Roseann Kelly MBE, CEO of Women in Business
Eighty-nine proved an historic figure at the 2022 Northern Ireland election. In what was billed as one of the most significant votes in a generation, 89 female candidates put themselves forward on the ballot papers.
A record turnout that fuelled another equally significant seachange: voters returned a record 35% of women to the Assembly this year, a 4% rise over 2017’s figure, meaning 32 of the 90 MLAs elected in 2022 were women.
As the story unfolded, our would-be female leaders made headlines across Northern Ireland, whether through achieving the highest number of first preference votes, or becoming the first woman to be elected in a particular constituency. Out of the top ten candidates who polled highest, four were women. Signs, one would hope, of a changing tide.
50:50 NI, the campaign group working to encourage more women here into politics, described 2022’s results as “baby steps” towards greater equality. And though that may be true, the only word that springs to mind, for me, is ‘frustration’.
Frustration in knowing these women, who fought so hard for their seat – for their leadership roles – are currently being robbed of the opportunity to deliver for us. All those records, all those historic figures, sadly ring hollow in the face of a Stormont stalemate. The embers of change cooled by an impasse that threatens to undermine what should have been a sizeable step towards equal representation.
What’s perhaps most dispiriting is that these women have put themselves out there in a digital world where online abuse of politicians has become all too common. And it is disproportionately targeted at females. An international study by Atalanta found women were three times more likely to see derogatory comments directly related to their gender.
Sadly Ireland is not immune to gendered social media abuse, either, with many women north and south leaving political life altogether due to what’s been described as the malevolent underbelly of our digital world.
And yet, 89 women in Northern Ireland stood during this year’s election, knowing full well the abuse that persists online. These women put themselves out there in spite of this – or perhaps in some cases because of it, emboldened by the need for tangible change – only to be let down by a stalling government.
It is wholly unacceptable. Our female candidates should be making the headlines not only for their record turnout, or the bravery and resilience they show in the face of horrendous online abuse, but for their work in the NI Assembly.
Women in Business call for the Assembly to return to work immediately, giving our female MLAs the opportunity to shine thus delivering the many benefits a more diverse Assembly can bring.