CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: Power, Politics, Positionings: Women in Northern Ireland (Report No. 4)

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Power, Politics, Positionings -
Women in Northern Ireland

Representing Women

Rick Wilford

Two of the key ingredients of political activity are, as Robin Wilson observed in an earlier DD report,[1] its procedures and its outcomes.

In democratic systems these are, or should be, integrally related. Any disjunction between them risks at best disillusion and at worst alienation-neither conducive to the manufacture of consent or to political stability.

Democratic politics should also be transparent. As Bernard Crick once put it, "the unique character of political activity lies, quite literally, in its publicity"[2]: the means by which decisions are taken, as well as the substance of those they purport to represent, must be observable. In Northern Ireland, however, the 'accountability gap' stemming from reliance on nominated bodies - a hallmark of the direct-rule régime-has been widened as a host of agencies have assumed the administration of formerly public services.

The advent of this new public management alerts us to another component of political activity, representation-not least, the quality of linkages between leaders and led. In a deeply divided society like Northern Ireland, where all roads tend to lead to the constitutional high ground, those linkages have proved crucial. Any deviation by party élites from the path towards either the maintenance of the union or Irish unification threatens a loss of support or even revolt among their respective electorates.

The premium placed on exclusive political testaments sidelines both other interests and those who seek to speak to, and for, them. In effect, the clamour to control the high ground consigns these others to the foothills of debate. Such has been the experience of women, for whom 'otherness 'is a common, lived experience.

Bereft of all but tokenist treatment by Northern Ireland's political parties, and conspicuously absent from its elected tiers of representation, the prevailing culture of 'armed patriarchy' in the region has proved inimical to gender justice. Women have been ill served by its representational politics, although this is by no means a problem confined to Northern Ireland.

A major recent study of women's political participation in the region[3] reveals, however, that women are not content to acquiesce, lingering dutifully outside the men's rooms where what passes for politics takes place. There is compelling evidence, from both women and men, that the perceived interests of women are either subordinated or ignored by Northern Ireland's political parties. Among party identifiers, for instance, a majority of both sexes state unequivocally that no party, including the one they support, serves women's interests - a quite damning indictment.

Of course, the concept of 'women's interest', and the representation of interests more broadly, is contested-not least within feminist discourse.[4] But other findings from the survey demonstrate clamorous support for policies and programmes to overcome the structural and situational constraints afflicting women, a strategy Pru Chamberlayne dubs 'gender recognition'.[5] A sister study of female councillors in Northern Ireland also reveals a shared, if submerged, agenda among the region's few elected women representatives, who are equally sensitive to the impediments preventing women from participating fully in political, social and economic life-in short, from enjoying the fruits of citizen ship.[6]

Women are not deterred by the potential risks of entering the political arena in Northern Ireland; nor do they defer to the belief that politics is men's business. What does deter them is the obstacle course they face: an inequitable division of domestic labour, the paucity of childcare, generalised discrimination and the more particular effects of party selection procedures. And not only is the electorate not hostile to women politicians, but it associates characteristics sought in elected representatives - ability to compromise, honesty, capacity for hard work and approachability-more with women than with men.

This is not predicated on an essentialist belief that only women can represent women. While a significant plurality of women (45 per cent) do believe things would improve if there were more of them in politics, this proportion is eclipsed by the endorsement by two thirds of women that female representation must be increased on grounds of fairness, equity and social justice. This support extends to the local, regional and national arenas of politics, which have been (and remain) virtually monopolised by men.

Explanations for the paucity of women in elected office vary across political systems, although everywhere they lack the drama of a single cause. While history and culture may supply part of the explanation, women have recently achieved unprecedented representation in their assemblies[7] in such traditionally patriarchal societies as Germany and the Republic of Ireland. There is also persuasive evidence that electoral systems can have differential effects.[8]

Globally, women do least well in first-past-the-post systems - for example, in the USA and UK - and tend to do best where list systems are employed, as in Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark. An intermediate (and very modest) representation is achieved in those relatively few countries with a single-transferable-vote system, as favoured by the republic and Malta.

The advantage of list systems, over first past the post, lies in having multi-member representation. This creates an incentive for parties to present a gender-balanced list of candidates, rather than opting only, or largely, for men. In single-member constituencies, conversely, parties may be inclined to 'play-safe' and select an identikit candidate: male, middle-aged and middle-class.

List systems also create the opportunity for parties to assist female candidates through affirmative action, including the adoption of quotas. The greater proportionality of list systems also increases party competition and turnover of elected members, whereas first past the post has an incumbency effect: the same member can be returned with monotonous regularity.

All other things being equal, such personnel turnover, as well as the proliferation of parties, does improve access to representative institutions for under-represented groups, women included. Party ideology has also been influential, however, in the number of women elected in countries with a regional list (for instance, Finland, Sweden and Norway) or a national one (Holland and Israel).

