Despite women’s right to political participation being enshrined in The Good Friday Agreement, women’s representation in the region remains low. Women make up only 33% of MLAs in Stormont.
While The Good Friday Agreement does highlight the rights of women to full and equal political participation, this is the only time that gender is mentioned in any meaningful way in the entire document. As a result, The Good Friday Agreement itself has been criticised for being male-centric and ignoring the needs and voices of women.
All of the parties that participated in the negotiations that would eventually lead to the agreement were extremely male-dominated except for Sinn Fein who made an effort to have women represented within the party. As a result of these talks taking place between Northern Irish male politicians, male politicians from the UK and the Republic of Ireland as well as male brokers from other states such as the USA, it is no surprise that the state of Northern Ireland that emerged was described by academic Margaret Ward as “masculine in ethos”.
It is therefore inevitable that women’s issues and political participation have not been a priority in the 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Women in Northern Ireland have had to work extremely hard, and campaign for years, to gain basic human rights such as access to abortion. Increasing women’s participation in politics is vital in Northern Ireland to create a region where women are valued and our rights are protected.
As well as ensuring that women’s voices are heard, research has shown that women leaders work in more cross-party ways, are much better at reaching consensus, and are much more successful at creating coalitions. This can be seen in countries such as Finland which is currently being led by a successful five-party coalition, where all five parties are led by women.
The ability to work cross-party and reach consensus is an extremely vital skill in all political contexts but these skills are particularly useful in a region such as Northern Ireland where ethno-religious divisions continue to exist, and where coalitions are a requirement.
Women have a lot to offer in politics and leadership. This is evident in countries where women leaders have been very successful such as New Zealand and Iceland. The skills and leadership style that women can bring to politics is particularly useful in the context of Northern Ireland where working in coalition and reaching an agreement is essential. Furthermore, we must work hard to include women in a region where women’s rights and voices have historically been excluded and forgotten.