Female Times: Election 2001: Women Who Want Your Vote - the Changing Face of Politics; for the First Time in over a Quarter of a Century, Northern Ireland Could Return a Woman MP to Westminister. SUE VASEY Looks at Some of the Hopeful Candidates

Article excerpt

Byline: SUE VASEY

The Labour Party's use of all-women shortlists for the1997 General Election saw the influx of over 100 new women MPs to Westminster.

This doubled the number of women previously in the Commons and in one day made it both more representative of the electorate and added a new dimension to British politics.

Often disparagingly referred to as the Blair Babes, many of these women made significant contributions to social and economic policy development, challenged some of the outdated and male dominated attitudes in the House of Commons and provided a stimulus to women across the country to get involved in politics and political activity at all levels.

However, many of these newly elected women MPs represent what have always been considered marginal seats.

The chances of them holding on to them will be governed not by the work they have put in for their constituents over the past four years but by the swing against Tony Blair's government.

If recent opinion polls are anything to go by the number of women MPs looks likely to be reduced come June 8th, reversing the trend for more equal representation.

But if the women's revolution seems to be slowing down over the water, the picture here at least is more encouraging.

20 per cent of candidates for this June's General Election are women and four of them stand a good chance of being returned as MPs once the counting is over.

If they do, they will be the first women to win a Parliamentary seat in Northern Ireland for over a quarter of a century.

Many of the political parties in the Province are taking seriously the need to promote more women in politics and encourage them to stand for elected office at both national and local level.

More tellingly, women are increasingly being selected for seats they have a realistic chance of winning, rather than being sidelined into 'no-hopers'.

Leading the charge for female representation, the Alliance party are fielding four women candidates, 40 per cent of their total and the SDLP have six women running, 33 per cent of their candidates.

Sinn Fein are fielding three women, the Ulster Unionists have selected two and the DUP, PUP and the Workers Party have chosen one woman each.

The Women's Coalition, not surprisingly the only party in the Province to have a 100 per cent record of selecting women, have put forward only one candidate - their Assembly member and spokesperson Monica McWilliams.

Of the four main parties, each has the chance of returning a woman to Westminster.

The UUP candidate for North Down, Lady Sylvia Hermon, is challenging the sitting MP Bob McCartney in what looks like a closely fought battle. Following the decision by the Alliance party not to field a candidate in that constituency her chances of unseating the anti- agreement maverick have been boosted.

SDLP Minister, Brid Rodgers is fighting the seat of West Tyrone where she faces Willie Thompson and Sinn Fein's Pat Doherty.

Her high profile as Agriculture Minister and approval rating across the community for her work during the recent foot and mouth crisis have boosted her campaign locally.

DUP candidate Iris Robinson is another well known face and as a local Assembly member for Strangford and Mayor of Castlereagh she has been active in the area for many years. Following the retirement of sitting MP John Taylor, and the late selection of David McNarry to fight the seat for the UUP, her campaign was given a headstart.

Michelle Gildernew of Sinn Fein is fighting Fermanagh and South Tyrone, formerly held by Bobby Sands and Owen Carron.

Her campaign was helped recently by the decision of Independent Unionist Jim Dixon to enter the race against the UUP candidate James Cooper, who is standing in place of retiring MP Ken Maginnis, thereby possibly splitting the unionist vote. …