, it should be reflective of the demographics of that electorate. That is a truism. Sadly, however, only 16·7% of the Members of the Assembly are women. If this were an accurate refection of the electorate, the human race would be approaching extinction.

I welcome this debate. Like many others in the Chamber I am concerned about the under-representation of women, not only in the Assembly but in each stratum of political life, and this is an opportunity to express those concerns. The motion proposes the establishment of an all-party working group to discuss the under-representation of women in this Assembly, along with other issues that have a negative impact on women. This is duplication rather than additionality. Such issues are within the remit of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister through the gender equality strategy.

Indeed, four Members of this Chamber spoke at a conference in November 2006 at Hillsborough Castle, organised by the Secretary of State and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, that specifically addressed the issues faced by women and the problems in the political system in Northern Ireland. We still await the report pertaining to that conference.

What more would the establishment of a working group hope to achieve? If it is the hope that a quota system be imposed on the parties, I find such a proposal an insult to my gender. As a female representative, I feel that the honour of being selected by my party to stand, and my subsequent election to this Assembly by the Strangford electorate, would be tarnished if that selection were the result of an enforced quota system and not on merit. I wish to be judged on my abilities and not on my gender.

Over the last two years, I have been actively involved in the Women in Local Councils initiative, which has placed the issue on the agenda, and I have been encouraged by the progress that has been made. As a woman, I am conscious of the difficulties that can be faced. That said, however, those same difficulties are faced by many of my male colleagues. We need a working environment that encourages new people to enter local government and retains them once they have been elected. It is from local government that future MLAs can be cultivated. The current working environment is too inflexible; it needs to be able to accommodate a life outside of it.

The traditional role of the woman as the sole carer for the family while the man is at work has long since gone. Those responsibilities are now shared. We do not assist the cause of converting more women to the idea of running for civic office by continually concentrating on negatives, particularly when those negatives, such as conflict with work and time away from the family, are the same for men as they are for women.

There has been much talk of the problem of getting women selected, of old-fashioned attitudes and of the need for mentoring and capacity-building. However, the primary problem is that women do not seek elected office; it is overthrowing that obstacle that is most important. Society is now willing to accept and elect female politicians, if only more could be encouraged to appear on the ballot paper. Forcing them onto the ballot paper is not the answer. Parties need to look within to address any lingering prejudices that may persist. The DUP has a growing female representation, and we are proud of the achievements in our party. Our challenge is to highlight the talents of candidates, irrespective of gender, and promote on the basis of merit. Furthermore, parties must assist with fluidity of movement throughout their ranks by implementing the correct supportive measures. For those reasons, I ask the House to support the amendment.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I call Mr Basil McCrea. I remind Members that this is Mr McCrea’s maiden speech and should therefore be heard without interruption.

Mr B McCrea: I am grateful for this opportunity to address the House. I listened with some interest to Miss McIlveen’s speech, and I concur with much of what she said. The real issue is one of equality of opportunity, but selection on merit. There is no doubt that this is an issue for all Members.

The Ulster Unionist Party, in common with many other parties, has sought ways of dealing with the issue. One need only look at what Mr Cameron has tried to achieve with his A-list. Apparently, he has managed to identify the key criteria that make up ideal political candidates of either gender. Perhaps something that we ought to consider for future reference is that all political representatives should go through that kind of test. Of course, even though Mr Cameron has been successful in getting women selected in 43 out of his 107 most winnable seats, it has not been without its difficulties.

The Labour Party also tried to deal with this issue. It has had all-women lists, twinning of constituencies and zipping, yet its disappointment at the Blaenau Gwent by-election result shows that the public do not take kindly to having candidates foisted upon them.

Returning to the local situation — and there was the sad demise of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition — research was carried out on this issue, and some notable statistics emerged.

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First of all, 70% of men and women do not care about the gender of the person who represents them. Secondly — and this point was touched on earlier — 70% of people thought that women either chose not to put themselves forward or chose to put their family before a career in politics. In other words, we are talking about female choice. We have a challenge: we have to encourage a greater number of qualified women to come into politics.

I want to pick up on a point that my colleague made earlier. It is a little strange that other parties whose members have already contributed to the debate have actually deselected sitting MLA females and replaced them with men.

Some Members: Who?

