It is one week before the assembly elections; candidates and their respective parties are making last minute moves to try and sway voters; that is one of the few things that they all have in common.
Well, there is one other thing that they have all agreed on, and that is the reduction of numbers bill. This has received cross community support.
In 2021 our MLAs will decrease in number from 108 to 90. This means that there will be five MLAs for each of the 18 constituencies instead of six.
It seems simple enough; my question is who is going to be the one unlucky person to be cut from each constituency.
Will the bill aggravate an existing problem?
In the devolved government of Northern Ireland only 23 out of the current 108 MLAs are women, so just under 21%.
In the assembly in five years from now (when eighteen politicians have to go) who is going to move aside or who is going to be pushed aside by their parties?
What is going to happen to the women in a government where there is already a gender-gap? Will they have space on a stage that is already taken up mostly by male players?
Caitriona Ruane (Sinn Féin) raised this question last year when the bill was being discussed.
She said: “What I would like to see is a much more representative House, with many more women in it. In bringing about the changes that we are bringing about, I am aware that reports have shown that there are potential dangers to women.
“We will come back here in 2021 worse than we are now, and where we are now is nothing short of disgraceful.”
If we are in a “disgraceful” state now, what will it be like when we have to find some politicians to cut?
Does the ‘M’ in MLA stand for man? Most of the parties are against applying quotas, so if this is not resolved by 2021 will Sinn Féin still think that the bill is a good idea?
Sinn Féin is one of the few parties that wants to implement quotas (along with the Greens).
Ms Ruane also said: “If we are really to change things, I argue that we need quotas. That is why I am going to argue here that I do not think that 2016 is the time to make the changes, because I do not want to see unrepresentativeness. It will only create even more difficulties down the line.”
Paula Bradley (DUP) told me that she had similar concerns. She said that she agrees that there needs to be a reduction of numbers, but had fears that women will be further under-represented in politics.
She said: “My greatest worry would be that it would penalise women, because we have found at election time it’s the women that lose out in the end.”
She acknowledged that there is already a small enough number of women in politics and the reduction of MLAs might “jeopardise” the gender further, but that it was “up to the parties” to “mitigate this” concern by “putting women in winnable seats.”
Not all women in politics share our concern. Baroness May Blood told me that she does not believe that this is: “a gender issue.”
Professor Monica McWilliams believes that the reduction of numbers does not have to impact women trying to get into politics: “if the parties adopted an affirmative action programme where they selected women to stand for safe seats.”
‘If’ being the operative word here.
Steven Agnew said that the Greens support the bill, but do share my “concerns about the impact on the number of female MLAs which is why [they] proposed there should be a minimum one third quota of female candidates for all political parties.”
Alliance wanted to see the bill in place for next week’s elections, instead of the next one.
Chris Lyttle (Alliance) personally proposed an amendment to the bill that would have seen the reduction in time for the upcoming elections, but the other parties blocked this proposal.
Mr Lyttle told me why he wanted to bring the change so early.
He said: “This would have saved approximately £11m over five years, which could have been reinvested in front-line public services in dire need of funding, for example health. The other parties blocked this proposal but I am still no clearer as to why it would be appropriate in 2021 but not 2016.”
He acknowledged that something has to be done to address the gender-gap, but does not believe that the bill will affect women.
He said: “I am proud to work with many talented women in the Alliance Party but I strongly agree that we need to do all we can to encourage more women to get involved in politics.”
He went on to say that “I don’t think the number of MLAs is a key factor in whether women decide to get involved in politics or are elected or not,” but said that he is not sure “what steps need to be taken to address the under-representation.”
I said at the beginning that the bill is something that our politicians have in common, because it received cross community support, but their opinions on whether the proposed change will affect women is another matter.
Everyone disagrees on whether the reduction will affect women, but what is clear is that there is a gender-gap in Northern Irish politics, and it will probably not change next week when the same old politicians are voted in as usual.
As for 2021, we will have to wait until five years’ time to see what parties will put women forward for winnable seats for an assembly made up of only 90 MLAs.