Assembly reform would have significant impact on gender balance of Assembly

Session: 2014/2015

Date: 06 March 2015

Reference: SO 08/14/15

The Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly tonight hosted an event in Parliament Buildings to mark International Women's Day this weekend. The Speaker introduced a discussion with Dame Rosemary Butler, Presiding Officer of the National Assembly for Wales, who had accepted an invitation from the Speaker to discuss her own successful campaign to encourage more women into public life.

In his own speech, the Speaker outlined that he was considering how he might encourage party political consensus on wider Assembly reform which would be beneficial towards increasing the gender balance of the Assembly. The Speaker also revealed that he had written to Party Leaders and the Committee of Procedures to ask them to consider introducing a measure which would increase greater female participation in the team of Speaker and Deputy Speakers after the next Assembly election. Extracts from Speaker McLaughlin's speech are below:

"On Monday, Parliament Buildings will be lit up to mark International Women's Day. That will serve as a backdrop to a debate in the Assembly on a report from the Assembly and Executive Review Committee on Women in Politics. It will be an important debate. All of us acknowledge that there are still too few women in the Assembly and we need to look at what more we can all do to create a better gender balance in future mandates.

"The issue of encouraging more women into politics poses challenges for many including parties, the Assembly, the media, and voters. As the report is going to be debated on the floor of the Assembly, I have to be careful as Speaker as to how much I say. However, I recognise that there is a role for me, as Speaker, in showing a lead.

"Following the Stormont House Agreement, parties are working on the detail of changes to how the institutions work in future including opposition, the number of Members and, as was announced this week, the number of Departments. However, I do think this also creates an opportunity to look at some wider areas of how this Assembly operates. One of those is certainly how our business is organised and the unpredictable length of many our sittings.

"There are many reasons for that including how the Executive schedules its business and Assembly procedures including our method of voting. However, the result is that it produces a work pattern which is not particularly attractive to many. Addressing these issues is ultimately a decision of the Assembly but I am looking at how I might use my time in office to encourage consensus amongst our parties to reform some of our procedures to improve our effectiveness and this will be one of them. Yes we do need to get business through the House and ensure it is thoroughly scrutinised. Why should that be incompatible with family friendly hours? I would like to see us make progress on that front by the beginning of the next Assembly mandate. Reform of the Assembly would undoubtedly have a significant impact in encouraging more women to come forward and be part of it.

"I believe that would be a positive step towards encouraging more female Members of the Assembly but frankly I think it would be welcomed by Members and staff of this Assembly of all genders and with young children or none.

"Our guest tonight, Dame Rosemary, presides over a Welsh Assembly in which two of the four main party leaders are women. In my first few weeks in office I travelled to the Scottish Parliament to visit my counterpart, Tricia Marwick. Not only is one of her two Deputies also a woman, but I observed her preside over First Ministers Questions from the gallery where the three main parliamentary groups were all led by women. As an aside, I would tell you that it was louder than many of our sittings.

"This all indicates the distance we have to travel. My period as Speaker would not last too long if I was to encourage my female colleagues to launch leadership challenges in their respective parties but I can address issues closer to home.

"I have a very good team of Deputy Speakers. Our strong working relationship is a positive influence on the Assembly but I am conscious that we are not reflective of the Assembly as it currently is or as I would like it to be. Therefore, I have written to Party Leaders and the Committee on Procedures to ask them to consider introducing a measure for the next Assembly, similar to the arrangements at Westminster, to ensure greater female representation among the Speaker and Deputy Speakers. I am open as to whether that can be done through a change to Standing Orders or through an informal agreement between parties when nominating candidates. No matter how it is done, I believe that it would send out a significant signal of intent from this Assembly. Why should we not aim for a day when two or more of the Speaker and Deputy Speakers would always be female or one of the Speaker and Principal Deputy Speaker would always be female?

"By our current rate of progress, it will be some time before we achieve a gender balanced Assembly so we do need to look at other measures. I have highlighted two issues on my agenda but encouraging more women into politics will require many more initiatives from a wider range of stakeholders and decision makers.

"Monday's debate will be a significant step but I hope that the contributions from Dame Rosemary and you this evening help stimulate more ideas for how we see more women in this Assembly in the future."


Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Mitchel McLaughlin MLA with Dame Rosemary Butler AM, Presiding Officer of the Welsh Assembly with Wendy Austin MBE with Cinemagic participants (left-right) Rebecca Connolly, Roisin Brown and Elizabeth Darragh at an event to mark International Women’s Day this weekend. The event is the result of a partnership between the Assembly, Belfast City Council and Cinemagic and its aim was to challenge groups of young people to create three short films to inspire a new generation of young women to participate and become leaders in the civic and political arena. Picture: Michael Cooper


• This event, as well as marking the International Women's Day this weekend, is the result of a partnership between the Assembly and the Belfast City Council and Cinemagic.

• The purpose of the partnership was to challenge three groups of young people to create three short films to inspire a new generation of young women to participate and become leaders in the civic and political arena.

• The three projects have focused on the following themes:

    • Social media--use, abuse and exploitation
    • Violence against women, and
    • Lack of female representation in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) sector.

• As part of this event, there will be a lecture by Dame Rosemary Butler AM, Presiding Officer of the Welsh Assembly. Dame Rosemary will also take part in a question and answer session, chaired by Wendy Austin.


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