HC Deb 15 July 1998 vol 316 cc400-1
6. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

If she will make a statement on the involvement of women in political institutions in Northern Ireland; and what plans she has to encourage greater involvement of women. [49023]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Marjorie Mowlam)

The role of women in Northern Ireland is very important, and has been for many years. In terms of political representation, however, we still have a good deal of progress to make. There are only 14 women in the assembly, which has 108 members—although 50 women stood—and only 85 district councillors in Northern Ireland are female.

As my hon. Friend knows, it is ultimately up to the parties in Northern Ireland to put women forward, but I assure her that we have done everything possible to give both women and men in Northern Ireland a chance to make choices and secure opportunities that would not otherwise have been available. The establishment of equal rights, the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission, the incorporation of the European convention on human rights, the introduction of the minimum wage and changes in benefit will give women more choices.

Fiona Mactaggart

Does my right hon. Friend agree that women such as Chrissie Quinn have often borne the brunt of the failure of political parties in Northern Ireland to reach a settlement? Does she agree that it is the women who have been able to demonstrate practical and, often, non-sectarian organisational solutions to community problems? What steps will she take to ensure that the proposed Northern Ireland civic forum involves more female participants than the assembly unfortunately does?

Marjorie Mowlam

One ability that women have, which is a great help in negotiations, is the ability to listen. [Interruption]

Madam Speaker

Order. That is a very good instruction to the House. May I have a little order? I can hear conversations taking place. I can hear everything that is being said in the back row of the Opposition Benches.

Marjorie Mowlam

I share my hon. Friend's feelings about Chrissie Quinn and the pain and suffering that she is going through, as many other women have done. Women have played an important role in Northern Ireland, particularly in the community sector. I hope that the civic forum will provide another option for them. We shall put forward a number of mechanisms to the politicians of Northern Ireland for the future. I hope that women's voices are heard. Some 75 per cent. of women across Northern Ireland supported the Good Friday agreement in the referendum.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Are you not sitting in that Chair because of your ability, Madam Speaker, and is the right hon. Lady not sitting on the Front Bench because of her ability and charm? It has everything to do with equal opportunities and nothing to do with politically correct claptrap.

Marjorie Mowlam

I do not think that it is a question of charm for either of us. Like all the women in this House, women who hold positions in Northern Ireland have come through a system of political parties. It is important that women and men have opportunities and choices in their lives. That is why I mentioned the minimum wage and the European convention on human rights. Those measures will give women and men who do not have employment a chance to gain the respect and confidence to do what they want with their lives.