CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: Power, Politics, Positionings: Women in Northern Ireland (Report No. 4)

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Power, Politics, Positionings -
Women in Northern Ireland

Independence or integration?

Roísin McDonough

Does community politics, and women's involvement in it, offer any lessons for other social spheres - particularly the formal political arena?

It needs to be said at the outset that there are tensions within the community and voluntary sector, divided as it is along sectarian, class and gender lines as much as by area of activity, orientation and relationship to the state. Moreover, a political 'settlement' - however evanescent that may seem - could undermine the current privileged regard for the voluntary sector in public-policy discourse, unless more productive relationships are built with politicians and other civil-society institutions.

Yet the power wielded by the voluntary sector is limited. So too has been the success of its efforts to become a fully recognised social partner, on equal terms with the trade unions, business and farmers. And social policy issues are still largely absent from the political agenda. The lack of recognition of the contribution of women in community organisations and women's groups is thus only partly a product of the power relations within the voluntary sector, as well as society generally: a deformed polity, post-civil rights, has had its own atrophying effect.

It is widely acknowledged that Northern Ireland has a vibrant civil society, especially in territorially defined communities. This energy and dynamism has benefited, directly and indirectly, from the displacement of mainstream political activity, which rapidly became preoccupied post-'68 with constitutional concerns, to the virtual exclusion of all else. Many in the middle classes retreated into their private spheres, disdaining political involvement or even opting out of civil society. By contrast, many living in urban working-class ghettoes, responding to local pressures to tackle such issues as poverty and exclusion, housing, welfare rights, fuel debt, youth alienation, educational underachievement and sectarianism, became active in community politics.[1]

Campaigns, associations and neighbourhood services, across a wide range of activities-from pre-school to senior citizens, including women's groups, networks and cross-community alliances - have proliferated during the past two to three decades. These activities, and the engagement of those involved, have undoubtedly assuaged some of the worst effects of violent conflict - via not only the services provided, important as these have been, but also the processes by which people have become engaged, attenuating their sense of alienation. And high participation in tackling local issues of common concern, prompted by community development, has helped restrain the paternalism of planners who 'knew best' how to redevelop communities.

It is women who have consistently been the mainstay of such activities - keeping the 'capillaries of community life' alive and helping improve morale and confidence.[2] It is important, however, to distinguish the types of involvement of women within the wide span of the community and voluntary sector. At one level, they are active and work alongside men in neighbourhood associations. At another, they are involved in some of the larger voluntaries. At a third, they are engaged in organisations mainly used by other women or in exclusively female arenas addressing women's issues and needs.

In organisations open to and providing services for all, there is little recognition of the specific contribution women make. Smyth has argued that the structures and processes of community development "maintain inequity between men and women, undervalue and render invisible women's contribution and reproduce the ideology of sexism".[3] At best, admiring condescension vies with marginalisation. Women are active initiators in many instances, forming the backbone of groups, yet rarely perform leading roles or occupy influential negotiating positions vis-à-vis those responsible for public policy Their impact on the structure and culture of most community groups has also been circumscribed by the persistent power of patriarchal assumptions about women's domestic and familial responsibilities, as unpaid (and hence undervalued) carers.[4]

Women continue to do the background, 'donkey' work in many instances, timetabling their commitments around children and husbands, whilst men rarely face such constraints and have little hesitation in assuming leadership or authority in groups. There are notable (particularly urban) exceptions, but the trend is consistent. Research into the role of women in the community and voluntary sector is also weak: gender-blindness abounds here as much as elsewhere.

Women, however, are also active in other parts of the voluntary sector. The 70s and 80s saw a rapid growth of services organised by women for women - Women's Aid and Derry Well-woman, to name but a few. The late 80s witnessed the proliferation of women's centres and groups at neighbourhood level, including the Women's Information Group. Most share many of the aims and values of the women's movement, or at least accept that much of the progress made by women in society has been because of it-even if the vast majority are reluctant to identify personally with a feminist label.

