Henry Whyte Memorial Lecture
'The Politics of Women's Representation in Northern Ireland
and the Republic of Ireland'
by Yvonne Galligan
22 November 2001
I should like to say from the outset that I see it as a great honour
to be invited to deliver the 2001 John Whyte Memorial Lecture. I remember
John Whyte with fondness and I hope that the thoughts I propose to lay
before you this evening will, in a small way, contribute to the spirit
of his exemplary scholarship.
This evening I would like to reflect on the theme of women's political
presence today in the Northern Ireland Assembly and in the Dáil.
Today, few will oppose the presence of women in parliament. The force
of arguments for equality and human rights in discussions on democratic
participation and representation have given women's claims to equal
power sharing with men a solid normative underpinning. These arguments
have, in turn, had an important influence on our everyday understandings
of politics, with the result that it is no longer seen as acceptable
to have a democratically-elected parliament in which there are no women.
But it's a long way from having no women to having an equal presence
for women with men in parliament. In the democracies on this island,
north and south, we continue to tolerate a less than equal representation
of women and men in our elected assemblies. Tonight, I would like to
tease out what this means for the representation of women and women's
interests, and I will do so in three parts. First I will consider the
matter of numerical presence, sometimes called 'descriptive' representation.
Then I will go on to examine whether women office holders see themselves
as representing women's interests: an aspect of 'substantive representation'.
Finally, I will address the gendered nature of the Stormont Assembly
and the Dáil as political institutions and the implications that holds
for women's parliamentary presence. But first, a story of women's political
In April 1996, two women with a long involvement in the women's movement
in Northern Ireland, Avila Kilmurray and Monica McWilliams, discussed
over dinner the likelihood that women and women's voices would be absent
from the peace talks. They wanted to find a way whereby women were written
into rather than out of the new political future that seemed to promise
for Northern Ireland. Working with the Northern Ireland Women's European
Platform - a long-standing campaigning group for women's equal civic
and political rights - pressure was placed on the Northern Ireland Office
to reserve a space in the election for a woman's party, later temporarily
named the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition.
Drawing on the organisation of women's groups in the region, and on
shoe-string funds, the Women's Coalition fielded 70 candidates. This
was the first time such a large number of women had contested an election
in Northern Ireland. They came from both communities, from working class
and middle class backgrounds, from urban and rural areas. To the surprise
of many, the Women's Coalition secured two seats at the peace talks.
This new party, with a cross-community membership and support base,
opted not to take one position on the constitutional question, but to
establish three core principles around which to build policy: support
for inclusion, equality and human rights. As the peace process unfolded,
the two party representatives, Monica McWilliams and Pearl Sagar, had
to translate those principles into practice, often a fraught process,
as they tried to find common ground for agreement. This form of political
discourse, a 'dialogue across difference', was new to the positional
politics of other parties, but in time it was this valuing and accommodation
of difference that eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement.
The Women's Coalition presence at the talks, their different political
language and their female presence was deeply resented by leading members
of the Democratic Unionist Party. This anger was expressed in the form
of sectarian and sexist insults, some of the more mannerly remarks being
that they 'should stay at home and breed for Ulster' and that their
place was to 'stand behind the loyal men of Ulster'. To which the Women's
Coalition replied with a lively rendition of 'Stand By Your Man'.
In the face of overt and other, more muted, hostility, the Women's Coalition
stayed at the talks, and take credit for, among other things, having
included in the Good Friday Agreement ' the right of women to full and
equal political participation' as one of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed
by this historic document. The party went on to secure two seats in
the Stormont Assembly and has played an important part in stabilizing
the new democratic institutions in Northern Ireland.
I tell this Women's Coalition story because it illustrates the contested
nature of women's presence in the legislative process on this island.
In so doing, it highlights links between the three areas I would now
like to address in more detail: that of women's numerical presence,
women representatives acting for women, or substantive representation
and the limitation imposed on the previous two by the gendered legislatures
on this island.
