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Stark difference in appointments north and south

Director General for Northern Ireland Prison Service Sue McAllister is the only woman to hold a top post

WHEN Baroness Nuala O'Loan was appointed Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland in 1999, she did not expect that 15 years into the new millennium, women would still be a rarity at the top echelons of the criminal justice system.

"I knew I wouldn't be among many women and I was prepared for it," she said.

"That had been my experience throughout my working life. But I did expect things to change and change long before this."

In fact her 2007 departure from the Ombudsman's office has merely served to further deplete the number of women holding positions of power and influence.

She was replaced first by former Police Oversight Commissioner Al Hutchinson and then by Michael Maguire, who had been Chief Inspector of the Criminal Justice Inspectorate.

Since then, the PSNI briefly had a female deputy chief constable, but with the retirement of Judith Gillespie last year its senior command team is once more exclusively male.

The justice minister is also a man, David Ford, as is his permanent secretary, the attorney general John Larkin and Stormont's entire justice committee.

The director of public prosecutions is also male, although Barra McGrory has a female deputy, Pamela Atchison.

This means that the sole woman in the most senior position in any of the major criminal justice organisations is Sue McAllister, director-general of the Northern Ireland Prison Service.

It is a very different picture in the Republic where some of the most influential roles are held by women - the attorney general of Ireland is Máire Whelan, the director of public prosecutions is Claire Loftus and Susan Denham is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Ireland.

An Garda Síochana now also has its first female chief, Nóirín O’Sullivan.

"That's very new and has been a complete sea change," Baroness O'Loan said.

"It has also been a conscious decision-making process that had gone on there."

She believes it is not due to lack of talent, but something seems to be preventing able women from progressing in their careers to the top level.

"I don't know if they make the decision that they don't want to engage at that level, or they just don't get through the system.

"There were a number of attempts in the early 2000s by women chief executives to try to generate capacity in women to bring themselves forward.

"I'm not sure how much of that is going on now, but just to try to help and do some mentoring could make all the difference."

However, she recognises that this is something of a `chicken and egg' scenario which needs a critical mass of women in senior positions to be able to draw others in their wake.

In an interview for the Judicial Appointments Commission website, county court judge Melody McReynolds, who has two children, discussed some of the challenges of the role.

"I am always busy and a regular week would involve spending most of the working day in court or my chambers at Laganside or wherever I am sitting (9.30am to 5pm). I would also work most evenings (7pm to midnight and later is common). I work every weekend during term time.

"In terms of work life balance, this role is not ideal but the vacations usually coincide with school holidays so with a little planning, one can schedule a well-earned break and family time.

"Anyone who applies for the post of county court judge will know that the hours involved with the post are not conducive to a favourable work/life balance.

"I graduated in 1981, soon after Margaret Thatcher came to power, so I suppose I come from a generation of women who believed we might `have it all'. Sometimes I feel we were simply allowed to `do it all'.

"Perhaps in hindsight, we were `mistaken rather than misguided' but I think there are real opportunities now for women who want to have a fulfilling legal career and a good work/life balance."

The legal world has been traditionally a male-dominated one, which, Baroness O'Loan says, doesn't help.

"Certainly in law there was a very traditionally male-dominated profession that continued right through the years."

She has been shocked by the failure to appoint any women to the most senior positions in the judiciary and elsewhere.

"It is absolutely unacceptable that this is the situation now. The question now has to be asked why. Why in the case of the justice committee have the parties not appointed any women? Why not get two judges appointed who are appointable?

"Is it because the appointments are being made by men?"

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