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Women in NI Assembly – making politics more relevant to the people


Judith Cochrane, MLA

Fiona McGrath
WVoN co-editor

Judith Cochrane bursts into her office, apologises for being late and dives for a can of diet coke perched on top of piles of paper, files and books.

How would I describe one of Northern Ireland’s most recently elected Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA)?

Optimistic, hard working, principled and a problem-solving logical thinker. Ask her how she would describe herself and she would probably add “a little bit nervous”.

Back in 2004 Cochrane was on maternity leave with her first baby.  Her childhood friend Naomi Long suggested she get involved with the Alliance party.  Now that she was off work with a newborn, Long reckoned she would have ‘time on her hands’.

Cochrane laughs ruefully but as a future Lord Mayor of Belfast and current MP for East Belfast, Long was a difficult woman to refuse.

So with a six-month-old baby in tow, Cochrane was elected to Castlereagh Borough council in 2004 promising to serve only one term in office.  Four years later, she was still there but, feeling frustrated with what she could achieve at council level, she stood for the Assembly this year and won her current seat in East Belfast.

Party leader, David Ford, signed her up for ‘the heaviest committees and also to be a member of the Assembly Commission’ which she took as an indication of his faith in her abilities.

The cross-community ethos of the Alliance party allows Cochrane to work without ‘‘the green and the orange’ baggage endemic in Northern Irish politics.

She says hers is a unifying role, showing parties that there are more things that unite than divide their two communities of Protestant and Catholic.

‘All constituents face the same problems’, argues Cochrane.  ‘It doesn’t matter which community they come from’.

But how does she feel being one of only 20 women in an Assembly of 108?

‘I’m very used to being in a male working environment’, she claims. ‘If you prove yourself then it shouldn’t hold you back’.

However, I get the feeling that’s not the whole story and maybe there is an element of putting up with an imperfect situation in order to get the job done.  Perhaps Northern Irish politics needs to address a more universal issue – the one shouldered by women who dare to put their heads over the political parapet.

Although she says it’s not something she thinks about very often, she admits to feeling ‘more confident in committees rather than in the main Assembly Chamber’ where the public setting leaves individual MLAs more exposed.

She concedes that if there were more women, she might feel less intimidated but acknowledges that her youth, compared to the more mature “silver backs” of the Northern Ireland (NI) political scene, is also a factor.

The Alliance Party is well known for encouraging women into its ranks but she acknowledges that women are also slowly making their way up the ladder of the other political parties in NI, such as Michelle Gildernew of Sinn Fein and Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party.

Having a female presence in the Assembly is, according to Cochrane, a move towards the Assembly’s commitment to its Engagement Strategy: making politics more relevant to the people.

‘I know at the school gate parents will start to think that things are a bit more relevant to them because they know me.  If you only had old men in grey suits representing the people it doesn’t matter how much work they do, they would never be relevant.  It has to be relevant by being a reflection of the population.’

I ask Cochrane if she feels she has to act as a role model for other women thinking about going into politics.

She recounts an incident from last year when she ‘received a call from a young woman who was considering running for council for another party and she thought I might be able to allay a few of her concerns.  She wanted to know what it was like and what the time commitment would be’.

Cochrane’s advice was to go for it, but didn’t sugar coat the realities of political life – the time commitment, the unsociable hours, the need for a very supportive family and the workload.

The woman decided not to stand, but she joined the Alliance party and Cochrane is optimistic that ‘in four years time she might be representing our party’.

Women make up 51% of the population in NI yet they are virtually invisible in politics. The failure to reflect the population accurately is even more worrying now in times of economic deprivation when women as a group are one of the hardest hit.

Cochrane is a committed politician with a clear view of the grass roots issues that matter most to people.  It was her frustration with the lack of what she considered real political progress in the important areas which motivated her move to the NI Assembly.

But it seems a pity that we have to wait for women like Cochrane to become more and more frustrated before they make their move into politics.

Surely there’s a more positive way to get women involved and in the current climate it strikes me that politicians should be doing their utmost to encourage more women to get involved in the issues that matter most to people.

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