“Politics was men in grey suits”—Good Friday Accord 2023

Former PUP leader Dawn Purvis giggled when being asked to prepare tea in her early days.

“Some man remarked to me ‘when you’re going out to the kitchen darling, turn the kettle on'” as she headed to her seat at a meeting.

“I inquired whether his arms were broken,” she claimed.

In the decades before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Ms. Purvis, who now serves on the John and Pat Hume Foundation board, said such discussions were “few and far between…misogyny was obvious in the community.”

“Men weren’t hesitant to speak their minds. “You dealt with it everywhere,” she told The Detail.

Ms. Purvis claimed several women opposed her when she entered politics.

She claimed loyalist working class women struggle to speak up.

“Women in my neighborhood opposed me when I initially entered politics.

“It’s almost like you’re rising above your station and politics is for guys only.”

She added: “But definitely I’ve received amazing support from women in local loyalist areas when I was active in the PUP and politics.

“There’s much more we could do to help those women,” she added.

In 1996, one of the Women’s Coalition’s founders, Bronagh Hinds, was her party’s director of elections to the Northern Ireland Forum, which negotiated the Good Friday Agreement.

She claimed the Coalition “passed the Rubicon” in promoting women in politics.

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“We really wanted to adopt a pragmatic approach and demonstrate that we were women working across the divide…putting the concerns on the table, working for poverty, working for childcare, you know, working for equal pay, fighting for all those issues,” she added.

We wanted to prove it. We challenged inappropriate behavior, reduced testosterone, and found solutions instead of protecting all positions.”

Five Sinn Féin, three SDLP, two Women’s Coalition, two Ulster Unionists, and one Alliance Party and DUP women became MLAs after the 1998 Assembly elections.

SDLP assembly member Carmel Hanna recalled “the thrill” of joining.

“But looking back, it looks like craziness that it took so long to build up a working executive,” she remarked.

Ms Hanna, the Executive’s employment minister since 2001, was upset by male lawmakers’ grandstanding.

“Politics was a man’s world,” she remarked.

“I certainly didn’t suffer the brunt of any hatred,” she said. Yet I was aware that the Women’s Coalition endured insulting and patronizing behavior.”

Foyle Women’s Information Network’s Catherine Cooke. Claire Simpson/The Detail 2. Catherine Cooke, Foyle Women’s Information Network. Claire Simpson/The Detail
In 1997, Foyle Women’s Information Network’s Catherine Cooke ran for Derry City Council as a Women’s Coalition candidate.

I felt empowered and eager. “This is going to make a significant impact,” she stated of her initial count.

As IRA explosives burst in her mostly unionist Derry housing estate, Tullyally, in 1987, she began community work.

She wanted a brighter future for her girls, frustrated by “male, pallid and stagnant” politics.

“Men in grey suits,” she added. “I wanted different.”

Ms. Hanna, an experienced nurse, preferred action over discussion.

She stated some assembly meetings were tedious.

“One thing I saw was that women were maybe less ready to speak up, although Monica McWilliams (of the Women’s Coalition) was an exception.

“I think she disturbed so many of those men because she had no problem calling a spade a spade.”

Ms. Purvis said she anticipated to be heckled like other MLAs when she became an assembly member in 2007 and “found it pretty intimidating when the assembly room became quiet when I was speaking”.

“I believed in what I was doing and who I represented. “I was enthusiastic about my issues,” she remarked.

“Maybe that affected the listener.”

Political women

Ms. Purvis said political women need greater help.

“Women are their greatest enemies when it comes to putting themselves out there,” she remarked.

“They think they must know everything. They constantly prioritize family and feel horrible about abandoning the kids.”

She claimed improved childcare and action on inequality and poverty will attract more women to politics.

“Even if it’s a volunteer employment, you need to think about the expenditure that that woman’s going through to be out of her house in the evening, even at that time, thinking about childcare,” she added.

Ms. Hinds launched DemocraShe in 2000 to promote more women into politics and public life.

“I trained women in every political party across three election cycles,” she claimed.

“Some went to Westminster, some to the assembly.”

She added: “Things have improved enormously but we still have a lot to go.”

35% of MLAs are women after last year’s elections.

Aoife Clements, creator of 50:50 NI, which trains women for politics, said that although the increase in female representation is encouraging, the north is still behind other nations.

Rwanda’s lower house has 63% women.

She suggested quotas would improve numbers.

She added: “Northern Ireland is patriarchal. However, patriarchal wars dominated our past.

Women’s voices have been ignored. The Good Friday Accord has one gender equality sentence.

She stated more women “want to enter into politics”.

“More women in politics means more feminist legislation.

We have the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act. Rachel Woods’ Safe Leave Bill is here. We can abort. More women in politics caused all of that.”

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