- 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.
- 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
- 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 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.