Mr B McCrea: This issue is one for everybody, and we do not intend to duck it — and to answer the MLAs who are interrupting, Norah Beare MLA was deselected and replaced by an all-male constituency slate, and in Newry and Armagh, Pat O’Rawe was deselected and replaced by a man. If we get to a situation — [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Let the Member speak. I remind Members that this speech should not be interrupted.

Mr B McCrea: We want to attract more women into politics, but we have to consider the political system that is in place. Under the system, we have seen vote management and a very impressive display in West Belfast. It does not matter who is selected because the vote is a vote for the party. It is therefore difficult to understand why the gender of candidates is important.

The Ulster Unionist Party believes in selecting people in a less draconian way than other parties present in the Chamber. [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind Members that Mr McCrea is making his maiden speech. As such, it should be uninterrupted, yet we have had several interruptions.

Mr B McCrea: We have to encourage more people to take an interest in politics. That will be a challenge, because 50% of people out there have no interest in politics, and the other 50% believe that they were conned over the past four or five weeks. People in this Chamber were elected on a manifesto that they are not now keeping to. If we want to encourage women into politics, we have to show them that politics actually works.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Your time is up, Mr McCrea.

Mrs D Kelly: It appears that the Member for Lagan Valley touched something of a raw nerve among Members on the DUP Benches.

I have been in local politics for the past 14 years, and it has not been easy. It has involved many sacrifices. I am sure that some of our male colleagues will have made sacrifices too, but the fact remains that women continue to bear the brunt of family responsibilities — caring for children and for others who depend on us for their healthcare and social care.

Mr McCrea spoke about the electorate, and the proposer of the motion pointed out that 51% of the population of the island of Ireland is female. Mr McCrea suggested that people would vote for whomever they wanted to. However, the electorate is increasingly disengaged from democracy. Why is that? Well, when people look at their political role models, they see far too many men. Positive action is required to bring women into politics, because there are not enough opportunities or support mechanisms for them. In Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and right across Europe, we have seen that positive action works.

The SDLP does not support the amendment. For several years, we have adopted a policy of affirmative action and have put forward more female candidates in previous Assembly elections than any other party. Women make up over 40% of our representation at local council level and in SDLP party structures.

What is the case for gender equality? An increase in the number of women elected to the Assembly would lead to a higher quality of decision-making, reflecting the greater diversity of experience of those making decisions. Evidence from the newly devolved institutions in Scotland and Wales highlights that a relatively high number of people have had a discernable impact on shaping their policy agendas.

We should be mindful of that point, particularly today, when it has been revealed that 100,000 children in Northern Ireland are living in poverty. That represents a huge challenge to us all. That is one good reason why more women should be engaged in local politics.

Representation plays a greatly symbolic role. It is important for decision-makers to be effective role models and to be truly representative of their electors. Women make up 51% of the electorate. There are far too few women in this Chamber, and too few parties are taking the matter seriously. The SDLP supports the motion.

Mrs Long: It is a sad state of affairs when the only maidens on the Ulster Unionist Benches are their maiden speakers. That is something that the party should consider — that we have better representation.

Mr Kennedy: Would you like to join?

Mrs Long: I shall decline that kind invitation.

[Laughter.]

Mr Kennedy: You lot have changed parties before.

Mrs Long: The Ulster Unionist Party tends to shed, rather than gain, Members during any Assembly term. If any of that party’s members would like to come in our direction and join a party with better representation, we would certainly welcome them.

Democracy is best served when the elected cohort reflects wider society. I do not believe that the current cohort does that in respect of gender representation or in respect of people with disabilities, people from ethnic minority backgrounds, young people and, indeed, many other groups in society who look at this Chamber and do not see anyone who reflects their individual interests and concerns. The Member for Strangford said that if the Assembly were an accurate reflection of society, society would become extinct. Dare I suggest that there are people outside the Chamber who would say that, if that were the case, it would not be a bad thing?

I am disappointed with the motion in that it is very narrow and considers only the issue of gender, whereas representational democracy needs to look at a much broader range of subject matters. The amendment is also extremely narrow, which I will talk about later.

Most people agree that there is a need to have a more representative democracy. However, the debate will centre not on the wording of the motion — which I am quite comfortable with — but the wording of the speeches that have taken the debate a step further. We have now entered the realms of saying that, rather than needing to investigate whether barriers exist to women entering politics, we accept that those barriers do exist and that the way to get around them is so-called positive discrimination.

