If we put women on the ballot the electorate will vote for them…

Aoife Clements is the Founder of 50:50 NI

The results of the 2022 Assembly election represent many steps forward for Northern Ireland. For nationalists, a Sinn Feín majority represents a step towards a united Ireland. For progressives, this majority and accompanying surge in popularity of Alliance is a step towards a less divided, more socially liberal Northern Ireland. For women, the record-breaking number of women elected to the assembly represents a step towards better gender balance within our political institutions. This step however is small and has highlighted a few lessons that have yet to be learned.

Hopes of an increase in the number of seats in the assembly being held by women started with the record-breaking number of women who put themselves forward and campaigned for a seat up on the hill. Many parties including Sinn Fein, Alliance, People Before Profit and the Green Party ran gender-balanced tickets while others claimed it was not possible.

Ultimately the electorate confirmed a lesson that I have repeated often at 50:50 NI; If we put women on the ballot the electorate will vote for them: Around 35% of the candidates in this election were women and therefore unsurprisingly, women make up around 35% of our new crop of MLAs. Additionally, the gender-balanced ballots of Alliance and Sinn Fein returned equal numbers of men and women representing these parties to the assembly.

These two parties prioritised gender in frankly, the only acceptable way. Not only was having an equal number of women and men candidates a priority for each of these parties but putting women in realistically winnable seats was also prioritised and this clearly paid off. Four out of the ten top pollers were women, and they were all Sinn Fein candidates, including Sinead Ennis, who topped the poll overall with over 14000 first preference votes. For Alliance, rewards were also reaped. Kelly Armstrong topped the poll in Strangford and Dr Patricia O’Lynn became the first woman ever to be elected in North Antrim.

The other main parties who did not prioritise gender balance among their candidates are returning to the assembly with little to no representation of women. The worst performer among them is the UUP. Despite promising efforts to get more women elected including Lauren Kerr and Julie-Anne Corr, two out gay women, only 30% of their candidates were women in the end. In addition to this most of these women were placed in seats that were not likely to be won by the party, for example, West Belfast. They also placed women as a second candidate or ‘running mate’ to more established male colleagues. When challenged on this Doug Beattie argued that it can take many election cycles for women to get elected and that it is up to local associations to choose their candidates. These flimsy excuses can be easily dismissed when we compare them to the stellar performance of Sinn Fein in terms of gender balance. Parties know how to handle vote share extremely well; they know how and where to place the candidates they want to have elected. In terms of local associations having control over candidates, the same can be said for virtually every other party. Again, this has not stopped Alliance or Sinn Fein from running gender-balanced tickets. If the UUP are as progressive, and serious about gender equality, as they would like the electorate to believe they must reflect on the results of this election and make a conscious effort to increase the gender balance among their elected representatives.

Rampant digital and physical violence towards women in politics is not news but it appears that some still need a lesson on how extreme and impactful this violence can be. Diane Forsythe and Cara Hunter have now both publicly spoken about their experiences of digital violence throughout the election campaign. Hannah Kenny and Elsie Trainor were both physically and verbally assaulted while on the campaign trail, all while their male colleagues remained safe and unharmed.

Violence against women and girls affects every single woman in the region. It should not take public and serious cases of violence like this to draw attention to this fact. While these brave women, who have stepped forward to serve the people of their communities, recover emotionally, physically and psychologically from these attacks, social media giants who facilitate this violence, perpetrators of this violence, and misogynists up and down the country, remain unchallenged and unaccountable.

Finally, while some of the parties have performed well in terms of gender balance it appears almost all need a lesson in intersectional feminism. Among the record-breaking 87 women that stood in this year’s election only 1 was a woman of colour, and among the record-breaking 32 women elected to assembly none are ‘out’ members of the LGBTQ+ community. While an increase in the representation of women here is worthy of celebration we must also reflect on the fact that the face of women in politics is that of a white, straight, cis woman.

Small steps forward are steps nonetheless 35% is considered an important critical mass when it comes to women in politics meaning that we can hopefully look forward to more feminist and women-centred legislation in the coming mandate. Celebrations are certainly called for but there is still work to be done.

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