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

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Power, Politics, Positionings -
Women in Northern Ireland

Framing the future

Ellish Rooney

The opportunity to discuss how the Framework Document[1] may, or may not, relate to women in Northern Ireland is welcome. But there is a Catch 22 in writing about 'women and [anything]'.

The impression may be encouraged that, by virtue of being separately addressed, women are thereby taken care of, dealt with, perhaps even included in the debates - whether on politics, history, religion or economics. Yet the vast bulk of analysis in these areas in Northern Ireland makes no mention of gender. And where the structure of relationships between the sexes is seen as irrelevant, women are excluded.[2]

In mainstream debate, women are assumed to be included. Yet when a separate space for 'women and ...' is created, the pressure to integrate gender, to include women, into ostensibly gender-free understanding is lessened. The idea that women can, and perhaps should, be dealt with separately, even additionally, is subtly reinforced: 'women' are made visible in the separate space but the penalties are insidious.

Another catch of the 'women and ...' approach is that it reinforces the notion that women comprise a homogeneous category, sharing essential qualities or experiences. But gender identity is one component of complex networks of class, race, religion, culture, geographical location, sexual preference and age; and it is a resultant of physical characteristics, social experience, political analysis, national identity and historical moment. Women are differently positioned in relation to each other.

Nationalist/republican/Catholic women and unionist/loyalist/Protestant women are situated differently within the social, economic, religious and political hierarchies of Northern Ireland, and in relation to each other. The commonalities and differences in women's interests, experiences and politics are embedded within these hierarchies, which circumscribe politics and identity. One vital commonality is that within the networks of interlocking hierarchies women are subordinate to men - admirable exceptions prove the rule.

Writing about the Framework Document and women is difficult because most people have forgotten the details, if they ever knew them. Its import has been overtaken by events: the tactical breakdown of the IRA (and loyalist?) ceasefire, the 'multi-party' talks, and the elections to the Northern Ireland Forum, the function of which was at the time of writing still in dispute. The document is not top of any political agenda.

It is, however, the expression of the British government's ideas, "as to how local people could take far more control over the way Northern Ireland is governed, on a fair and equitable basis". And it articulates "a shared understanding … between the British and Irish Governments, as to how relations in the island of Ireland, and between these islands, might be based on co-operation and agreement to the mutual advantage of all". These are respectively contained in two proposals: 'A Framework for Accountable Government in Northern Ireland', and 'A New Framework for Agreement'.

The document refers variously to 'the people', 'all of the people', 'the two main traditions' and 'both sides of the community'. Whatever political dispute there may be about 'both sides' thinking, theoretically at least the language is inclusive of men and women. Again, when new political institutions in Northern Ireland are considered vis-à-vis Britain and the republic, women and men are nominally included. The references, contentious for some unionists, to 'the people of Ireland' and 'the people in the island of Ireland' surely refer to all.

Nor does the 90-person Northern Ireland assembly proposed in part 1 of the Framework Document, with its checks and balances and panel of three directly-elected referees, exclude women per se. Men and women are, conceptually, included amongst the 65-75 per cent weighted majority required in the assembly to deal with legislation with constitutional implications. And neither theoretically nor intentionally does the power of petition by 25-35 per cent of assembly members, for the protection of minority rights, exclude in this manner.

Nevertheless, whatever the uncertainties about how such an assembly might work, or how the panel could operate within the requirement of unanimity, there is one certainty. As set out in the document, regional accountability and decision-making within new structures would, in reality, be carried out almost entirely by males. The gender composition of new institutions would mirror the gender composition of old institutions. Decision-making, and disputes about the decisions, would largely be the province of men.[3] Some women would be present but in small proportions.

The emergence before the forum elections of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, and the dynamic dialogue between women in preparation of its progressive manifesto, had their impact on pre-election debates: all parties wanted to be seen to be woman-friendly and to indicate the promotion of women on their party lists. In the event, 14 per cent of the elected representatives were female (15 out of 110).[4]

If there really was a 'level playing-field' in politics - as politicians of all hues frequently demand-then elected, representative assemblies could be expected to reflect the socio-economic and gender composition of the people who elect them. Just as, if there was true 'parity of esteem' in the workplace, then women, as well as Catholics, would be present in all ranks in proportionate numbers. If there was a fair distribution of rights and responsibilities in the home, then care of children, the elderly and the sick would be carried out equally by men and women. None of these situations obtains.