Generally speaking, party 'families' on the left, whether social-democratic or socialist, are for ideological reasons most likely to gender-proof selection practices. Those on the right, deploying a merit-based argument in choosing potential representatives, are least likely to do so. Once a party from one 'family' chooses to gender-proof its list, others often follow suit, while parties drawn from a competing 'family' may not.

Besides the interaction of electoral systems and selection practices, women are disadvantaged by occupational segregation. Randall notes the significance of 'eligibility enhancing professions', notably business and law, which seem almost to be a prerequisite of a career in politics, and which are of course male-dominated.[9]

While conventional wisdom and some social science research suggests there are individuated causes of women's absence from the political arenas-that they lack the experience, knowledge, skills, interest and confidence to enter the public fray-this is not an explanation strongly favoured by the general population. Apart from 'blaming the victim, - a convenient party alibi for not actively recruiting women candidates-it also ignores the disproportionately high participation of women in a wide range of 'small-p' political activities.

In effect, women have carved out a civic space between the orthodox public realm of politics and the private sphere of home and family This space, in which a bewildering range of voluntary and community organisations flourish, is largely characterised by activity offering self-help for women, plugging the gaps of an inadequate welfare régime. It demonstrates that politics is in reality a seamless robe rather than a separate sphere and is testimony to the venerable adage 'the personal is political'.

Moreover, among such female activists, motives for participation are commonly inclusive. 'Communitarianism', expressed as a desire to serve the interests of others - irrespective of national or religious identities - is heavily pronounced. In addition, women are much more likely to stress self-fulfilment, thereby dovetailing self and other-directedness. These are motives inspired by a 'power to' effect change, rather than a determination to exert 'power over others.

The ubiquity of women in this civic space can, of course, be rationalised as arising faute de mieux: they are clustered there because they are uninterested in the public arena of politics or they have nowhere else to go. Yet both interpretations diminish the wellsprings of such activities. Moreover, the Northern Ireland Office has given tacit recognition to this form of expression by increasing the female beneficiaries of its patronage.[10]

Though they have not achieved parity with men on Northern Ireland's 128 nominated bodies , women constitute a growing proportion of appointees to this wide array of agencies and are not merely tucked into the folds of the political conflict out of harm's way. Criticised for exemplifying Northern Ireland's 'democratic deficit', these quangos have helped secure a place for women in the public realm denied by the parties.

Here we encounter a paradox - or, at least, a conundrum. If the nominated bodies were to be displaced by democratically elected alternatives, would women be decanted back into the margins of public life? Patronage has, numerically, proved advantageous for women, whereas electoral competition has not. Unless candidate selection procedures are changed, women may be better served through appointment than by relying on the parties to gender-proof selection.

The record of the region's parties in this regard should occasion real concern for a more settled political future. A majority of both men and women blame them for failing to provide women with the opportunity to run for office. Coupled with the widespread condemnation of the parties for failing to represent the interests of women, they do emerge as villains of the piece in the public mind.

Selection procedures, jealously guarded by the parties' respective selectorates, are a key gatekeeper in shaping the gender balance of representatives. Given the proliferation of women in civic space, a shortage of supply of those well-versed in the skills, experience and knowledge needed for campaigning or fundraising is not evident; nor does the population at large believe women lack the individual resources for a political career. Rather, part of the answer to the under-representation of women in elected office lies in the demand for more female party candidates.

Lovenduski[11] has distinguished three alternative party strategies to attract women as candidates: the rhetorical, positive action and positive discrimination. The spectrum thus ranges from: mimicking the catchphrase of 'The Price is Right', exhorting women to 'come on down' yet doing nothing to pave their way; to measures such as training seminars, leadership courses or financial support for childcare; to adopting gender quotas or sanctioning women-only shortlists. In Northern Ireland, the rhetorical strategy is common to the major unionist parties, while positive action measures have been adopted, to some extent, by Alliance and both the Social Democratic and Labour party and Sinn Féin.[12] While the latter two have adopted gender quotas for internal party officers, neither has introduced positive discrimination in candidate selection; nor are they likely to in the wake of the industrial tribunal ruling in Leeds earlier this year against women-only shortlists in the Labour party.

Whatever strategies are adopted by political parties the fact is, as Lovenduski[13] reminds us, that increasing women's elected profile will rest largely on their own efforts. The choice of a list system for the Northern Ireland forum/talks election was, on the basis of evidence elsewhere, advantageous for women. Among other things, publication of candidate lists may to some extent have deterred parties from packing the top of their lists with men, or grouping women at their feet. And the lists themselves created the motive and opportunity for women within parties to campaign for their inclusion on an equitable basis.

But what added spice to the election was the appearance of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition. With rare exceptions, the electoral success of women's parties around the world has been underwhelming. But the coalition's entry into the campaign did somewhat concentrate the minds of other parties on gender politics - not least the very issue of candidate selection.

