Northern Ireland

Good Friday Agreement: Politics was ‘men in grey suits’

Dawn Purvis
Dawn Purvis Dawn Purvis

Former PUP leader Dawn Purvis laughed as she remembered being asked to make tea during her early days in the party.

As she walked towards her seat at a meeting, “some man said to me ‘when you’re going out to the kitchen love, stick the kettle on’ “.

“I asked him if his arms were broke,” she said.

Ms Purvis, who now sits on the board of the John and Pat Hume Foundation, said although such exchanges were “few and far between… misogyny was visible in the community” in the decades before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

“Certainly men were not afraid to tell you what they thought. You faced it in every aspect of life,” she told The Detail.

Ms Purvis said she also faced opposition from other women when she first entered politics.

“I think loyalist working class women really struggle to find a voice,” she said.

“I faced opposition from women within my own community when I first got involved in politics.

“You know, it's nearly like you're stepping above your station and politics is an area for men only.”

She added: “But certainly I've had tremendous support from women in local loyalist communities when I was involved in the PUP and in politics.

“I think, you know, there's much more that we could do to support those women,” she said.

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Bronagh Hinds, one of the founders of the Women’s Coalition, was her party’s director of elections to the Northern Ireland Forum in 1996 - a body set up as part of negotiations which led to the Good Friday Agreement.

She said the Coalition “crossed the Rubicon” in encouraging more women into politics. 

“What we really wanted to do was to get a pragmatic approach and demonstrate that we were women working across the divide…putting the issues on the table, working for poverty, working for childcare, you know, working for equal pay, working for all those issues,” she said.

“And we wanted to demonstrate what's possible. And we wanted to challenge the bad behaviour, reduce the testosterone, and come up with solutions rather than trying to protect all positions.”

Following the 1998 Assembly elections, 14 women became MLAs - five from Sinn Féin, three from the SDLP; two from the Women's Coalition; two from the Ulster Unionists and one each from the Alliance Party and DUP.

Carmel Hanna

Carmel Hanna, who was elected for the SDLP, remembered “the excitement” of joining the assembly.

“But looking back at it, it seems like madness that it took so long to set up a functioning executive,” she said.

Ms Hanna, who became the Executive’s employment minister in 2001, said she was frustrated by the grandstanding of some male politicians.

“Politics was, no doubt about it, a man’s world,” she said. 

She added: “I certainly didn’t bear the brunt of any hostility, I have to say. But I was aware that the Women’s Coalition bore the brunt of people being very disrespectful and patronizing at times.”

Catherine Cooke

Catherine Cooke
Catherine Cooke Catherine Cooke

Catherine Cooke, from Foyle Women’s Information Network, stood as a Women’s Coalition candidate for Derry City Council in the 1997 local government elections.

“I felt really excited and I felt really empowered. It was my first time ever at a count and I thought ‘this is going to make a big difference’,” she said.

She said the election marked “a journey” which began when she first got involved in community work after IRA bombs exploded in her housing estate - the predominantly unionist Tullyally estate in Derry - in 1987.

Frustrated by the “male, pale and stale” politics of the time, she said she envisioned a better future for her daughters.

“It was men in grey suits,” she said. “I wanted something different.”

As an experienced nurse, Ms Hanna said she was always keen to act rather than talk.

“Some of the (assembly) meetings were very tedious,” she said.

“One thing I noticed was that women were maybe less keen to speak up, although there were exceptions like Monica McWilliams (of the Women’s Coalition).

“I think that’s why she bothered so many of those men because she had no bother calling a spade a spade.”

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Ms Purvis said when she first became an assembly member in 2007, she expected to be heckled, like other MLAs, and “found it quite daunting that the assembly chamber went quiet when I was speaking”.

“I felt very strongly about what I was doing, who I was representing. I always felt very passionate about the issues that I was raising,” she said.

“So maybe that had an impact on the listener.”

Ms Purvis said more work needs to be done to support women in politics.

“Women are their own worst enemy when it comes to putting themselves out there,” she said.

“They feel that they have to be experts in everything. They always put their family first and feel very guilty about leaving the family or leaving children to be minded.”

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She said better access to childcare would encourage more women into public life, along with action on tackling inequality and poverty.

“Even if it’s a voluntary position, you need to think about the expense that that woman's going to in order to be out of her home in the evening, even at that stage, thinking about childcare,” she said.

Ms Hinds founded DemocraShe in 2000 to encourage more women into politics and public life.

“I ended up training women in every single political party over three election cycles,” she said.

“Some of them ended up at Westminster, some of them ended up in the assembly.”

She added: “Things have improved hugely but we still have a way to go.”

Following last year’s assembly elections, around 35% of MLAs are women.

50:50 NI

Aoife Clements, the founder of 50:50 NI which runs training programmes for women who want to get into politics, said although the rise in female representation is welcome, the north is still lagging behind other countries.

She cited Rwanda where 63% of seats in the lower house are held by women.

“If we had quotas the figures would be so much better,” she said.

She added: “Northern Ireland is a patriarchal society. And then also our history was dominated by a war, which was a patriarchal war.

“Women's voices have always been left out. If you look at the Good Friday Agreement, there's one sentence on gender equality.”

She said more women “are interested in getting into politics”.

“When we get more women into politics we see this move towards more feminist legislation.

“We now have the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act. We’ve got the Safe Leave Bill thanks to (former Green Party MLA) Rachel Woods. We have access to abortion. All of those things happened because more women got into politics.”