I do not believe that discrimination can ever be positive; if someone is promoted for the wrong reasons, it will always have a negative effect on someone else. Discrimination is therefore always negative. In that sense, the amendment is very strong on the fundamental principle of merit — that people should be promoted on the basis of ability and nothing else. However, the amendment stops short and cuts across the original motion at the wrong point by eliminating any sense of responsibility for taking forward the work to create a level playing field. It is that aspect of the amendment that makes me uncomfortable.

Many things that stop well short of engineering equality of outcome can, and should, be done to create equality of opportunity. That is where attention should be focused.

I have some issues with regard to the speeches so far. I agree with the proposer of the amendment about the language that is used and the gender stereotyping. For example, at meetings where getting women more involved in politics is discussed, much of the time is spent talking about childcare responsibilities. Although that is not an issue for me, as I am not a parent, it is for many women, and it is a huge issue for some of my male colleagues, who are parents. Therefore, in our language and in how we address such issues, we must base our examination of the barriers to people’s participation in politics on the issue rather than on a presumption that is based on a gender-biased approach.

Furthermore, we should examine societal change, and I do not agree that at the moment parents share full responsibility for their children or for wider caring responsibilities in the family. That is where we should be heading; however, we are not there yet, so those societal issues must be addressed.

Parties should also examine such matters as succession planning. Many of the people in this Chamber have been here for a long time. Change through those parties is more difficult to see, because there is no natural turnover.

My sympathy lies with the amendment, but I cannot support it for the following reason. The last sentence says that:

“the argument for greater representation from women can be diminished.”

I do not believe that that is true. The argument for better representation of women is a democratic imperative. The credibility of female Members can be undermined as a result of discrimination, as can the democratic process. I should prefer to see a move away from politics based on patronage, financial status, class and gender bias; however, I do not believe that simply by reversing the direction of discrimination we will achieve that end.

Mr Weir: I support the amendment, and I am glad that the motion has been brought to the Assembly. Contributions to the debate have, so far, been good, although the Ulster Unionist Party was, as far as I am aware, the only party in the Chamber to reduce the number of female candidates in the last election to the Assembly. The words “kettle” and “pot” come to mind, therefore, when the hon Member for Lagan Valley from that party decides to lecture the rest of us on the issue of encouraging more female representation.

As someone who, through the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) and the Women in Local Councils initiative, has been involved in the issue for some time, I welcome this debate. It should not be pigeon-holed as “female Members of the Assembly”. It affects all of us, whether at council or Assembly level. If we do not have a system, and if we are not fully representative of the community as a whole, we do not harness the full talents of that community. Consequently, the ability and the opportunity, at Assembly or council level, to ensure that we have the best possible solutions to problems are diminished.

A joint survey by NILGA and the National Association of Councillors (NAC) was carried out in 2005 at local council level. It indicated that female representation in Northern Ireland, although lower than in England, was similar to that in Scotland and in Wales. It was said earlier that 21% of our councillors are female.

Although the figure for those returning to local government who had previously been councillors was around 17%, one encouraging statistic from that survey was that the figure for new councillors in Northern Ireland was approximately 30% to 31%. Although that does not reach equality, it does show that things at least are moving in the right direction. However, we must be on our guard to ensure that women, particularly those who were brought in at the last election, are encouraged to remain in the system.

In the brief time remaining, I wish to address two matters, one in relation to the motion and the other to the amendment. In encouraging women into either local government or the Assembly, as was indicated by the proposer of the amendment, quota systems will be detrimental if women are not selected solely on merit. That may prove to be successful in obtaining some seats for women, but if those women are selected, and are seen to be selected, only to reach a party quota, what kind of message does that send out?

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Tokenism will cause more harm to the furthering of women’s careers, and their selection should be purely on merit. As has been mentioned before, the Labour Party got a lot of PR out of the “Blair babes” in 1997, but, 10 years on, the number of female MPs in the Labour Party is fewer than it was in 1997. Many of those women were brought in, and were seen to be being brought in, on an unequal basis. Consequently, that diminished their opportunity for authority.

Mention has also been mention made of the all-party group. As someone who has been involved with women in local councils, I have seen various organisations, such as Women Into Politics and the Northern Ireland Rural Women’s Network, all of which do a very good job. However, we must move away from the idea that if we need to do something about an issue, we need to form a committee. Instead, we need action and practical measures. Encouraging women into politics is more about delivering than constantly forming strategies.

Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?

Mr Weir: Unfortunately, I will have to decline that kind offer as I have only five minutes.

The last Member who spoke mentioned the need to look at childcare facilities, for example, but that is not the be-all and end-all. Sometimes, particularly, with female representation, people tend to look at the matter as at one stereotype, as has been previously indicated. We have to cater for the fact that if we are to encourage as many women into politics as possible — indeed, encourage many people into politics — we have to have flexibility to cover everyone’s personal circumstances. So, for example, simply adopting family-friendly hours may create a situation in which those involved in a career opportunity — and this is particularly true at council level — find themselves excluded from joining councils. We have to ensure flexibility so that all are covered.

The priority has to be assisting entry — not legislating quota systems to make the numbers look good. We have to look beyond a candidate’s gender and get to the root of the problem of how we can put in place a strategy that encourages women. We should not be distracting ourselves with quotas; rather we should be highlighting the potential needs of everyone.

I support the amendment.

Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Before I address the amendment to the motion I would take this opportunity to congratulate you on your elevation to the post of Deputy Speaker on this your first Assembly sitting as Deputy Speaker.

I am speaking in favour of the motion and against the amendment because the latter does not go far enough. It negates the original proposal in that it stops a working group being formed. That is what is important about this. We can have this one-hour debate today, and we can present anecdotal evidence and studies before us. We can go away saying that we had a debate around women in politics and that we have passed a party strategy which will come through the Executive. We can say that we are not sure when it will coming but that it is there. The responsibility to ensure that women can get into politics on a fair and equitable basis rests with each and every one of us. That is what the working group should be about. The working group should go away, study the issues and look at all the various opinions in this Chamber. Sinn Féin has its own views on how to move forward on the matter, as do the Alliance Party, the DUP and the Ulster Unionists, apparently. Those should go to the working group, and we should return to the Chamber and debate reports on the way forward that emerge from that group.

If we neglect 51% of the population on the island of Ireland, in terms of political representation, we will have failed. We can go no further. We have spent many years trying to ensure that we enter a parliamentary body here that is as representative of the people as possible. We now have to ensure that it is as representative as possible of both the genders on the island of Ireland. My mother often told me after I was elected that it was she who drummed my social conscience into me — and she was right. She often reminded me that her generation did not have a chance to have a voice. She was correct in that. We have to ensure that this generation of women has a voice. People should not be standing up on their behalf, but women should be speaking in the Chamber not only about women’s issues but on all the complex issues that will be raised in the Assembly in the weeks and months ahead.

Why do women not seek elected office? Is it because they do not want to be politicians, because they do not have ideas, or because they do not have thoughts and principles on the way in which society should be formed? Of course they do. However, we cannot stand over a statement that says that women do not seek elected office, and then move away from that statement; nor can we say that quota systems do not work because women do not seek elected office. Sinn Féin’s view of the quota system is that every women on the list is there through merit and not because they are women. Sinn Féin ensures that those women are then placed in electable seats.

The SDLP makes much of the fact that it had more women candidates in the last election than any other party. The vast majority of those women stood in seats where there was no chance of their being elected. There must be a responsibility to ensure that women are placed in seats where they will be elected and eventually end up in the Chamber to make a contribution.

I am not making a case for dismissing the amendment because it does not come from Sinn Féin or because it comes from the DUP. The amendment has fundamental flaws. It would cut out a working group, and the gender equality strategy does not particularly refer to women in politics. The motion proposes that we ensure that we get women into politics. The gender equality strategy covers a much wider remit and has its own place, but it is not specific to the issue. Therefore, I support the motion and oppose the amendment.

Mr Beggs: I support the amendment. The principle of equality of opportunity must be maintained, and Members must be appointed on merit. The Ulster Unionist Party does not want quotas. I was disappointed at the number of female Assembly candidates put forward for election and the number that have been elected. The Ulster Unionist Party is already addressing that issue by carrying out a major review.

Several Members have had a go at the Ulster Unionist Party and its all-male Benches. The Ulster Unionist Party could easily have had a female Assembly Member if its MP for North Down had stood, and I have no doubt that she would have been elected. However, would that have been good for her constituents? She cannot be in Westminster and in the Assembly at the same time, and I respect her decision not to stand. I hope that people will appreciate that and stop using that fact as an opportunity to have a whack at the Ulster Unionist Party.

