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Women in Northern Ireland at the 2001 General Election
This year's general election may witness a historic breakthrough for women in Northern Ireland and has already witnessed a historically high number of women candidates among the major parties. The total of seventeen (20 per cent) women candidates from the major parties marks an increase of three over 1997, which was the first election in which more than ten women ran for the major parties in Northern Ireland. (The average number of women candidates at previous general elections since 1972 is seven.)
As in the past, most of this year's candidates are from the Alliance Party or SDLP. The SDLP leads with six (33 per cent) Ciara Farren (Belfast East), Marietta Farrell (North Down), Eilis Haughey (Mid Ulster), Dolores Kelly (Upper Bann), Patricia Lewsley (Lagan Valley), and Brid Rodgers (West Tyrone). The Alliance is running four women (40 per cent); Yvonne Boyle (Londonderry East), Betty Campbell (South Down), Jayne Dunlop (North Antrim), and Gerry Rice (South Belfast); and Sinn Fein has three, Michelle Gildernew (Fermanagh and South Tyrone), Janette Graffin (East Antrim), and Dara O'Hagan (Upper Bann). The unionist parties, which in the past have fielded fewer women candidates, have this time nominated four. They are Iris Robinson of the DUP in Strangford; Lady Sylvia Hermon in North Down and Councillor Sylvia McRoberts in Newry and Armagh for the UUP; and PUP candidate Dawn Purvis in South Belfast. MLA Prof. Monica McWilliams is the Women's Coalition's only candidate, in Belfast South.
Aside from the record number of women candidates, this is also an exciting election in that at least three of these women are contesting potentially winnable seats. As with the British parties, a persistent problem has not only been nominating women, but nominating them for winnable constituencies. North Down is the UUP's top target seat, where Robert McCartney is defending a majority of less than 5 per cent over the UUP from the last election and the Alliance has withdrawn to back Lady Hermon as the leading pro-agreement candidate. Strangford is one of the DUP's top target seats, and in 1997 Iris Robinson placed second in the constituency, which is being vacated by John Taylor. Finally Brid Rodgers needs a swing of only 1.5 per cent to become the next MP for West Tyrone, and Michelle Gildernew may benefit from the retirement of the popular Ken Maginnis from Fermanagh and South Tyrone and a split in the unionist vote there.
From the information available on women candidates, six have run at previous general elections, four are members of the Assembly, five contested the 1999 Assembly election, and five are members of local government. The local government election sees 166 women running (about 25 per cent of candidates): 44 for the SDLP, 35 Ulster Unionists, 29 Democratic Unionists, 25 from Sinn Fein, 23 for the Alliance, six for the Women's Coalition, and four from the PUP.
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