​Last week was certainly an interesting time to look at female politicians in action in our two islands.

Published: 5 February 2024

As a long-standing feminist since the days when female politicians were as rare as white blackbirds, I should have been thrilled that in Edinburgh, at the covid inquiry, the star was ex-first minister Nicola Sturgeon, while in Belfast, Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly were being installed in as first and deputy first minister.

And there was the addition of gracious appearances before various cameras as Mary Lou McDonald, the leader of the Opposition in the Dáil, popped by.

However, I am the traditional kind of feminist who simply wants equal opportunities for everyone, not positive discrimination of any kind. I just want the best candidate to get the job.

I am intensely grateful to Margaret Thatcher, the first woman to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Like her or loathe her, she was such a towering presence that no one again could credibly say women weren’t strong enough for the job.

She made it possible for women to fail, as men regularly did. And in a Tory party preoccupied at present with ridiculous plotting, despite the foundering of Theresa May and the catastrophe of Liz Truss, it doesn’t raise any sexist eyebrows that three women, Kemi Badenoch, Suella Braverman and Penny Mordaunt, seem to be top of the popularity list .

And the fact that Sturgeon’s political career has deservedly crashed and burned will not make it more difficult for a woman to take over when her hapless successor Hamza Yousaf, bites the dust.

There was much speculation when in 2018 the little-known Michelle O’Neill was chosen to replace the ailing Martin McGuinness as Sinn Fein vice-president and “new party leader in the North”, with Adams being succeeded by McDonald as president.

Conor Murphy, who had been widely tipped as the obvious successor, accepted his fate without any public fuss.

He had done time for the Provisional IRA and then Sinn Fein, in prison and in politics, but although like McDonald O’Neill had not been in the IRA, the record of her father and two cousins gave her the necessary credentials.

The party’s make-over was memorably symbolised in March 2017 when McDonald and O’Neill carried McGuinness’s coffin and were on either side of Adams at the podium as he made the graveside oration. “Martin McGuinness “, he declaimed, “was not a terrorist. Martin McGuinness was a freedom fighter. He was also a political prisoner, a negotiator, a peacemaker, a healer.”

Since the Shinner vision is that McDonald will soon be taoiseach and with O’Neill will miraculously make unity happen, McDonald lost no time last week in declaring that Irish unity was now “within touching distance”.

This was not a popular intervention with all nationalists. Free Staters and Nordies don’t like each other much. There were questions asked about what she was doing butting in on events in Stormont.

And her tone was very different from that of O’Neill. It was McDonald — who feels the need to woo IRA veterans who played hard cop. O’Neill — who aspires to woo unionists and the centre — did soft cop.

Because of McDonald’s strengths as a debater and street fighter and her senior position in the party, O’Neill has traditionally deferred to her, but she has been growing in confidence.

In the Republic, Sinn Fein is slipping in the polls, with increasing turmoil internally as the normally obedient rank and file begin to split over mass immigration — which it favoured until riots and arson began to change minds at the top. The prospect of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail going into coalition with Sinn Fein is slim.

The relationship between the two women will come under great strain. Already, O’Neill is is looking and sounding much more confident and McDonald seems stressed.

Is it possible that Emma Little-Pengelly and Michelle O’Neill can develop a working partnership of the kind that McGuinness managed with his opposite numbers?

At a time when it might suit MacDonald to step up the Anglophobia, could O’Neill think of unionists and resist?

O’Neill actually allowed the heretical phrase “Northern Ireland” to cross her lips. Might she actually want to operate as her own woman?

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