Go raibh maith agat a Chathaoirligh and I apologise for being late, particularly to Ms Fiona Buckley for missing her presentation. I am delighted to make a contribution to the committee today.
Sinn Féin is an all-Ireland political party and our experience of electing women has been different North and South. We have a good record of electing women in the North but, unfortunately, we lost our only female MEP in the South in the last European election and have no women elected to Leinster House.
As an MP, I would like to have the opportunity to participate more fully in the Oireachtas. As a Northern MP, I have certain rights but I would like those to be extended to full rights in the Houses of the Oireachtas, as we have much to contribute. I would have been hugely honoured to have been asked to participate in last year's event in Leinster House marking Countess Markievicz's election. As the second woman elected for Sinn Féin since her, it would have been lovely to have attended.
The political system that I grew up in Tyrone was not only dominated by middle-aged and middle class men, but by Unionist men at that. It was, therefore, difficult to break into the political arena. I am not going to repeat what has been said about different voting systems but give my personal experience of political participation.
Growing up I had strong female role models and a strong equality ethos. I would not have recognised or understood much of what I have experienced since becoming a mother. Previously, I would have felt matters were on an equal footing, even my opportunities in my party. After my first child, when I struggled to find child care and more, I realised women have distinct disadvantages in political life as with cultural and job opportunities.
It is important that women are elected because we have a different perspective and make a unique contribution to political life. Like Senator McDonald, I was first elected at 28 years of age, an MP at 31 years but had my children after that. My three children are seven, four and one and I am still breast-feeding my youngest which has brought distinct challenges of its own. As a Minister in a male-dominated field, on my first day in office I initiated a rural child care strategy, recognising the barrier the lack of child care can be to women's participation in public life in whatever sphere.
The group I set up did a study on the barriers to child care and how that prevents women from either taking up employment, training or whatever. I believe that child care and indeed care and responsibilities in general, are a barrier that we have to get over. Our system in the North is probably worse, because we have no crèche in Stormont. We actually have a child care allowance, but it is capped at two children. If that is not discriminatory, tell me what is – and I have exceeded that by 50%. This shows that there is very much a male dominated focus in the Northern Assembly. However, I do not want to dwell entirely on the North, because Sinn Féin is very much an all-Ireland party and we strive to put women into winnable seats and give them the support they need to become elected.
Democracy requires that all perspectives in society are represented and therefore we need more women in political parties on the basis of equality. We need the party organisation, structure and management to fully support all members on a basis of equality. The decision-making processes need to involve women activists. That is very important and we need candidate selection processes to involve women activists. We have to recognise the importance of selection procedures to persuade parties to select women candidates.
We also have to recognise the reality of life inside political parties and the fact that many women may be put off by the confrontational nature of the current political debate. Certainly, being elected as a young woman into the first Northern Assembly was very controversial. There was a sliding scale as regards the women the Unionist parties, in particular, hated. It obviously started with the Sinn Féin women, and even within that grouping, there was a ranking order. Bairbre de Brún was a prime target and every time she stood on her feet there were hisses and catcalls from across the Chamber, including some of the women MLAs, which was something that disgusted me. There was Bairbre, then Mary Nellis, and we were all vilified like that on a sliding scale. Within the SDLP the main target of hate was Bríd Rodgers and then there was the Women's Coalition so that there was very much a confrontational attitude towards Nationalist women in that Chamber. We stuck it out and we changed it, but it was not easy going into that environment as a young woman. I am certain it must have been off-putting for other women seeing on television or wherever, the type of bear pit conditions we were going into.
We must also recognise that working hours are a barrier to women. In local government many meetings are held in the evenings. It does not matter how remunerated one is for child care, if one is going out the door as the children are coming in from school. There is a barrier there and it needs to be suitably addressed. The Welsh Assembly has a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. working day, and that is attractive to women. We have seen that the numbers of women being elected to the Welsh Assembly is on the increase. Anti-social hours have long been a deterrent to women who might otherwise consider a political career. From that viewpoint we are not as bad as they are in Westminster, however. I worked in London before I was elected to the Northern Assembly, and they would go on until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. For anyone with caring responsibilities, it is just impossible to get any type of balance in such a working environment.
