Last month Mairtín Ó Muilleoir replaced Sue Ramsay in the Assembly for Sinn Féin, which selected Catherine Seeley to run for Westminster in Upper Bann but omitted Caitriona Ruane in South Down. The percentage of female Alliance Councillors elected this year fell from 40% to 25%. Not only is the gender balance in Northern Ireland politics abysmal, but it is getting worse – even parties which have traditionally been among the best in terms of female participation are evidently not able to do enough through their selection systems to maintain progress. The BBC The View programme discussing the talks – i.e. the political future of NI – had an entirely male panel of five. This was not the BBC’s fault, but obvious evidence of the difficulty of giving a fair say to women in a political system which is overwhelmingly (80%+) male.
All parties should give more consideration to the need for gender balance in their selection processes, but there is no getting away from the fact that the entire political scene is set up by men for men, even if inadvertently. It is somewhat macho, almost thuggish at times (literally during a recent Social Development Committee meeting). It is the nature of things that if a bias is inherent to the system, those within the system continue to maintain and even assume that bias, deliberately or otherwise. Candidates should indeed be selected on the basis of merit – but “merit” currently assumes male domination. This is seen in the culture of debate, positions on policy, and prioritisation of issues. It is a serious problem.
Despite some successes at civic level, it is now beyond dispute that the “gradual” approach to more women in politics, or simply relying on parties to ensure more women are selected, is not working quickly enough. This leads us to the notion of “quotas”, but I would suggest another change before taking that ultimate step – I would change the electoral system.
Among Northern Ireland’s neighbouring legislatures, only one has an even worse gender balance – the Republic’s 13% is shocking in AD 2014. Scotland’s is considerably better; Wales is best of all at 40%. It so happens that both jurisdictions in Ireland elect their legislatures by “Single Transferable Vote”, whereas Scotland and Wales both elect theirs by the “mixed member proportional” (MMP) system. It also so happens that those countries which have moved close to 50/50 – primarily the Nordic countries but also New Zealand – also use MMP or very close variants. The evidence is clear.
MMP works via a party list system, which is used to top up the results from individual constituencies to ensure the outcome is roughly proportional to the number of votes cast for each party. Instantly, this means parties are inclined to submit lists which have a reasonable gender balance – to attract votes, it is in their interests to do so. Even if that doesn’t work, it would be relatively easy to make it a requirement, or even have a system to select top-up members so as to ensure not just correct party balance but also correct gender balance.
There is an additional benefit that MMP is a far better way to elect a legislature anyway as it is simpler for the electorate to understand and legislators are inclined to consider the whole area when passing laws rather than just their own locality – which probably explains why only Northern Ireland, Ireland and Malta use Single Transferable Vote, whereas almost the whole of Continental Europe and many other places use MMP or a close variant. However, the main gain would inevitably be a better gender balance within our legislature – a first step in making politics more relevant to the voters.