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16 October 2014
A State Apart

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DemocraShe. Breakthrough for women politicians

Scope Magazine, June 2000

The under-representation of women in Northern Irish politics is not news. However, a new training programme has been designed, harnessing expertise from Northern Ireland and the USA, to develop the role of women within our political parties. ANNE MOORE takes a look at how the first participants are reacting to DemocraShe.

DemocraShe, a new programme in politics, policy and the media for women in each political party, is set to change the Northern Ireland political landscape by creating a group of trained and confident women who can go forward for nomination and election at all levels of government.

Launched with the support Hillary Clinton on 4 May at Stormont, democraShe is the brainchild of three women, Maureen Murray and Alexandra Lange from the US-based Northern Ireland Women's Initiative (NIWI) and Bronagh Hinds, the Director of the Ulster People's College (UPC) in Belfast.

The Good Friday Agreement's equality agenda mandated 'the right of women to full and equal political participation' and inspired the creation of NIWI. From the outset, NIWI took care to refine its role through research and meetings with women in the Northern Ireland parties to avoid imposing American preconceptions.

The research identified the need to develop confidence-building and political skills and the Ulster People's College in Belfast was recommended for its expertise in community learning and political education. DemocraShe was therefore designed by the UPC and NIWI in consultation with women from the political parties in Northern Ireland.

NIWI's president Maureen Murray described the unique partnership with her co-founder Alexandra Lange and the genesis of NIWI: "Alex and I both have political backgrounds. I'm a Democrat and she's a Republican. I worked on political campaigns and my background is in public policy and social work. Alex worked for the Reagan White House and as an investment banker, so together we cover a lot of bases."

"We have long appreciated women's contribution to the peace process in Northern Ireland. Last year we decided the time was right to form a non-partisan, non-profit organisation to promote women in politics across Northern Ireland and we have been successful in attracting support from members of Congress as well as corporate and private donors," she said.

The Director of the Ulster People's College, Bronagh Hinds, as one of the authors of the Good Friday Agreement's equality agenda, as UK Woman for Euope for 1999, and Deputy Chief Commissioner of the Equality Commission, is well placed to consider the place of women in Northern Ireland politics.

"The under-representation of women in elected positions in Northern Ireland is well documented and undermines the goal of a civilised, representative and participatory democracy."

"Over half the population is female but this is not reflected in a male-dominated political culture where only 13 per cent of the Assembly's membership (14 out of 108 MLAs), 16 per cent of local councillors, none of Westminster MPs or MEPs are women. Hillary Clinton is right when she says that democracy in which only half the population fully participates is a contradiction," she said.

Bronagh Hinds commended NIWI for the opportunity to do something practical to redress the balance, increase the electoral appeal of the political parties and effect real political change. She anticipated that democraShe would help prepare participants to go forward in next year's local elections and seek office in the Assembly.

The first participants from the Progressive Unionist Party and the SDLP began their programmes on 5 and 12 May respectively and other parties will start in the autumn.

DemocraShe is a six week intensive programme which includes modules on communication, profile-building, policy development, media and IT skills, speech writing and strategies for selection and election.

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