Today, women hold 15 seats in the 108-member Stormont assembly and 21
of the 166 Dáil seats. If democracy on this island were truly representative
in numerical terms, then women would hold 54 seats in Stormont and 83
seats in the Dáil.
Equal numerical presence in parliament is seen as an important sign
of gender equality, because women and men in Ireland, north and south,
as elsewhere, have different socialisation experiences, different educational
and employment opportunities, different priorities in policy issues,
and different experiences of the state. It is seen as important today
to incorporate these differing perspective into policy making for many
reasons, including the high minded reasons of justice, equality and
democratic renewal. On a more practical level, it makes for more efficient
and accountable government, as legislative deliberations respond to
women's and men's differing needs, perspectives and interests.
And, women's equal parliamentary presence with men serves as a goal
to which a range of 'hard' and 'soft' political strategies can be directed
- quotas, legal requirements, sanctions, electoral system devices, target-setting,
development programmes and other positive action measures.
And, because of the direct appeal of an equal presence of women and
men in decisionmaking, one way we use to measure democracies against
one another is by counting the numbers of women and men in their respective
parliaments and elected assemblies. The more equal the balance of women
and men officeholders resulting from free, fair and regular multi-party
elections, we assume, the more healthy the democracy of a society. By
this standard, the Stormont Assembly and the Dáil have some distance
to go - indeed a longer distance than in most European states - to reach
numerical gender parity.
However, while a numbers matter in many different ways, numbers are
premised on biological female and male rather than gender, and cannot
distinguish between sex and gender. Nor can numbers of themselves cope
with the recognition that gender identity may vary among women. Nonetheless,
facilitating the equal presence of women and men in the Dáil and Stormont,
reveals a presumption that gender equality in the legislature will bring
to politics issues and perspectives that are either marginalised or
not fully represented at present. At this point, arguments for numerical
parity elide into issues of representation.
Women 'acting for' women
The presumption of women legislators representing women's interests
and perspectives, or 'acting for' women, is an inextricable part of
arguments for parity between women and men in democratic institutions,
the legislature in particular. It begs a myriad of research questions,
many still unanswered in an Irish context, and fundamentally also presumes
that women legislators have an awareness of what it is to be a woman
politician, as distinct from what it means to be a politician.
In other words, it raises the issue of whether women politicians have
some sense of a gendered - or even feminist - consciousness that leads
them to raise and espouse political concerns that are marginal or excluded
when legislatures are dominated by men.
At this point, we are into exploring the intersection of women's legislative
presence with political ideology, gender, interest representation and
political rules, norms and practices. And, we are also into examining
the capacity of women legislators to represent differences among women
- be these based on economic, social, ethnic, religious, or other identity-shaping
differences. The substantive representation of women's interests presumes
that women legislators have a consciousness of what it is to be a woman
politician, as distinct from what it is to be a politician. Here, the
significant issue is not just equal numbers, but a gendered awareness
of the world and a capacity to represent multiple gendered interests
through being close to women in society. This is an emerging area of
research on women and politics in Ireland, but in preliminary studies
that ask if women officeholders bring a sense of gender to their representative
work, early indications from Northern Ireland are that they do.
Interviews in June of this year by Kimberley Cowell-Meyers with matched
pairs of female and male MLAs (22 in all) explored the subjective perceptions
of women and men MLAs. She found that both women and men were more similar
than different in their issues of concern, in their understanding of
the role of representative and in their approach to decision making.
She also found particular points of divergence. Let's take her findings,
briefly, in turn.
Regarding issue concerns, women and men MLAs gave similar priorities
to education, the commissioner for children, the economy, health and
developing the new political institutions. However, women legislators
gave a much higher priority to equality and the equality agenda than
their male counterparts.
