Who runs Northern Ireland? Taking stock of gender and power in Northern Ireland

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A photo showing the Chairperson (Kellie Armstrong MLA) and Deputy Chairperson (Megan Fearon MLA) of the Northern Ireland Assembly Women's Caucus (photo courtesy of Politics Plus)
The Chairperson (Megan Fearon MLA) and Deputy Chairperson (Kellie Armstrong MLA) of the Northern Ireland Assembly Women’s Caucus at the Next Chapter #BalanceforBetter event to mark International Women’s Day 2019 (photo courtesy of Politics Plus)

Please note that more up-to-date statistics on gender representation can be found in the RaISe research paper Who Runs Northern Ireland? A Summary of Statistics Relating to Gender and Power in 2020.

The late feminist writer Kate Millet observed society in the late 1960s and concluded that almost all positions of power were occupied by men, a state of affairs she referred to as ‘patriarchy’ – the ‘rule of fathers’. These positions of power were in politics, public life, the economy, justice, security and administration. How does Northern Ireland fare in such decision-making areas? To coincide with International Women’s Day 2019, this article looks at who runs Northern Ireland in 2019 and considers whether there has been any change in the last five years.


There are currently 29 female Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) out of a total of 90 (32%). Compared with the 20% before the 2017 election, this was the highest level of representation since the establishment of the Assembly in 1998, although at the time of writing, they have yet to take their seats. This proportion is also higher than representation in local councils (27%) or among Northern Ireland Members of Parliament at Westminster (28%). Only in the field of European politics are women more present than men: two of Northern Ireland’s three Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are women.

Public appointments

The decision-making functions of public bodies are carried out by boards, the members of which are appointed by government ministers. At the end of March 2017 42% of public appointments were occupied by women, compared with 33% five years earlier. However, 28% of chairs of public bodies are women.


Around half of all employees are women. But the workforce is vertically and horizontally segregated along gender lines. 82% of part-time workers are women, which means men still predominate in full time employment and the status and benefits that go with it, not least having greater lifelong earnings. According to the 2011 census, 37% of managers, directors and senior officials were women, and women are less represented in skilled trades and occupations and over-represented in caring work, such as health and social care, and teaching. Thirty per cent of self-employed people are women and at the very top, a survey conducted in  2015 found that 15% of the boards of the leading 100 companies in Northern Ireland are women.


If encountering the justice system, 70% of the police officers encountered would be men, as well as 80% of those making decisions as Assistant Chief Constables and both the Chief Constable and Deputy Chief Constable are men. In court, two thirds of judges at County Court level are men and 78% of High Court judges are men. This is an increase on five years ago when there were no senior female judges above County Court level at all.

Civil Service

There are equal numbers of men and women who administer Northern Ireland, but at senior level in the civil service (Grade 5 and above), 38% are women and 33% of Permanent Secretaries are women. Again, this is an increase on five years ago when there were no female Permanent Secretaries.

Similarly, 42% of local council employees are women, but the Chief Executives of three of the eleven councils are women (27%). This is an increase on the 15% of five years ago for 26 councils, but a reduction on the 36% for the eleven councils when they were first established in shadow form.

Health and education

Women predominate in the health and education sectors, as 77% of teachers and 79% of health and social care staff are women. In the field of education, there is a majority of school principals that are women (60%), but representation is much lower in decision-making in colleges and universities, 29% of colleges of further education having a woman as principal and 17% of vice chancellors and pro-vice chancellors at the two Northern Ireland based universities being women. In the area of health, 17% of Health and Social Care Trusts are women and 33% of Trust chairs.

What is to be done?

What would Kate Millet make of all this? A summary of gender and power in Northern Ireland in 2019 gives us the following:

Position Women 2019 Women 2014
Members of the Legislative Assembly 33% 20%
High Court Judges 22% 0%
County Court Judges 33% 18%
Public Appointments 42% 33%
Chairs of Public Bodies 28% 19%
Self-Employed 30% 24%

Clearly the representation of women in positions of power has increased, but nowhere has this reached parity. There are many definitions of feminism, but one core understanding is that society is configured by men and that it functions for the benefit of men. The solution is for a fundamental change in gender relations.

In 2015, the Assembly and Executive Review Committee concluded that ‘the under-representation of women in politics in Northern Ireland is a serious issue which must be addressed as a matter of urgency’. One outcome of the review has been the establishment of a women’s parliamentary caucus, which can champion the views of and issues for women and promote women in political and public life. There is a range of measures that have been used to increase the representation of women in politics, such as quotas, changes to procedures and specific support to women, many of which have been used in the promotion and support of women outside of public life.

The limitations of programmes which support women to progress to positions of power and influence in society are that they assume women to be the ‘problem’. Women are trained, supported and configured to fit in with the system, rather than the system being accessible to women and men on an equal basis. A review of gender issues in 2014 found that, despite legislative and policy frameworks to promote women’s rights and equality, women are still treated differently to men. Issues such as a lack of women in decision-making roles, a gendered economy, insufficient childcare, differential impacts to changes in social security support, limitations in gender-specific health provision, gender-based violence and an under-representation of women in justice settings present an image of society where women take second place to men.

The United Nations adopted International Women’s Day on 8 March in 1975. The theme for 2019 is ‘Think equal, build smart, innovate for change’. Women and men will gather across the world to call for changes to make a more equal society.