Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council councillors have called for more women to become involved in politics in Lagan Valley

The calls come less than a year before the next council election is held across Northern Ireland, next May.

Alliance Party Cllr Sorcha Eastwood. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

Currently less than a quarter of elected members on the Lisburn Castlereagh City Council are women.

Alliance has the largest proportion of females on the council with three, followed by the Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party.

The other three parties on the council Sinn Fein, SDLP, and the Green Party have no female elected representation on LCCC.

In 2019, 16 women stood for election across the seven District Electoral Areas.

Alliance councillor Sorcha Eastwood said it was ‘eye-watering’ and ‘horrendous’ that 91% of all elected members in Lagan Valley, including MPs, MLAs, and Councillors were currently male.

The Castlereagh South representative said more had to be done to ‘encourage’ women to come forward and stand in elections.

She added: “The sad thing is, most women are very active within the community. They keep a lot of community groups, church groups and caring groups going throughout the year.

“You only have to look at the last year with the pandemic and to see how women have really come to the forefront when they were needed, but there is a real gap between getting women to make that leap from their community work to elected politics.

“I think some of the reasons for that are the hours. The hours are very anti-social, anti-family, and they can be quite adversarial.

“I have to say that working throughout all levels of government the worst by far in regards to misogyny is local government.

“There’s a lot of condensation, petty politics that goes on and I think there’s an issue within local government – there’s a very profound lack of women and ethnic minorities – it’s lacking in diversity completely.

“We can’t provide what the community needs unless this place is representative of the community and at this point it’s not.

“It’s grand to say that parties will take steps to include and increase representation but you also have to make sure that those seats are winnable if you actually want to have an impact.

“The sad thing within Lagan Valley is that I know women who are very active within the community but for whatever reason they won’t run for elected politics, it’s really sad.”

DUP and Castlereagh East councillor Sharon Skillen, who was elected in 2014, said it was time for more women to ‘step forward’ at the next election.

She said: ” I have been a member of Lisburn Castlereagh since 2014 and during that time I have always been made to feel most welcome, both by Council officers and from members of all political parties.

“LCCC has the lowest number of female representatives, and this is something I would like to see change, with women stepping forward to get involved in politics, from whatever party they may support.

“Whilst everyone will agree on the need to see more women coming forward in public life and into elected office, it can be difficult to identify the reasons why this is not happening.

“I have been very fortunate in the encouragement I have received throughout my political career. Many of those people have been men such as former First Minister Peter Robinson, Jimmy Spratt and Gavin Robinson MP.

“There can be other challenges for women, who more often than male colleagues may have caring responsibilities.

“I have a three year old daughter, but am very fortunate to have the support of my husband or I simply would not be able to perform the role.

“It is also very encouraging to see women in my party such as Carla Lockhart MP take a very strong stand against some of the online abuse which women in public life can face. This is something which is common to women from all political parties and must be something we take a united stand against.”

Meanwhile, women currently don’t hold some of the biggest roles within the council, including committee Chair and Vice-Chair. In total, LCCC has seven council committees.

However, Ulster Unionist councillor Jenny Palmer is the outgoing Deputy Mayor for the council and three of the five heads of Departments are also female, although unelected.

The Green Party’s Simon Lee said the current political landscape meant it was a much “tougher choice” for women to take on.

He added: “As a male councillor I could talk about the barriers I see to women being councillors but this is an issue that needs to be exclusively explored with women themselves.

“What are the barriers women perceive? Why do fewer women put themselves forward, get selected or elected? What more can be done to bridge the gap and level the playing field and have more representative councils?

“Any solution to this problem will have women at the centre and to them we need to listen, and learn.”

When broken down, LCCC has the lowest representation of any council in Northern Ireland with seven females councillors. Belfast City Council has the highest with 16, while Causeway Coast and Glens has 15. The other eight councils have between nine and 11 female councillors among their ranks.

Mrs Eastwood said there was still “a way to go” before diversity was improved within Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council.

“Every second party has a role to play and the good thing about it is that all the women currently on the council all support each other in different ways despite our political differences, ” added the Alliance councillor.

“All the women are all lovely and they do an awful lot of good work and because we are all raising issues that are really important to women we support each other.

“I don’t care what party women are involved in if they come forward to stand. I want women to be involved in politics. It’s important to have women around that table because we are able to do business together and get what needs to be done, done.”