They were more similar than different in their understanding of the
role of the public representative. Both women and men felt that the
most important part of their job was to help their constituents obtain
public services. Next in order of priority came representing the views
of their party on the constitutional question. However, women MLAs accorded
more importance to the task of representing women than did men. Even
when the two Women's Coalition respondents were excluded, the remaining
women MLAs clearly felt that representing women was a more important
part of their jobs as public representatives than did the men. Men explained
their lack of enthusiasm for representing women in two ways: by saying
that they did not feel comfortable representing or speaking for women
or that they were unwilling to distinguish between the needs and interests
of male and female constituents.
In their approach to decision making, there was little overall variation
found. Not surprisingly, the party position was the most important influence
on how they voted on Assembly business, closely followed by the position
of their constituents. However, where women and men MLAs differed significantly
was when they were asked about their attitudes towards political women
and women in society. Women were significantly more conscious of discriminations
against women in politics and society than were their male counterparts.
The points of strongest disagreement between women and men MLAs were
on political astuteness, good employment and working outside the home.
Women MLAs agreed much more frequently than their male colleagues with
the propositions that political women are as astute as political men,
that women were discriminated against in employment and that women should
work outside the home. They were also more willing than male MLAs to
agree that women must work together to change laws and customs unfair
Overall, then, this brief pen-picture of the subjective attitudes of
women and men MLAs towards their role suggests that while on the whole
there are few differences between them in general policy priorities,
role perception and decision influences, there are important differences
between them when the subject of women as a group is raised: as a policy
matter, as constituents and in attitudes towards women.
What picture do we get in the south? A study of women parliamentarians'
attitudes by myself two colleagues, Kathleen Knight and Una Nic Giolla
Choille also found some evidence for gender awareness among women politicians.
Although the focus of this study was to explore patterns in the numerical
representation of women in the Dail and Seanad, we also modestly gestured
towards the issue of women 'acting for' women. Although we did not probe
to the same extent as the Cowell-Meyers study, we found nonetheless
that policies that have traditionally been closely associated with women's
interests - education, health and family concerns - were high on the
list of our officeholders' priorities. On the other hand, gender equality
as a specific interest was identified by only 13 per cent of our respondents.
In itself, this is very similar to the pattern of interest representation
among women in other countries with similar proportions of women officeholders
(Canada, UK), and comes as no great surprise. However, the finding is
puzzling in the context of women's identified sources of influences
encouraging them to enter political life. In this regard, 3 in 10 of
our survey respondents identified an involvement in women's rights campaigning
as bringing them into political life (thereby indicating an identification
with the substantive representation of women's interest), less than
half that proportion (1.3 in 10) identified women's issues per se as
a policy interest once they reach parliament.
What's happening here is the intriguing question. At the moment we can
only hypothesise as to the answer, as a more robust study of women's
representational role, comparing it with that of men TDs role perceptions
needs to be undertaken to give us a more accurate picture of the gendered
nature of representation. I will return to a possible explanation for
this gap in experience and interest in a moment.
Before I do so, let me attach a health warning to discussions on women
representing women. We cannot assume that women legislators have a shared
experience that unites them just by virtue of their gender. There will
always be women politicians that strongly deny gender as an influence
on their political behaviour. They will argue that they are politicians,
first and foremost, that gender is not a factor in shaping their political
priorities and in representing their constituents' interests. Some very
well-known women in the Dáil and Stormont hold these views. There is
also the challenge of conceputalising the political behaviour of those
women who see themselves as 'acting for' women, but whose gendered analysis
is itself in conflict with what is normally seen to be in the interests
of women. And, the powerful influencers of ideology, party policy and
party discipline shapes not just how they analyse interests, but how
far they can go in representing certain interests. In addition, we should
not exclude the possibility that gender-aware men will promote women's
interests and form alliances with women in parliament to advance those
interests. Hence, understanding what our legislators do, why they do
it, the gender attitudes they hold and who they see themselves as representing
is an important element in helping us to understand how and to what
extent gender representation takes place.
These are difficult, yet vital issues that we need to address when interrogating
women's parliamentary presence, north and south. Although it may seem
at first sight rather premature to ask these questions in the context
of the relatively tokenist presence of women in the Dáil and Stormont
Assembly, we must, nonetheless be mindful of them as we uncover the
gendered attitudes and behaviour of our elected representatives.