There are two electoral systems in the North. In some elections we have proportional representation which encourages higher voter turnout than non-PR systems. However, in Westminster elections a first-past-the-post system is used. That is particularly difficult as regards trying to ensure that women not only get the candidacy, but have the support they need to get them elected.
From the Sinn Féin perspective we also have to look at the party and women in senior positions. For example, our ard rúnaí is Dawn Doyle, the vice-president is Mary Lou McDonald and Bairbre de Brún is our MEP. We have excellent women, too, however, who stood in previous elections such as Toireasa Ferris, Kathleen Funchion, etc. We have a system whereby strong women have a role in our party. That is probably reflected in the party's origins where we had women such as Countess Markievicz and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington taking a very strong role within politics, political life and even military life. Therefore, there were strong women as role models and I have been very lucky to have grown up in that environment in Sinn Féin.
In the last Northern Assembly elections we ran nine women and eight were elected. It was a great annoyance to us that we did not elect all nine, but it shows that women must also be put into winnable seats. Out of the eight Sinn Féin women elected, we have two Ministers as well as a number of committee chairs and vice chairs, including some of the most important committees. Women have to be given responsibility and the opportunity to make their mark. As Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development I have done what I can to improve the life of women in rural areas in farming families. I was the first Minister ever to sit down with a delegation from Women's Aid to discuss the impact of domestic violence on women. When this was first raised with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development the response was, "That has nothing to do with us". However, I insisted that it had because I knew of women in isolated rural areas who, perhaps, lived on farms that might have been in the family for three or four generations and who did not believe they had any rights in the event of marriage breakdown. Such women can be very isolated, and can have problems as regards getting refuge. It is very difficult for such women, particularly where they might have children attending school, and the only refuge could be 20 or 30 miles away.
There are also issues of isolation, such as where a marriage has broken down and the husband sits on a tractor in a lane to block the woman from getting in or out, or perhaps intimidate her in other ways. If the woman is living in a town it would, perhaps, be much easier for the police to attempt to do something about the situation. I believed it was important that I as agriculture Minister should meet with Women's Aid to hear its viewpoint so that I could do whatever possible to help mitigate some of the problems being faced by such women living in rural areas.
The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development believed that I should not participate in such a meeting. However, it was very important that I, as a woman, insisted we held the meeting to try to make life better for women who live in rural communities. Such experiences and the unique perspective they afford are very important to carry with one to ensure one fights those battles when one is given responsibility within one's elected capacity. It is tempting to sit back and allow others to fight, but it is important for us to do what we can when we attain positions of responsibility.
I am doing a great deal as regards anti-poverty, social exclusion, fuel poverty and rural transport, stretching my remit, perhaps, but ensuring that we make a difference to the lives of vulnerable people in rural communities. That does not just relate to women, but also to lone parents, ethnic minorities, the disabled, carers, etc. I believe it is important that we are given the space to be women in the roles we have. I have heard other public representatives say, in effect, "I'm elected as an Ulster Unionist, not as a woman", and making such a statement publicly is perhaps one of the reasons the Ulster Unionist Party now has no women MLAs in the Northern Assembly. We must show pride in being women and bringing that gender perspective to what we do, ensuring that we make matters better for the women who come behind us.
Out of the 108 MLAs in the Northern Assembly there are 18 women, so our figure is only marginally better at 16.7% and there is much to do. The other female MLAs include four from the SDLP, two from Alliance, one from the PUP and three from the DUP. As I said, unfortunately no woman was elected for the Ulster Unionist Party. I do not want to repeat what has been said already, but there is much that we can do and, of course, there is a great deal to be done. I welcome the fact that this Oireachtas committee is having this meeting. When Sinn Féin is choosing its candidates, particularly in constituencies where there is a chance of winning more than one seat, we tend to ensure that there are women on the ticket. In my first experience as a candidate in the forum elections in the late 1990s – the dim and distant past – we had five people on the ticket. We ensured we had two men, two women and one person from the South to reflect the all-Ireland nature of the party. While that might have been controversial in some circles, it was important for us to put down a marker for an ethos of equality in our party, and to do everything in our power to ensure that we elect women into positions and we give them the space to have their voice heard when elected. I thank the committee for inviting me here today. I look forward to reading the report, and I am very proud and honoured to be on a platform with the strong women that we have today. I hope we can work better together in the future.