Northern Ireland Assembly elections show internal party cultures, not the electoral system, prevent equal opportunities for women in politics

Only a fifth of MLAs in the Northern Ireland Assembly are women, which is lower than the House of Commons and other devolved legislatures in the UK. In the second post our Gender and Democracy series, Claire McGing investigates whether the single transferable vote system used for Assembly elections explains female under-representation. She finds, however, that the internal culture of political parties prevents greater numbers of women from being selected.

Image of Northern Ireland Assembly building

Equality is not yet in bloom at Stormont. Credit: Amanda Slater (CC BY-SA 2.0)

While macro-level research shows the benefits of proportional representation (PR) for women’s candidacy and seat-holding, PR systems vary in terms of institutional design, vote-seat distribution mechanisms, and the environment in which they are embedded. Feminists have increasingly come to accept that PR offers no fixed guarantees for women – systems must ‘fit’ with wider norms and practices that support, or even compel, female recruitment by political parties.

The (rarer) single transferable vote (STV), which has been used to elect the Northern Ireland Assembly since its inception in 1998, proves interesting in light of gender. While STV shares many features with other PR systems, one of its most distinct characteristics is the exceptionally high degree of choice it allots the voter. The electorate votes for candidates in order of preference, within or across party lines, and the majority of seats are rewarded through the distribution of transfers. In Northern Ireland (like the Irish Republic), candidates are listed on the ballot alphabetically, not grouped by party affiliation (as in local elections in Scotland). As parties have no authority to decide the order of candidates, potential measures for sex outcomes in closed list PR, namely ‘zipped’ lists, are not implementable under STV. Moreover, while parties in numerous other systems can run women for ‘winnable’ seats, this concept is largely redundant in STV, as used in Northern Ireland. Since larger parties tend to select multiple candidate tickets it is impossible, at least theoretically, to decipher which seats are ‘safe’ or not (except perhaps for incumbents, though experience from the Republic of Ireland shows even they’re not safe from a large-scale party collapse).

The Northern Ireland Assembly’s 108-members are returned from 18 six-seat constituencies (based on Westminster boundaries). After recent legislative changes, the number of MLAs will be reduced from 108 to 96 following the next election. While STV has ensured reasonable representation rates between unionist and nationalist communities, the Assembly is highly male-dominated, particularly when compared to the devolved houses of Scotland and Wales, which are both elected by the additional member system (AMS). Just 20 women MLAs (19%) were elected in the 2011 election, a record high. They comprised 17% of candidates, overall. Gender representation is not fixed, however, as considerable differences emerge between major parties in their propensity to put women forward, splitting pretty neatly by stances on the ‘constitutional question’ of the province. Generally, the unionist parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), have provided the fewest opportunities for women. The nationalist parties, Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), on the other hand, are more open to female candidacy, while the small, cross-community Alliance Party (who won 8% of the vote in 2011) has the best record of all parties, by far.

So, is women’s under-representation linked to the mechanics of STV, or is inequality mainly attributable to voter preferences and selection processes? My research suggests conservative party cultures, party competition, and incumbency provide the best explanation to this question, not the electoral system.

For one, Northern Irish voters do not discriminate by candidate sex, but use party affiliation, community-membership, and incumbency as their choice cues. In 2011, like previous contests, a strong relationship was evident between religion and voter preferences, while incumbent MLAs were considerably advantaged over challengers – over 90% were returned. Male and female incumbents were equal in their prospect of re-election. Yet, while non-incumbents face an uphill battle, the situation for such women bodes positively, as successful females were almost twice as likely as their male counterparts to have run as challengers (40% compared to 21%).

District magnitude (constituency size) is regularly considered the most explanatory variable for differences between PR systems and women’s seat-holding. The argument goes that multi-member districts give parties ‘room’ to ‘balance the slate’. Under electoral law in Northern Ireland, there are no legal limits as to the number of candidates a party can run per constituency. Nonetheless, large parties here have been slow to take advantage of six-seaters to assure balance, particularly the unionist side. In such a binary electoral environment, where the four main parties compete mainly within community blocs as opposed to outside of them, no seat is a guarantee and overly generous selections could cost Stormont representation. A cut in the number of MLAs may further exacerbate this situation.

Yet, as the case of the minor Alliance Party shows, internal party cultures undoubtedly play a highly significant, if not the most important role, in blocking equal opportunity. The party least likely to benefit from STV, and who thus selects the lowest number of multiple candidate tickets (just four Alliance constituency organisations out of 18 selected more than one candidate in 2011), runs the highest proportion of women candidates. This challenges the often-repeated orthodoxy that parties in a position to win multiple seats are willing to ‘experiment’ with women candidates.

Thus, attitudes within larger parties towards women need to change. There is, is essence, a ‘mismatch’ between voter preferences and selectorate decisions, and STV cannot be held to blame for this. In Northern Ireland, the suggestion of quotas remains highly controversial. While the system does not allow for outcome-based measures, there is nothing to stop parties introducing parity measures at selection level (indeed, the Irish Republic has recently legislated for candidate quotas). No party has yet taken advantage of the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002, which allows for British parties to draw up all-women candidate shortlists for elections. While Sinn Féin and the SDLP rhetorically speak of equality, neither has written affirmative action measures for local selection into their constitution. Nonetheless, despite weaknesses, nationalist strategies for inclusivity are much more advanced than those of their unionist counterparts. DUP and UUP strategists emphasise the utmost importance of ‘meritocracy’, and do not support even modest positive action measures to improve the numbers of female contenders. Interestingly, while the Alliance Party has the best of all, it does not possess any internal guidelines or rules on female recruitment, a pattern worthy of further analyses. Women activists are better facilitated to seek selection than their unionist and nationalist sisters. Given the preference of Northern Irish women over the years to concentrate on more consensual, community-level politics as opposed to constitutional arguments and paramilitary activities, the ‘softer’ and bi-confessional nature of the Alliance Party may particularly appeal to those with electoral ambitions. Nonetheless, until the province’s main electoral players actively recruit more women candidates, the Assembly is likely to remain predominately male.

Note: this posts represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit or the London School of Economics. It was originally posted on the PSA Women and Politics blog.

Claire McGingClaire McGing is Lecturer in Political Geography at the National University of Ireland, Naymooth. Her research on the single transferable vote and women’s representation in Ireland appears in Irish Political Studies, Volume 28, Issue 3 (forthcoming). She tweets at @Claire_McGing.



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This post is part of Democratic Audit’s Gender and Democracy series, which examines the varying ways in which men and women experience democracy in the UK and explores how to achieve greater equality. To read more posts in this series click here.

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