The negative image of feminism and the attribution of a 'lack of femininity' to feminists-primarily constructed by hostile media-is even more acute in Northern Ireland, where feminism is (negatively) associated with lesbianism and homophobic prejudices are more predominant than in the rest of the UK. Siann and Wilkinson argue[5] that "many women reject feminism because they fear this will undermine their sense of their own femininity". Recognising that culture clearly plays a role in restricting women, they observe that there is also a fundamental ambivalence within feminism itself, as many feminists appear "torn as to how to reconcile 'sexual difference' with demands for equality Equality has often seemed to be about 'sameness' rather than allowing for 'difference' between the sexes. The result is confusion in the minds of many women who favour both sexual equality and an acknowledgement of gender differences."

In Northern Ireland, moreover, where kinship and family ties are strong within communities, feminism's perceived analysis of 'the family' as a primary site of women's oppression has left many working-class women extremely reluctant to embrace a 'feminist' identity on its own. An interesting subversion of these seemingly polar opposites has been attributed to the late Belfast community worker Joyce McCartan, who proclaimed herself and the women with whom she worked to be "family feminists".

Whatever the identities locally-based women's groups embrace, their distinctiveness from others within the community and voluntary sector - how they organise, their structure and their culture - is evident. There is often considerable user participation in management and decision-making generally and a disdain for the formalised hierarchies of more traditional voluntary and public bodies. This is allied to a tendency for women who have been the recipients of services to become involved later in provision for other women.

The social disadvantage women face is reflected in the community and voluntary sector, with women's groups being the 'second sex' within it. Yet networks, associations and women's activities continue to flourish, in spite of the underlying dynamic of social and sexual containment.

In her study[6] of women's voluntary organisations in Northern Ireland, Ruth Taillon has argued that "the plethora of services organised by women for women - often with the most minimal of resources - must stand as a clear indication that women have specific needs which are not otherwise being met by the

statutory and voluntary sectors." She revealed a pattern of undervaluing and therefore under-resourcing of women-oriented projects, groups and services. She recommended a co-ordinated funding policy for the community and voluntary sector, which would prioritise the needs of women's groups by adopting 'positive action measures' within an equal opportunities policy This, however, remains as far off as ever.

The community and voluntary sector has always been riven by divisions and shifting alliances. Surface tensions before the ceasefires were supplanted by fundamental questions about the sector and its role in their aftermath. Latter-day privileging of community development and grassroots activity, by both policy-makers and funders-particularly in the context of the EU Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation-has produced a nervousness amongst 'professionalised' voluntary organisations who query the capacity of small community groups to provide effective services locally, as well as to survive after the 'peace package' moneys have dried up.

Other voluntary organisations, perhaps having seen the writing on the wall some time ago, are in a self-proclaimed transitional state - changing from paternalistic service providers to user-led partnerships, which involve local people in campaigning for change, in policy development and in devising models of good practice. Save the Children Fund and Barnardos' have emerged as two examples of organisations with a distinct, anti-poverty and developmental, rather than service-based, focus.

Diana Leat's study[7] of managers who have moved from capitalist to voluntary organisations challenges some of the myths about a distinctive organisational culture, modus operandi and value base in the voluntary sector: its alleged egalitarianism; less emphasis on hierarchy; more participatory and sociable nature; greater commitment to a common cause; embrace of equal opportunities; a consumer orientation; and a generally self-sacrificing, hard-working, hair-shirt style. Her study revealed a gap between words and deeds, uneven practices, much competitiveness as opposed to cooperation, as much self-seeking behaviour as elsewhere, a reluctance to get rid of those who under-perform, slower decision-making (with too much stress on process at the expense of product), internal factionalism and frequent failure to prioritise users.

The community and voluntary sector has always expressed a fundamental ambivalence towards the state, as it has been pressed (if less these days) to assume responsibility for delivery of previously state-run community care. It has also, in the main, resisted adopting a partisan position on the conflict in Northem Ireland. It sees itself rather as having contributed to an ideologically neutral space, in which opposing allegiances remain firmly outside. While there is a recognition of the differential development of the two main communities, Fitzduff argues[8] that there is nonetheless a fundamental lack of agreement about the "endogenous or exogenous nature of the conflict or about the need to prioritise (or combine) the psychocultural or structural approaches" to it, which hampers understanding generally and community-relations work in particular.

