Women, Political Parties and Candidate Selection in Northern Ireland
Claire McGing, Department of Geography, Maynooth University, County Kildare, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Assembly and Executive Review Committee at the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly has begun a review of women’s (under)representation in the house, and is currently seeking evidence from stakeholders. Despite a formal recognition of ‘the right of women to full and equal political participation’ in the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, Stormont remains a male-dominated space, particularly on the Unionist side. Apart from Dáil Éireann (16 per cent), the Assembly has the lowest levels of female seat-holding on these islands. Just 20 women (19 per cent) won seats in the 2011 election, which was a record high. This has since increased to 21, following a co-option. By contrast, 42 per cent of members of the Welsh National Assembly at present are women, 35 per cent of the Scottish Parliament, and 23 per cent of MPs at Westminster.
Women’s underrepresentation at Stormont is in stark contrast to patterns of civic and grassroots activism in the province – sometimes called ‘politics with a small p’ – where female participation thrives. It is important to note that the main political parties have no shortage of women members, hovering between 60 per cent and one-third of their card-carrying membership. But this is not reflected at the highest levels and, in a post-conflict society like Northern Ireland, is it particularly important that women’s voices are included and recognised in institutional decision-making forums.
In recent years feminist-institutional theory has been developed to explain the gendered nature of political institutions. Informal rules and norms like established candidate selection criteria (e.g. the expectation that candidates for national office will have local political experience) prove as important, if not more important, than formal structures such as the electoral system. Though proportional representation systems are better for gender equality globally then single-seat systems like First Past the Post, they offer no guarantees. PR’s impact is highly contextualised and dependent on the particular political and social-cultural environment in which it operates, as demonstrated in Northern Ireland which uses a relatively ‘women-friendly’ form of PR called the single transferable vote (STV).
Northern Irish voters, as a whole, do not discriminate against women candidates. Like most other electorates in Europe, they use party affiliation, incumbency, and local visibility as their main ballot cues. In fact, apart from the DUP, women candidates of all parties outpolled their male colleagues in 2011. Despite whisperings of new women being little more than ‘paper’ candidates, women challengers were actually were more likely to win seats than their male counterparts – 40 per cent compared to 29 per cent. Thus, women candidates do not lose votes – they are a pragmatic asset to most parties. Incumbency, however, does prove a significant barrier to improvements in gender representation. Though women and men incumbents were almost equal in their prospects of being returned to Stormont, the vast majority of incumbents are male, perpetuating a vicious cycle of women’s exclusion from power. Parties are rational actors, and will nominate those who have already proven their electoral success. Term limits, which place legal restrictions on the amount of time a person can be in elected office, could be considered but that is for another, broader conversation.
If we can’t blame the electoral system or the voters, who is at fault? The main problem seems to lie with parties themselves, who give the electorate very little choice gender-wise. Of the 694 candidates selected by the five main parties since 1998 – the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and the Alliance Party (APNI) – just 131 (19 per cent) have been female. Moreover, only marginal change has been seen over time, and not always for the better. While 16 per cent of party candidates in 1998 were women and 19 per cent in 2007, the 2007 and 2011 figures emerged at 21 per cent and 20 per cent, respectively. Thus, the proportion of women candidates actually decreased in the last election, despite a growing international concern around gender equality in power.
As also seen south of the border, female candidacies are almost inversely related to ticket magnitude: parties running the highest number of candidates per constituency tend to nominate the fewest women. This shows the importance of specific political party cultures on women’s advancement: depending on their histories, organisation structures, electoral strategies, and ideologies parties will view the importance of gender differently.
In Northern Ireland, the parties with the most electoral success, first the UUP and the DUP since 2007, are the most conservative when it comes to selecting women. Women in these parties have also been more reluctant than their nationalist sisters to mobilise for more influence – any change risks upsetting the very culture they wish to protect. A move towards centralised selections in the UUP appears to have helped women – their share of ballot positions increased from three per cent to 11 per cent between 2007 and 2011, despite running ten fewer candidates – but this has come at a time when the party is becoming less and less electorally significant. Though the most hard-lined unionist DUP has too produced few women MLAs, they comprised 16 per cent of candidates in 2011, a record high for the party. While yet to reach parity in their elected ranks, the nationalist parties are more open to female candidacy. On average, the republican Sinn Féin, which is seeing its electoral strength grow in every election, has run the highest percentage of the two since 1998, nominating 28 per cent women candidates in 2011. The SDLP’s record has slipped considerably, peaking in 2007 at 40 per cent and falling to 14 per cent in 2011, where they were actually outranked by the DUP. Finally, the bi-confessional APNI has been the most consistent promoter of women candidates, outranking all others in 2011 at 32 per cent. But, in a party system dominated by ethnic voting blocs, its support levels are modest, despite seeing continuing increases. The APNI won eight seats with eight per cent of the vote in 2011.
These is, in essence, a ‘mismatch’ between formal and informal processes – while the mechanics of STV and the voters are relatively gender-neutral, political parties are reluctant to nominate women and men on more equal terms, even though gendered membership levels allow them to do so. Historical legacies of male power prevail – the status quo is hard to shift in gendered institutions like Stormont. As Northern Ireland attempts to deal with the ‘left-overs’ of the peace process, the key to achieving a critical mass of women in power lies in radically reforming internal selection rules and norms. Incremental measures, though limited, are not working.
The suggestion of gender quotas remains highly controversial and most parties, particularly on the unionist side, continue to emphasise the utmost importance of meritocracy. No party in Northern Ireland has of yet taken advantage of the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002, allowing for British parties to draw up all-women candidate shortlists (AWS) for elections. AWS address the pre-selection level: only women can contest for a nomination in designated constituencies, usually ‘open’ ones or where an incumbent is retiring. The success of such measures can be seen in the UK’s Labour Party which elected one-third women MPs to Westminster in the 2010 general election. This was significantly higher than the Conservatives (16 per cent) and Liberal Democrats (13 per cent), neither of which applies AWS. For swift change and to catch up with the other devolved houses, AWS should be considered by all Northern Irish parties as a matter of urgency, particularly those in a position to win the highest number of seats in 2016, the DUP and Sinn Féin. As the province moves towards a more conventional liberal democracy, political parties should make gender equality a top priority. The current review by the Assembly and Executive Review Committee into positive action measures is a good start – here is hoping it leads to change.