Women in Party Politics and Local Groups: Findings from Belfast

Author(s): Eilish Rooney
Document Type: Report
Year: 1997
Title of Publication: Women and Irish Society - A Sociological Reader
Publisher: Beyond the Pale
Place of Publication: Belfast
ISBN: 1-900960-03-6
Pages: 535-551
Subject Area(s): Community, Equality Issues, Gender
Client Group(s) : Women

Abbreviations: NI - Northern Ireland

Background to the Research

  • There are no NI women elected to the European Parliament and none of the seventeen NI MPs at Westminster is a woman. Only 12% of those elected to local councils are women, however there has been an upsurge in the participation of women in local groups and community organisations in the last fifteen years. Until very recently, women were not included in the analysis of the political history and conflict of NI. This chapter seeks to contribute to a growing body of work exploring the political dimension of women's lives.

Research Approach

  • A total of 28 local women's groups from three Electoral Areas of Belfast were targeted and 26 responded. Postal questionnaires were sent to these groups and in total 213 were returned. Interviews were conducted with women and men, (15 in all), who were active in a professional and/or activist sense in these local communities. Sixteen councillors from the Electoral Areas, four of whom were women, were approached to take part in a structured, face-to-face taped interview, and 14 took part. Seven political parties provided representatives to be interviewed.

Main Findings

  • The political party representatives reported that women are active in the party machinery and are vital to it, especially during elections. The larger parties stated that 50% of their membership was female, while the smaller parties claimed around a third.

The Councillors - Inclusion/Exclusion

  • Some councillors viewed women as having a special role as mothers and held that they should be treated as ladies. Several reported that women are not subjected to the same degree of barracking as men in the council. Women are viewed as having the home/family as their priority and not their work for the council.
  • Some councillors stated that women had to be prepared to behave like men in order to be successful. Others reported that women were focused on 'women's issues' to the detriment of other important issues. Some councillors felt that women were politically naive and there was a consensus across the councillors that being a councillor required a special kind of woman.
  • In general, councillors emphasised allegiance to party and policy as the over-riding factor in council politics. In this context, woman councillors, and a focus on women as representatives, attracted women and young voters to the party.
  • Women councillors reported that getting selected and elected was not problematic; however, they reported that they faced barriers once inside the council. Women's inclusion was premised on their domestic responsibilities not interfering with council business and responsibilies. Women councillors were expected to identify with women's issues, whereas their male counterparts did not identify with women's issues.
  • Women reported that they were excluded because of the 'boys club' network that operates in Belfast City Council and in the parties; male colleagues would share information with each other and exclude women. Women did not gain inclusion on their own terms even when their knowledge of the issue was greater, rather they were granted inclusion on male terms, and women report they have to work harder to prove themselves.
  • The majority of women councillors reported that having more women councillors would make meetings shorter and more efficient, and raise the profile of women's issues. Men had mixed views on this issue, some felt that meetings would be less volatile, others thought it would depend on the political party the women would come from, and others felt that only a large number of women would make any difference to council politics.

Women in the Community

  • Almost three-quarters of the sample of 213 women involved in local groups were under 40 years of age, almost half were married and 19% were divorced/separated. Seventy-eight per cent of the women had children, with two-thirds stating that they were economically active, and 36% were unemployed.
  • Almost half of the sample attended their group several days a week and 10% attended every day. The main reasons given for this were friendship and support.
  • Over three-quarters of the women felt that their group had an impact on their community, through the provision of support services and education. Despite this, the women do not view the activities of their groups as political in any way. Nearly two-thirds stated that their concerns are more to do with people than politics.
  • Over half of the women reported that more women councillors and MPs could help to resolve the conflict in NI. However, only 9% of women thought that it was important to become involved in electoral politics. Over a third of women stated that a greater focus by the political parties on social issues would encourage them to become involved.
  • Access to resources was key to the women's evaluation of the effectiveness of their group in the local community; they stated that they knew the local needs and did something to address them in contrast to politicians who did little or nothing.
  • Women in the groups were aware of the political divisions in and around their communities and the threat that these divisions posed to the work of the groups; they reported that they kept politics outside the groups as far as possible.


  • The local women's groups and the local council are very different locations for women's activities.

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