The voluntary sector's unwillingness to engage more concertedly in a community-relations agenda is understandable, according to Fitzduff. Groups are often working at the edge, assisting physical and social survival for many marginalised by poverty and exclusion. To add to that burden might be to stretch them beyond the limits of endurance. Others are afraid that, by addressing sectarianism, their fragile alliances with others would disintegrate - and for some living in front-line communities it might be dangerous to do so. Added to this is a belief amongst many that it is a fundamental responsibility of government, rather than the voluntary sector, to rectify issues of sectarianism seen as ultimately caused by government itself.

The uneasiness of relationships with the state has been alleviated to some degree, with the advent of the 26 district partnerships established under the peace package. Friction remains, but there is at least a new willingness to attempt to work with local private, public and political representatives in tackling common social and economic issues. This may indeed be less of a culture shock for community groups with a record of working with public bodies, than for councillors who have often eschewed interest in or responsibility for 'bread-and-butter' issues, and who are more overtly hostile to any moves towards the sharing of power and responsibility than other sectors.

The district partnerships will, however, present the voluntary sector with an uncomfortable challenge to its privileged position as principal barometer of community need and demand, and consequent negotiator with government (as evidenced in the government's own Strategy for Support of the Voluntary Sector and Community Development). Instead of that representational hegemony it will have to negotiate with other local representatives - politicians in particular - who are increasingly asking pertinent, if somewhat uncomfortable, questions about mandates and democratic accountability New forms of governance pose new problems. The willingness and openness with which such problems are embraced is usually a good indicator as to the potential outcome.

The need to ensure women's participation in the district partnerships was taken most seriously by the voluntary sector. Experience from the republic's local development programme funded by European moneys reveals the difficulties-after four years of trying-in ensuring that women's voices are represented equally on such partnerships across all sectors. Voluntary compliance, in respect of gender equality has now been replaced by a funding contract complete with penalty clauses for failure to meet agreed gender targets. Women in Northern Ireland are watching such developments closely.

The 'peace package' is the only arena where efforts to have the voluntary sector recognised as a full social partner have been successful. The challenge remains to secure recognition vis-à-vis the monitoring of mainstream EU structural funds and, more crucially, in terms of mainstream domestic programmes. Notwithstanding Tory ideological abhorrence of any steps towards more modern European conceptions of social partners, negotiating and working alongside goveminent where appropriate, the capacity of the voluntary sector to win this prize will also depend on its performance.

First, it must build the necessary alliances locally and regionally Secondly it must deliver a mature sectoral response, recognising that negotiated compromises do not of necessity mean emasculation of independence or renunciation of the right to remain critical as seen fit. Rather than being continuously placed in the invidious position of being seen to carp from the sidelines, the voluntary sector is afforded by the district partnerships its most fundamental challenge to date: is it up to the (shared) responsibility inevitably associated with taking major decisions, and can it throw off a mendicant mentality?

Northern Ireland is a society in transition, commencing the difficult journey of self-reflection as a fundamental first step towards self-reconstitution. The lessons of community politics, and women's unique contribution to it, could be a significant point from which to start that journey Male politicians and governments will ignore these at their peril: learning those lessons just might permit us to leapfrog from the atavism of the past 25 years into a more modern, tolerant and pluralist society.


1 Andy Pollak ed, A Citizens'Inquiry: The Opshal Report on Northern Ireland, Lilliput, Dublin 1993
2Marie Abbot and Roisín McDonough, 'Changing women: women's action in Northern Ireland', in Eamonn Deane ed, Lost Horizons, New Horizons: Community Development in Northern Ireland, Workers' Educational Association, Belfast, 1989
3Marie Smyth, 'Women, peace, community relations and voluntary action', in Nick Acheson and Arthur Williamson eds, Voluntary Action and Social Policy in Northern Ireland, Avebury, Aldershot, 1995
4Fred St Leger and Norman Gillespie, Informal Welfare in Three Belfast Communities, Department of Health and Social Services, Belfast, 1991
5Siann and Wilkinson, Gender, Feminism and the Future, Demos Working Paper, London, 1995
6 Ruth Taillon, Grant Aided or Taken for Granted?, Women's Support Network, Belfast, 1992
7 Diana Leat, Challenging Management, VOLPROF, City University Business School, London, 1995
8 Mari Fitzduff, 'Managing community relations and conflict: voluntary organisations and government and the search for peace', in Acheson and Williamson, op cit

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