The Assembly must be more gender-representative of the community. I will give Members an example of an area where males, for some reason, have not become involved, which can be easily overlooked. In my constituency, I am involved in children’s and young people’s issues. I am involved in a Sure Start scheme in the Carrickfergus and Larne area, and frequently I am the only male member attending committee meetings, as males overlook those issues. Females are more aware of those important issues and could bring them to the Assembly at a higher level than males. That is just one example.

What can be done? Individual parties must address the issue. Some female candidates have been reluctant to put themselves forward, and all parties must address that issue. Parties should provide training and support, and encourage more women to put themselves forward for election to councils, the Assembly, Westminster and the European Union.

I agree that quotas are not the way forward and would be demeaning to women, and many women political activists to whom I have spoken agree with that viewpoint.

I agree with other Members that the next local govern-ment election should be seen as the most likely launching pad for many new female careers. Undoubtedly, local government is the level at which new people can become involved more easily, and if, in two years’ time, there are many more successful female candidates, I have no doubt that in the two years after that, the make-up of the Assembly will change. To have more female candidates at council, Assembly or whatever level should be a target for all those involved in politics.

Mr K Robinson: Does the Member agree that the Ulster Unionist group on Newtownabbey Borough Council is an example to follow? The majority of UUP members on the last council were female, including the leader and, in 2000, the mayor. On the current council there is 50:50 gender representation in that group, with the chief whip and the leader both being female. Surely that is an example for all to follow?

Mr Beggs: I agree. That is a very good example that should be replicated throughout Northern Ireland.

To return to the issue of double-jobbing, which is a big issue affecting gender balance, there are 18 Northern Ireland MPs, of which 15 are male and three are female, including one female who has decided not to stand again. What happens when an MP stands for a local council or for the Assembly? One can weigh the votes. Double- and treble-jobbing is one of the greatest issues creating gender imbalance in the Assembly and at local government level.

Mr Weir: Will the Member give way?

Mr Beggs: I need to continue, as I am nearly out of time.

It is important that the issue of double-jobbing be addressed so that constituents can be properly represented in the Assembly and at Westminster. It is impossible for one person to properly represent several bodies at once.

If we are serious about the problem of the under-representation of women in politics, the practical issue of double- and treble-jobbing provides one way to address the problem. I see that some Members are touchy about this issue. What happens when a male Member of Parliament stands for the Assembly with an all-male team? Often, three or four of that team will be elected. A debate on the mechanisms that allow MPs to stand for multiple bodies could improve the gender balance by leading to the creation of vacancies.

Ms Purvis: As the only female party leader in the UK, and perhaps the British Isles, I support the motion over the amendment. Members have spoken about equality of opportunity, against the issue of quotas and in favour of the merit principle — I would like to see equality of outcomes.

In the community that I come from, women are still the main carers; they still have responsibility for looking after children and elderly relatives who may be ill, along with children or other relatives who may have severe learning disabilities. In my community, women still have the main responsibility for domestic chores — looking after the house, cleaning, washing and cooking. They still earn less than men: it was recently reported that on average women earn 80% of a man’s weekly wage. We have not even achieved equality of opportunity, never mind outcome.

Certain Members have talked about the “presumption” that women are still the main carers. It is not a presumption but a fact that women are still the main carers right across the board. It is a fact that they still have responsibility for housekeeping, and it is a fact that they still earn less than men.

Even though women make up more than 51% of the population, we do not have 51% representation in this Assembly. In fact, I do not believe that we have 51% representation in any of the Houses across the United Kingdom.

I do not particularly agree with quotas, but they could be useful where there is reluctance to examine the barriers that are faced by women. The use of quotas could be an important measure to make people look at the structural difficulties that women face. The introduction of quotas may come about. They could always be revised once equal representation has been achieved.

I would like to see this Assembly endorsing politics as a real career choice for women, because currently it is not. In my community, women would run a mile in the opposite direction at the mention of politics as a career. That is because they face many barriers when it comes to having a career in politics.

They face emotional and practical barriers. I am a great believer in the idea that if the practical barriers are sorted out, the emotional barriers that prevent women from taking their rightful place in the politics of this country will also be removed.

