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DEVOLVED ELECTIONS 2003
ASSEMBLY ELECTION, 2003
Since the last Assembly election the UK government has passed a law enabling parties to use positive discrimination to facilitate the nomination of women (read about the Act here). Although the media has focused on this Act's implications for Labour and the Conservatives, the Act also applies at the devolved level and it is in Northern Ireland where it could make the greatest difference. In May 2003, CAWP has asked the main parties in Northern Ireland if they intend to take advantage of this new law. The UUP's election director revealed that the party has urged its constituency associations to pay heed to gender and age in candidate selection, and the SDLP similarly encouraged selectors to consider age, gender and geography but neither have any set policies. The DUP's campaign director reiterated his party's opposition to positive discrimination but expressed the hope that women would come forward and be selected as candidates. The Alliance has no policy for facilitating the nomination of women but nonetheless has achieved one of the best gender-balances in its slate of candidates, and we received no reply from the PUP. Alone among the parties Sinn Féin identified policies in place to encourage women. Their Women's Forum provides training for women candidates, and the party provides funds for child care expenses to candidates of either gender.
Apart from Alliance and Sinn Féin, who have raised their women's representation by 11 and 10% respectively, the remaining parties have nominated a similar percentage of women to what they achieved in 1998. This suggests that any increased awareness of this issue raised by the debate at Westminster has had little or no impact in Northern Ireland. The much-heralded election of a record three women MPs in 2001, and the less high profile but nonetheless significant election of a record number of women councillors that year, were obviously not the start of a trend. With nominations as they currently stand this election is unlikely to witness a repeat the breakthroughs of recent elections but will at best see the number of women MLAs hold steady, at the bottom of the UK rankings.
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