Centre for the Study of Conflict
The Company We Keep, Women, Community and Organisations
by Valerie Morgan and Grace Fraser
Copies are available in bookshops or, by post, from:
Centre for the Study of Conflict
University of Ulster
T: (01265) 324666 or 324165
The Company We Keep
by Valerie Morgan and Grace Fraser
Centre for the Study of Conflict
The Centre for the Study of Conflict is a research centre based in the University of Ulster. Its main work is the promotion and encouragement of research on the community conflict and to this end it concentrates on practical issues to do with institutional and community structures and change. It publishes papers and books arising out of this work including: a series of research papers particularly designed to make available research data and reports; a series of Majority-Minority reports; and a series of occasional papers by distinguished academics in the field of conflict. It has recently published a Register of Research on Northern Ireland which has been widely praised, and a termly newsletter on current research called Research Briefing.
This new series of six research reports and papers on aspects of the Northern Ireland conflict represents the results of recent work as well as a reprint of an earlier work still much in demand.
It includes the extensive evaluation work of Colin Knox and his colleagues on the Community Relations and Local Government initiative, a major experiment in the promotion and encouragement of inter-community activity through the medium of district councils; a ground-breaking report by Valerie Morgan and Grace Fraser (carried out in association with the Centre for Research on Women) called The Company We Keep: Women, Community and Organisations, on the role and influence and cross-community activities of women in small towns and rural communities; the first in a new series of reports on the concept and experience of alienation, called Protestant Alienation in Northern Ireland; the most recent Majority-Minority report (joining earlier reports on education and on employment/unemployment) this one by Martin Melaugh on Housing and Religion in Northern Ireland; a paper by Ed Cairns on Psychology and the Northern Ireland Conflict, one in the series of occasional papers written by distinguished scholars. Finally, a reprint of the much discussed report by Duncan Morrow and his colleagues on The Churches and Intercommunity Relationships first published in 1991.
Whilst the troubles in Northern Ireland over the last 25 years have generated a very considerable volume of literature (Whyte, 1990) there has been a relatively limited amount of investigation which has focused on the experiences of women (Ridd, 1984). The impact of the violence on the lives of women, their responses to the conflict and their attitudes to the issues dividing the community have attracted little attention. Writing about the conflict has itself frequently defined the issues in male terms and women have been seen as of marginal relevance. The existence of political conflict and violence has also had the effect of reducing interest in other economic and social issues including many of the areas which have the greatest impact on women's lives, such as gender discrimination in the labour market, welfare provision and child care (Kremer, 1993; Montgomery, 1991; Evason, 1980). More recently there has begun to be some consideration of the implications for women of the distinctive circumstances of life in Northern Ireland. A range of aspects of women's lives have been examined in a number of research studies which have looked at areas as diverse as the educational experiences of girls and women, their position in the labour market and domestic violence. The issue of women's involvement in politics and their contribution to the future development of Northern Irish society has only just begun to be addressed, with a number of recent studies of women's attitudes to community relations (Morgan, 1992), the involvement of women in community politics (Rooney, 1993) and political attitudes of women (Wilford, 1993).
It was lack of basic information about the ways in which women are involved in the community and the contribution which they currently make and could potentially make to community relations which prompted this investigation.
The objectives as set out in the original research proposal were: to examine relevant background literature to provide a typology of the organisations in which women are significantly involved to carry out detailed case studies of women's involvement in organisations and their contribution to cross community contact and improved community relations in two contrasting areas, one in a small urban setting and the other in a rural area to provide some tentative recommendations for developments and policies which might facilitate cross community contact between women
The remainder of this report will provide evidence of how far it has been possible to fulfil these objectives. But it must be acknowledged at the outset that the process of doing the research has led to some modification of the original intentions and certainly to shifts in emphasis. For example, at the design stage little significance was attached to the variations in the relative influence of the different types of organisations. However, during the research the great importance, both direct and indirect, of church linked organisations, particularly in rural areas, became clear and so considerable time had to be devoted to examining the ways in which church connections and religious ideologies directly affect many women's lives and influence, sometimes unconsciously, the values and perceptions of an even wider circle of women.
Many aspects of this investigation may appear to have produced depressing findings. The lack of cross-community contact experienced by the majority of women in the small towns and rural areas we examined was perhaps even greater than we had anticipated. In addition, most of the organisations and their members did not currently see such links as something which their group should be actively seeking to promote. Some felt that community relations were quite satisfactory in their area, others believed that 'that sort of thing' was nothing to do with the purposes of their organisation and a limited number were suspicious or directly hostile to cross-community contact. Amongst the majority of women there was concern about violence and community conflict in Northern Ireland but uncertainty about whether they or the groups they belonged to could do anything about it and also anxiety that even if they did want to do something the practicalities would be difficult and the whole experience might be stressful and possibly threatening.
These may not be messages which those actively involved in promoting community relations wish to hear and clearly they do not represent the whole picture: they have to be taken in conjunction with the evidence of interesting and exciting initiatives being undertaken by women in other contexts, for example, community groups in Belfast like Joyce McCartans 'family feminists' (Mitchison, 1988). They do however reflect the reality within which many women in small towns and rural areas of Northern Ireland live, a reality of communities focused on family, friends and church in which there are few established lines of communication between Protestant and Catholic and where the characteristic 'polite avoidance' is highly developed.
There are clearly many practical constraints on women in such communities, particularly in the more rural districts where individual women can be very isolated. Getting to meetings and other events is difficult unless a woman has personal access to a car, since public transport is often virtually non-existent. This means that middle class women usually find it much easier to get involved in organisations, especially at a leadership level. Many women from all social groups have difficulty finding time to give to organisations either because they work outside the home, have heavy commitments to the family business or farm or responsibilities for care of children or relatives which cannot easily be delegated. In addition the maintenance of traditional values relating to the family and the role of women in the family make some women, particularly amongst the older groups, anxious about too much involvement outside the home.
Yet in spite of these difficulties many women do give a great deal of time to voluntary work especially for charities and their churches. From a community relations perspective the problem is that this work, though beneficial to the whole community in a general sense or to communities in other countries, has limited direct impact on community division in Northern Ireland. In the non-church related organisations there was no evidence of any wish to 'avoid' the other community but the practicalities of family, friendship and social contacts resulted in many groups being predominantly or almost entirely either Catholic or Protestant. This was coupled with the well-established Northern Irish desire to avoid trouble by steering clear of raising contentious issues: the 'don't talk about the war' syndrome. This highly developed sensitivity has a functional value in allowing the two communities to co-exist separately but if there is a wish to establish contact or to explore co-operation it can be an additional barrier.
The importance of church connections in many women's lives has come out clearly in many parts of the study and this implies that the churches have a crucial role in community relations. This is obviously a difficult area since different denominations have very different views about promoting contact. At a purely practical level it would be helpful if churches could provide more information in appropriate forms about their beliefs, forms of worship and organisational structures so that some of the confusions, misconceptions and myths current on all sides might be dispelled.
At a more fundamental level women in all the churches and in the whole range of charitable, professional and community organisations might examine their own attitudes to cross-community contact and improving community relations. This suggestion may in itself be seen as threatening, but an analysis of the issues should not be seen as an automatic step on a dangerous road. Some groups may find such an examination does not lead them to wish to change their policies, for example some church groups' reflection might not lead them to seek to establish new contacts, but it might result in them understanding and accepting difference more positively. Others may find that after reflection they do wish to develop policies and programmes which will ultimately lead to new forms of co-operation, undertaking different new activities or joint initiatives.