1.30 pm

Lack of confidence is one emotional barrier that women face. Moreover, their role as children’s main carers means that they feel guilty about leaving their children in order to go to work. That happens not only in politics but across the board. However, if we remove the practical barriers that women face daily, those emotional barriers can be overcome.

The House has gone a long way to dealing with the practical barriers that women face in becoming involved in politics. The Assembly holds its plenary sittings and Committee meetings during the day, not at night. It provides childcare facilities and ensures that women can afford childcare that is of a proper quality. That provision helps to ease the emotional barriers that women encounter when they have to leave children or elderly dependants in order to attend meetings.

Mr Weir mentioned the Blair babes. He said that for the Labour Party to get so many women elected in 1997 had been a great achievement, but he went on to ask where they are now. Where are they now? They are no longer in Parliament because the structures necessary to support them did not change. It was great, then, to get women into Parliament at Westminster, but no support mechanisms were set up to ensure that they remained there. The Assembly has support mechanisms in place to ensure that women stay here. We must do more, however, and that is why I support the motion. The Assembly should support projects that encourage women to follow a career in politics, such as Women in Politics and Girls into Government (GIG). GIG works with working-class teenage girls to give them an opportunity to learn what politics is about. It exposes them to politics, and it plans to bring them up to the Assembly to see what is happening.

Mrs Foster: Although I understand the frustration that some of my female colleagues have expressed, we must recognise that devolution holds out the prospect not only of more females becoming involved in politics but of more young people becoming involved, and, as my Friend Naomi Long has said, more people from ethnic minorities and people with disabilities. That positive exists now that devolution has returned.

A low percentage of women may have been elected to the Chamber, but we must remember that the percentage of women Ministers compared to the number of MLAs is much higher. That is a tribute to the party leaders. Of the five main parties, it is notable that it is my party leader who is the only one who has been present for the entire debate. I therefore thank him for taking an interest in the debate on female participation in politics.

We have a comprehensive strategy to tackle the under-representation of women in, as has been said, all parts of life — the gender equality strategy that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) introduced some time ago. I welcomed that strategy at the time, and, as far as I understand, the Executive have not resiled from the commitment to that strategy that parties made during suspension. I see no prospect of their resiling from that commitment — a point that was raised at the beginning of the debate. We should not use finite resources to reinvent the wheel when we have a gender equality strategy already in place.

I wish to touch briefly on some points that were raised during the debate. Basil McCrea talked about equality of opportunity and selection based on merit. After that, his speech descended into a farce of Monty Python proportions. Dolores Kelly talked about support mechanisms to allow women to come through the system, and she also talked about comparative figures from other Administrations. Naomi Long dealt with the fact that the elected cohort here does not represent women in the way in which it should do. She also stated that women should be promoted on the basis of ability. She felt that language needed to be looked at, and, as a result, she felt unable to support the amendment.

My colleague Peter Weir reflected on his experience as president of NILGA and its Women in Local Councils programme. I commend his leadership in that area. He also mentioned the need for action instead of simply setting up committees or working groups.

John O’Dowd spoke in favour of the motion and against the amendment. He felt that because the gender equality strategy covers all issues, it is not focused enough to deal with the issue of the under-representation of women in politics.

Roy Beggs supported the amendment and tried to defend his party’s lack of female MLAs by pointing to the fact that Sylvia Hermon had decided not to run for an Assembly seat. I acknowledge that although 100% of the Ulster Unionist Party’s MLAs are male, 100% of its MPs are female. [Laughter.]

Dawn Purvis is the only female leader in the House, and she supported the motion. She focused on equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity. She does not agree with quotas, and she talked about some of the barriers women in politics face.

There are many reasons for women not getting involved in politics, and Dawn Purvis dealt with some of them. Some obvious reasons are the aggressive nature of politics, the misogynistic attitudes of some male politicians, the long hours involved and women’s lack of self-belief. Many women feel that they do not have all of the necessary skills and therefore take a backseat. That does not seem to prevent our male colleagues — I am not looking at anyone in particular. [Laughter.]

All those issues can be overcome, but I genuinely do not believe that a working group will encourage more women to get involved in politics. More DUP female voices are being raised at every level. I know that colleagues in the Assembly, both male and female, will continue to encourage and sustain those women who put themselves forward. As a party, we take the issue of female participation very seriously. I genuinely believe that now that the Assembly is up and running, more women will enter political life.