But, let us return to the puzzle I raised a few minutes ago. Why is
it that 30 per cent of women officeholders identified campaigning on
women's issues as their springboard into politics while less than one
half gave the representation of women's interests in the Dáil a high
priority? Perhaps a clue to the answer rests with the Dáil as an institution,
and the norms, values and practices that predominate there.
Political institutions clearly endow some preferences, some interests
and some perspectives over others from the moment of their formation.
For women in politics, this means that the legislatures they enter give
primacy to masculine interests, resources and power, as well as institutionalising
routines, norms, rules and practices favouring men's political participation
and representation. Although the founding principles of newer legislatures
sometimes indicate an awareness of the gender bias - the basic documents
of the Scottish parliament, for example, identify equality as a core
functioning principle - this has been more difficult in the case of
the Stormont Assembly. The peaceful and democratic resolution of the
conflict left precious little space for the endowment of women's interests.
Indeed, the mere existence of the Women's Coalition, as an embodiment
of women's interests, was, as we have seen, greeted with hostility that
sprang from a singularly male-gendered political environment. The Women's
Coalition visibly challenged the male political order and sought to
carve a woman's space across the divides of the conflict.
What have been the consequences of this challenging act? Politically,
it has brought attention to women's interests in policymaking; the Stormont
Assembly as an institution has practices that acknowledge the family
responsibilities legislators bear, with plenary sessions ending at eight
in the evening, a small allowance for family care costs and out-of-session
times that go some way to corresponding with school routines. Aside
from these practical, and symbolic, gestures, there is a sense that
women MLAs have scope to 'act for' women in the Assembly. Women MLAs
from the main parties speak of having difficulty in getting their parties
to accept women's interests, and envy the freedom of the Women's Coalition
in this regard. Yet the very existence of the Women's Coalition has
legitimised parity between women and men. It has forced party leaderships
to take the women members more seriously, to promote women to positions
of power within parties, and to encourage women's political development.
In addition, the presence of the Women's Coalition within the Assembly
has also allowed women from other parties to consider representing women's
interests as part of their legislative role. Thus, despite its small
size, the Women's Coalition has played an important role in modifying
the dominance of male norms, values and practices within the Assembly
and among other parties.
The picture is not quite as hopeful when one looks at the Dáil. Although
women here have had a longer experience of serving in parliament, and
one can point to a goodly crop of women with experience of high political
office, there is little sense that the Dáil as an institution recognises
the legitimacy of women's interests. One example above all illustrates
this point. The disappearance of the parliamentary committee on women's
rights in the reorganisation of the committee system removed the one
institutional channel connecting the legislature with women's interest
organisations. Even more fundamentally, its demise removed a formal
facility for making visible the gendered nature of policy, and removed
the only formal space for legislators, women and men, to inform themselves
of the gendered dimension to lawmaking. In searching for an answer to
our puzzle, we must look at the predominance of masculinism as the force
shaping how gender is negotiated, contested and transformed within the
Dáil that has leads to women legislators having to alter their attitudes
and behaviour in ways their male colleagues never have to consider doing.
Yet, when there are so few women in parliament, north and south, acting
for women is a risky business. But democracy, as imagined today, is
not about women standing by their men. Increasingly, it is about there
being a parity between women and men, with the experiences, norms, values
and expectations of gender equally legitimised and recognised within
society and political life. One element of parity is the equal representation
of women and men in the assemblies on this island. The second element
is the equal valuing of gendered interests, and capacity for the representation
of difference within this equality. The third element is an equal endowment
gender preferences within the legislature, as within all decision making
bodies. What this amounts to, in effect, is a policy of 'parity democracy',
so that the political song will no longer be 'Stand by your Man', but
will be replaced with one that reflects true partnership in democratic
citizenship and decision making between women and men, between gender
interests. Hopefully, it will have a catchy tune!
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