And it was on that issue that the coalition marshalled its support. While there is convincing evidence, amongst most women (and many men) in Northern Ireland, of an agenda of gender issues that transcends communal divisions, the belief that there should be more women in elected office is much more pronounced. It is a belief that rests largely on a commitment to fairness and justice, rather than the view that only women can represent women.

The population isn't starry-eyed about the ability of women representatives to usher in an era of settled peace and sweet reasonableness. Moreover, women do not regard themselves as having the future in their bones and they are no more likely than men to believe that the past is a foreign or forgotten country. Nor is there a gender cleavage in Northern Ireland concerning the rights and wrongs of political violence or the constitutional future of the region.

There is, though, evidence of a women's culture which, as Hedlund[14] observes, has two faces: a negative aspect that embraces passivity, lack of self-confidence and dependence on men; and a positive dimension emphasising connectedness, care for others and cooperative, non-aggressive behaviour. This, she argues, exists as "an invisible sphere suppressed in the world of men" but it "carries a potential for change and liberation that affects the entire society".[15] Activist women engaged in a wide gamut of informal participation across Northern Ireland, as well as the region's female councillors, do tend to exhibit a more consensual and coalescent political style.

There are real risks - both ideological and practical - in stressing difference between women and men, whether conceived in essentialist or material terms, or in assuming that women compose a monolithic bloc of potential voters. Yet the parties would be well advised to recognise that the electorate is acutely aware of the disadvantages women face and is receptive to proposals to remove them. In that respect the Women's Coalition will have succeeded if it constrains the major parties to address the issue of representation in gender-justice terms.

Whether or not a critical mass of women would make a substantive difference to political outcomes is a largely, and in Northern Ireland wholly, untested proposition. There is, though, buoyant and widespread public support for the view that women should be fully included in the processes through which those outcomes are decided. While 'parity of esteem' has entered the standard lexicon of Northern Ireland politics, it will remain an empty phrase unless and until the majority of the population - women - achieve numerical equality


1 Robin Wilson, Reconstituting Politics, DD report 3, Belfast, 1996, p3
2Bernard Crick, In Defence of Politics, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1964, p20
3Robert Miller, Rick Wilford and Freda Donoghue, Women and Political Participation in Northern Ireland, Avebury, Aldershot, 1996. The survey upon which the book is based was funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council. The results have been deposited in the ESRC Data Archive at the University of Essex, ref R000232726.
4Most texts on feminist theory address the issue of 'women's interests'. See, for instance, Mary Evans ed, The Woman Question, second edition, Sage, London, 1994; Gisela Bock and Susan James eds, Beyond Equality and Difference, Routledge, London, 1992; C L Baccbi, Same Difference: Feminism and Sexual Difference, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1990; Valerie Bryson, Feminist Political Theory: An Introduction, Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1992; Maggie Humm ed, Feminisms: A Reader, Harvester Wheatsheaf, Hemel Hempstead, 1992; Diana Coole, Women in Political Theory: From Ancient Misogyny to Contemporary Feminism, second edition, Harvester Wheatsheaf, Brighton, 1993; and Kathleen B Jones and Anna G Jonasdottir eds, The Political Interests of Gender, Sage, London, 1988.
5Pru Chamberlayne, 'Women and the state: changes in roles and rights in France, West Germany, Italy and Britain, 1970-1990' in Jane Lewis ed, Women and Social Policies in Europe, Edward Elgar, Aldershot, 1993, pp 170-193
6Rick Wilford, Robert Miller, Volanda Bell and Freda Donoghue, 'In their own voices: women councillors in Northern Ireland', Public Administration, vol 71, no 3, autumn 1993, pp 341-355
7See Eva Kolinsky, 'Party change and women's representation in unified Germany' and Yvonne Galligan, 'Party politics and gender in the Republic of Ireland', in Joni Lovenduski and Pippa Norris eds, Gender and Party Politics, Sage, London, 1993, pp 113-67
8Pippa Norris, 'Political participation', in M Gitbens, P Norris and J Lovenduski eds, Different Roles, Different Voices: Women and Politics in the United States and Europe, Harper Collins, New York, 1994, pp 25-26; Wilma Rule, 'Electoral systems, contextual factors and women's opportunity for election in 23 democracies', Western Political Quarterly, vol 34, March 1987, pp477-98
9 Vicky Randall, Women and Politics (2nd edition), Macmillan, London, 1987
10 As regards government, between 1991 and 1995 the proportion of women serving on Northern Ireland's nominated bodies increased from 25 per cent to 32 per cent (Central Secretariat, Northern Ireland Office).
11 Joni Lovenduski, 'Introduction: the dynamics of gender and party', in Lovenduski and Norris eds, op cit (1993), pp 1-15
12 Rick Wilford, 'Women and politics in Northern Ireland', Parliamentary Affairs, vol. 49, no 1, January 1996, pp 41-54
13 Lovenduski, op cit (1993)
14Hedlund, 'Women's interests in local politics', in Jones and Jonasdottir, op cit, pp 79-105
15 ibid, p82

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