However, Members must face the fact that not everybody wants to get involved in politics. Just as some mothers want to stay at home, others will go out to work. We must facilitate choice, so that everyone has equality of opportunity to come forward. Yes, we should make it easier for women to participate in political life, but setting up working groups is not the way forward.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. This motion is about setting up a working group. Many Members have commented on gender equality and gender imbalance, and some of those comments have been relevant and interesting. However, this is not a debate about gender equality; this is a debate about establishing a working group. At this very moment, the International Development All Party Assembly Group is meeting, and, in the past, working groups have focused on children and young people, disability and autism and so on. Thus, when Members felt strongly enough about an issue, the Assembly decided to establish a working group to examine the issue further on a cross-party basis.

I understand that some parties feel that promoting the idea of a working group — and any actions that may arise from it — might be a bridge too far. I can reveal, without fear of contradiction, that at the last Business Committee meeting one of my male colleagues made an underhand remark about a woman’s place being in the kitchen. Therefore, I am not surprised that some Members do not support the establishment of a working group. However, Members must take seriously their role as leaders, and political parties have a responsibility to make the first move. The establishment of a working group, and the implementation of any other initiatives that may arise from the work of this Assembly, can only complement that effort. However, such initiatives must not become a substitute for work that should begin within political parties.

Unless the Assembly shows leadership, initiatives such as the Women in Local Councils and the Women into Politics programmes will be put under even more pressure.

As far as I am aware, Belfast City Council is the only institution in which female members and female officials work together to resolve this. The council’s cross-party working group has worked well and has led by example.

Last week’s events mean that many people will look to the Assembly to see what type of leadership it will provide and whether its Members will act as positive role models. I welcome the opportunity to assist the Ulster Unionist Party in encouraging more women into politics. I and other Members do not want to look constantly at Benches that are male, pale and grey. Therefore I support the motion and reject the amendment.

Mr Kennedy: That is an accurate representation!

Ms Ní Chuilín: Take a wee lie down, Danny. [Laughter.]

Mr Deputy Speaker: Ciúnas. Order.

Question put, that the amendment be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes: 44: Noes: 43

Ayes

Billy Armstrong, Roy Beggs, Allan Bresland, Lord Browne, Thomas Buchanan, Gregory Campbell, Trevor Clarke, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Jonathan Craig, Nigel Dodds, Jeffrey Donaldson, Alex Easton, Tom Elliott, Sir Reg Empey, Arlene Foster, Samuel Gardiner, Simon Hamilton, David Hilditch, William Irwin, Danny Kennedy, John McCallister, Basil McCrea, Ian McCrea, Dr William McCrea, Michael McGimpsey, Michelle McIlveen, David McNarry, Adrian McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Stephen Moutray, Robin Newton, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, George Robinson, Ken Robinson, George Savage, Jim Shannon, David Simpson, Jimmy Spratt, Mervyn Storey, Peter Weir, Jim Wells, Sammy Wilson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Arlene Foster and Michelle McIlveen.

Noes

Martina Anderson, Alex Attwood, Cathal Boylan, Dominic Bradley, Mary Bradley, P J Bradley, Mickey Brady, Francie Brolly, Thomas Burns, Paul Butler, Willie Clarke, John Dallat, Mark Durkan, Dr Stephen Farry, David Ford, Tommy Gallagher, Michelle Gildernew, Carmel Hanna, Dolores Kelly, Anna Lo, Naomi Long, Fra McCann, Jennifer McCann, Kieran McCarthy, Raymond McCartney, Alasdair McDonnell, Barry McElduff, Claire McGill, Patsy McGlone, Mr Daithí McKay, Mitchel McLaughlin, Alban Maginness, Alex Maskey, Conor Murphy, Sean Neeson, Carál Ní Chuilín, John O’Dowd, Declan O’Loan, Michelle O’Neill, Pat Ramsey, Sue Ramsey, Margaret Ritchie, Brian Wilson.

Tellers for the Noes: Paul Butler and Michelle O’Neill.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly expresses serious concerns about the under-representation of women in the Assembly and calls on all parties to commit themselves to addressing the situation; recognises the commitment of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to implementing the Gender Equality Strategy; and believes that individuals should obtain positions on merit, otherwise the argument for greater representation from women can be diminished.

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