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Margaret Ward
Democratic Dialogue


How significant were the elections for women?

No matter what one’s political views, the election to Westminster of three women from Northern Ireland provides a welcome change from decades of male-only representation. Political parties have realised that women can be a winning factor in tightly contested elections and the returns from the ballot boxes show that the public is looking favourably on these additions to the political scene. Could this be repeated in future years? Are political parties doing enough to encourage women to stand for election? Are women here finding the political area a more welcoming place? The answers to these questions are not encouraging for women. The results of the local government elections (which have had little attention apart from a focus on the huge gains made by Sinn Fein and the DUP) reveal that far fewer gains overall have been made by the female half of our population.

Adding up the totals

When the numbers of those elected are added up, we can see that twenty two more women have indeed joined the ranks of councillors, which brings their overall total to 18.4% of councillors. While this is a modest increase on the previous figure of 14.6%, it can hardly be heralded as a significant breakthrough in the local government arena. Nevertheless, some fairly striking points do emerge when we look more closely at the figures.

The biggest gains have been in Belfast, where five more women were elected, bringing their numbers on Belfast City Council to twelve — almost a quarter of the total. However, Laganbank and Castle, two of the biggest wards, still have no female representation, despite candidates for the NI Women’s Coalition polling well in these areas. Interestingly, although the NIWC only succeeded in getting one candidate elected (in North Down), all the parties appear to have responded to the possible threat posed by a woman’s party by standing more female candidates in those areas contested by the NIWC. While this might be no more than an election ploy to pull back votes in danger of going elsewhere, it has been of benefit to women’s overall representation:

Armagh, Newtownabbey, Belfast and Down are some of the councils with the greatest proportion of female members. Newtownabbey saw women gaining an extra four seats, bringing their proportion of seats to almost one third. North Down, once again, has an impressive number of ten women councillors out of a total of thirty. Derry City Council returned three more women, making a female to male ratio of seats of 10 to 20, while Carrickfergus and Strabane both gained two extra female representatives. On a less positive note, Antrim and Ballymoney remain ‘no go zones’ as far as women are concerned. In 1997, and again in 2001, inhabitants of these council areas continue to be represented by the male sex only. Generally speaking, in the more rural west, female representation is lower than in the east of the province.


Representation of male and female councillors in local government districts in Northern Ireland, June 2001
District Council Male Female % Female
Antrim 19 0 0.0
Ards 21 2 8.6
Armagh 16 6 27.3
Ballymena 21 3 12.5
Ballymoney 11 0 0.0
Banbridge 14 3 17.8
Belfast 51 12 23.6
Carrickfergus 12 5 29.4
Castlereagh 19 8 29.6
Coleraine 17 5 22.7
Cookstown 13 3 18.8
Craigavon 21 5 19.2
Derry 20 10 33.3
Down 18 5 21.8
Dungannon 22 0 0.0
Fermanagh 22 1 4.3
Larne 12 3 20.0
Limavady 13 2 13.3
Lisburn 25 5 16.7
Magherafelt 15 1 6.2
Moyle 10 5 33.3
Newry and Mourne 28 2 6.7
Newtownabbey 17 8 32.0
North Down 20 10 33.3
Omagh 20 1 4.8
Strabane 13 3 18.8
TOTAL 478 108 18.4


The political parties and female representation

The SDLP, as part of a strategy to challenge Sinn Fein in its claim to be the younger, radical party, made much of its decision to stand the largest number of women as candidates. In reality, the number of forty six women was a small increase of three on their 1997 figure, but the actual election of twenty seven of this group ensured that the SDLP total of 24% female councillors is significantly higher than that of the other parties. However, although all parties have increased their female candidates, the amount, numerically and in percentage terms, remains too small to affect the final outcome. The numbers of women standing are still not sufficient to make a crucial difference to the overall totals. Sinn Fein achieved 13% female representation (up from 9%), the UUP totalled 14.2% (a small increase from 13.5%), the DUP saw 15.2% of women returned (a 3% increase). While the Alliance Party maintained its high proportion of women, its loss of so many seats meant that their 32% female councillors occupy a mere nine places. With regards to the other small pro-agreement parties, the PUP fared dismally and failed to get any of its five women candidates elected. The NIWC, despite expectations of a breakthrough in Belfast, was successful only in Ballyholme and Groomsport.

Party Female Candidates Number of women elected
Alliance 24 9
Conservatives 2 0
Democratic Unionist Party 30 20
Progressive Unionist Party 5 0
Social Democratic & Labour Party 43 27
Sinn Fein 26 14
Ulster Democratic Party 0 0
United Kingdom Unionists 1 1
Ulster Unionist Party 34 22
N.I. Women's Coalition 8 1
Workers' Party 1 0
Independents 10 1




Local government is an important area for women. Many of the issues it concerns itself with have a specific relevance to women, particularly those with caring responsibilities, who want representatives who will fight for green space, play facilities, public services and other amenities. It has also been shown to be a good starting point for a career in political life. More women in local government will have an impact on the numbers of women elected to the Assembly. It is time that all political parties examined their own structures and practices and developed strategies to encourage women to come forward for election. Northern Irish political life is badly in need of fresh thinking. This continued under-representation of women deprives society of new voices and different approaches to social and economic problems. Political parties must support those who are willing to stand for office. The promise by the recently re-elected Labour Government that sex discrimination legislation will be amended to allow for all-women shortlists could lead to interesting debates in the future. Will our new Westminster MPs speak out in support?

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