News Liz O’Donnell

Monday 5 December 2016

A new era in the North calls for a woman's voice

Published 12/12/2015 | 02:30

This picture from 2007 shows, from left, the then Northern Ireland Culture Minister Edwin Poots, Finance Minister Peter Robinson, First Minister Rev Ian Paisley, Ian Paisley Junior and Deputy First Minister and Environment Minister Arlene Foster. Foster is on course to take over the DUP
This picture from 2007 shows, from left, the then Northern Ireland Culture Minister Edwin Poots, Finance Minister Peter Robinson, First Minister Rev Ian Paisley, Ian Paisley Junior and Deputy First Minister and Environment Minister Arlene Foster. Foster is on course to take over the DUP

In the week when German Chancellor Angela Merkel was named 'Person of the year' by 'Time' magazine for her role in the Greek debt crisis and her heroic political response to the migrant crisis in Europe, something equally significant happened on our own island. For the first time ever, a woman - Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA Arlene Foster - has emerged as the likely successor to Peter Robinson as leader of the DUP and First Minister of Northern Ireland.

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Up to now, unionist politics has been virtually a female-free zone. Indeed, such was the dearth of elected women in Northern Ireland over the years of the Troubles that it prompted the creation of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition (NIWC) to ensure women's voices were included in the multi-party talks which led to the Good Friday Agreement. What had passed for politics in Northern Ireland over the three decades of the troubles did not appeal to women. It was dangerous, coarse, sectarian and uncompromising. Small wonder women - apart from a few honourable exceptions like Brid Rogers of the SDLP - gave it a wide berth.

The Women's Coalition unusually drew women from all backgrounds. Many were academics, social workers, community activists, professionals and political scientists who came together to ensure the lives and priorities of women were addressed in the negotiations. They put up with appalling verbal abuse in the early days, but gradually through their valued contributions earned the reluctant respect of the males, even on the unionist side.

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