CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: Power, Politics, Positionings: Women in Northern Ireland (Report No. 4)

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Power, Politics, Positionings -
Women in Northern Ireland

The following publication has been contributed by Democratic Dialogue. The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.

Power, Politics, Positionings:
Women in Northern Ireland
Report No. 4

by Democratic Dialogue (1996)

ISBN 1 900281 03 1 Paperback 72pp

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Democratic Dialogue
Report No 4
October 1996

Democratic Dialogue
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©Democratic Dialogue 1996 ISBN 1 900281 03 1

Cover design by Dunbar Design
Photographs by Lesley Doyle
Printed by Regency Press

Power, Politics, Positionings:
Women in Northern Ireland


Introduction KATE FEARON
Painting the picture KATE FEARON
Confined to stereotypes LIZ FAWCETT
Integration or independence? ROISIN McDONOUGH
Framing the future EILISH ROONEY
In a wider world DEIRDRE HEENAN
Representing women RICK WILFORD
Conclusion KATE FEARON
Notes on contributors


This is the fourth report from Democratic Dialogue, the Belfast-based think tank.

DD gratefully acknowledges the generous support of its funders, including the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust.

It also acknowledges the generosity of the authors of this report, writing in a personal capacity, who gave enthusiastically of their time, experience and expertise. Their views do not necessarily reflect those of other contributors, or the management committee of DD.

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DD aims to publish several reports per year. Readers may wish to return the enclosed subscription slip, to avail of reduced-rate payment for reports, free copies of DD's newsletter and notification of all DD events.

We are open to requests to organise debates or discussion groups around any of the themes or ideas raised in this, or indeed other, reports. Again, the contact number is on the inside cover.

Our next report will explore another theme salient to the reinvigoration of public life in Northern Ireland-developing dynamic relationships with the European Union, now once again on the verge of change.

[Report Contents] [List of Reports]


Kate Fearon

The nature of the political is in constant flux. So too are the loci of power.[1] What remains constant is that women, while no less likely than men to be politically active,[2] have much less access to political activities associated with power.

These - mainly institutional-activities are male-dominated, even monopolised. Other - non-institutional or even anti-institutional-activities are empowering to the individual, but the ability to exert influence and assert change, over and for others, is limited.

As long as men operate a monopoly on power, the nature and distribution of that power will not alter. The monopoly must be challenged by those who hold it, and by those who should share in its distribution.

We all know how badly women are represented in politics, and the statistics for Northern Ireland can become slightly flat: no women parliamentary or European representatives and only 12 per cent of district councillors; two women members of the old Northern Ireland parliament and one woman Westminster member in 75 years.

The first four chapters of this report seek to probe these figures a little more deeply, taking into account the cultural and policy contexts which produce such a dearth of female representation. The opening chapter presents the policies of political parties on a sample range of issues of direct relevance to women-for example, candidate selection procedures, divorce, domestic violence and education-as well as examining how women in the parties fared in the recent Forum elections, and what politicians in the region thought of the newly formed Northern Ireland Women's Coalition.[3]

Political parties do draw support for their assumptions from media mindsets. Liz Fawcett challenges the regional media on the images they promote of women, using the treatment of Hillary Clinton on the presidential visit last November and the reportage surrounding the opening of the 'School Dinners restaurant in Belfast to illustrate her case.

Looking to areas where women are particularly active, Roisín McDonough asks to what extent it is desirable or possible to transfer good practice from the community and voluntary sector to the business of government.

Mindful that Northern Ireland politicians are once more engaged in negotiations, Eilish Rooney casts a critical eye over documents proposed in the past, and likely to form some part of the future. The Framework Documents, she argues, are already conceptually weighted in favour of male operators. What might this mean for women's participation in any future arrangements?

It is to electoral arrangements that Rick Wilford turns. Which systems of election produce best representation of women, and why? And why, when women participate so actively in civil society in Northern Ireland, do they so rarely appear prominently in political life? Are they backward-or is it the parties, ostensibly enticing them to come forward?

Deirdre Heenan and Anne Marie Gray expand on the potential lessons from international practice. While there are major theoretical difficulties as to whether and how 'women's interests' can be construed, they conclude that there is a gathering body of evidence which suggests that the feminisation of political decision-making does make a difference to policy outcomes.

Much has been written[4] on the legitimacy of the representation of 'organic' or 'sectoral'[5] interest groups-such as women-in a liberal democracy. This report does not purport to contribute to that particular debate: we are concerned with identifying and suggesting practices that might render it absolutely academic.

Nor, in asserting the rights of such a gender-specific organic grouping to participate in more formal politics, and to transfer some of their current practices to it, does this report view the category woman' as a homogeneous unity. On the contrary, we recognise that within it lies a multiplicity of real living women who do not share an identical experience.[6]

But the overarching commonality in all these sites of multiplicity and difference is that, as Eilish Rooney elaborates, women are subordinate to men. This report seeks to suggest how this paradigm could be most effectively challenged in Northern Ireland.


1 See, for example, John Morison, 'Waiting for the big fix', in DD report 3, Reconstituting Politics, 1996
2 Using a radical definition of political participation, Robert Miller, Rick Wilford and Freda Donoghue report (Women and Political Participation in Northern Ireland, Avebury, Aldershot, 1996) that the sex of an individual rarely emerges as a cause of increased or lowered political activity.
3The author declares an interest. She was involved in the running of the NIWC campaign, and stood as a candidate.
4Heenan and Gray point to some of this in their chapter. Further references are to be found in the footnotes to Rick Wilford's piece.
5Norberto Bobbio, The Future of Democracy: a defence of the rules of the game, Polity, Cambridge, 1984, p51
6Phillips, Engendering Democracy, Polity, Cambridge, 1993, chapter 3

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