It is sometimes suggested that women's primary responsibilities in the home explain why they are not present in elected assemblies on a par with men. Women indeed currently bear primary responsibility for the material and emotional maintenance of families. This work has serious resource implications for education, health and public spending, areas about which women have particular insights. Some thus argue, conversely, that women's primary responsibilities in this private sphere should privilege their involvement in setting priorities and informing policy decisions. This may be a useful tactical argument for special arrangements to ensure the equitable participation of women in political decision-making. But it burdens female representatives with additional responsibilities to represent women as a separate group.[5]

Representative democracy is about more than the vote. Various political processes which precede the act of voting are vital and largely determine who is selected as a representative and which kinds of decisions may be taken. The organisation of political parties, selection procedures and the influence of lobbying bodies, campaigning groups and-particularly in Northern Ireland - quangos, as well as access to resources, build advantages for some into the 'game' on the political playing-field.

A related problem with representative democracy is that the inequities of the private and civil spheres are transmitted into the public domain. As David Beetham explains, "the opportunity for a more extensive involvement [in representative democracy], and the degree of influence with government which [it] carries are dependent on a variety of resources - of time, of money, of learned capacity - that are distributed unevenly between sections of the population".[6] This suggests connections between representative democracy, women's social and economic roles, their access to resources of time, money and learned capacity, and their absence from electoral assemblies. Resources are unevenly distributed and this inequity is reflected in the interests represented in, or excluded from, democratic assemblies.[7]

Theoretically, liberal democracy excludes differences (other than age) between voters-whether of class, gender or ethnicity The franchise is theoretically blind to difference; each vote is of equal worth. One of the achievements of the civil rights campaigns of the late 60s and early 70s in Northern Ireland was the removal of 'difference' in the form of the property franchise in local government elections. But the experience of the state, before and since, has repeatedly demonstrated that in a society divided on sovereignty 'democracy' may be one other means of entrenching the subordinate position of the smaller group.

The checks and balances built into new political institutions, as described in the Framework Document, would admit difference into the operation of democracy. Each vote would remain of equal worth but weighted majorities, threshold petitions and panel consensus requirements would require and safeguard the participation of (some) nationalists in decision-making. These mechanisms might, however, cement nationalist and unionist identities and differences; allegiances could be institutionalised in ways that left little space for alliances between other marginalised groups. There would be no incentive and little potential for freeing up more political space for other democratic claims.

For example, it is conceivable that the right to petition objections to weighted majority decisions, proposed at 25-35 per cent of assembly members, could involve collaboration between Sinn Féin, Progressive Unionist party and Ulster Democratic party (and Women's Coalition?) members, who represent predominantly working-class constituencies, protesting about spending allocation decisions. But the weighted mechanisms in the Framework Document proposals are specifically designed to 'protect minority rights' relating to 'contentious legislation'. Emergent cross-political, class interests in social and economic equity would be constrained by enormous pressures to conform to identity-based decision-making.[8]

The potential to develop politics around social and economic rights, better living standards and improved health and education might thus be circumscribed by the incentives to consolidate and manipulate identities - a dynamic, after all, of the politics of Northern Ireland since it was established. It could be, however, that the protection of rights to decisive, democratic participation would facilitate tactical alliances and open new political space for access to decision-making.

Thus, while the Framework Document is ostensibly democratic and gender-free (chairmanships notwithstanding) and assumes inclusion of 'all the people', its language is already conceptually weighted, including by gender, in hidden (and sometimes overt) ways. And there are various crude and subtle mechanisms of exclusion and marginalisation of many people in Northern Ireland, women and men, from the democratic process.

One subtle mechanism, albeit crudely experienced, is poverty The one out of three children growing up in poverty in Northern Ireland does not begin with the same life chances, and opportunities to participate in society, as the other two. The exclusion of the Irish Republican Socialist party from the lists for the forum elections and the conditional admission of Sinn Féin's constituency to talks have been blunt mechanisms of democratic denial experienced by men and women in these parties.[9]

Different women experience political exclusion and inclusion in different ways. What Pankhurst and Pearce have to say about transplanting western discourses about women's exclusion to third-world contexts is instructive for women in a politically divided society like Northern Ireland: "Emphasis on women's exclusion … can eclipse other mechanisms of exclusion and marginalisation taking place on bases other than those of gender relations. Without a commitment to integrate the analysis of gender relations within the wider context of other social relations there is the risk of assuming the primacy of gender as a marginalising process, rather than investigating it."[10]

Gender is indeed a primary marginalising process but it cannot be understood in an apolitical context that fails to account for differentiated access to power. In Northern Ireland that means investigating gender in contexts of class, sectarianism, nationalist identities and ideologies (Irish and British), and the power and history of political violence.

When the Framework Document was published, the proposals attracting most controversy were those dealing with north-south relationships. Words like 'harmonisation' and 'dynamic' were used to describe possible institutional relationships in such areas as industrial development, social welfare, education, tourism promotion and agriculture. At the time, these proposals were seen by commentators, unionist politicians and small-u unionists as, at least, suggestive of pushing Northern Ireland into unacceptable institutional arrangements with the republic, as destabilising the state and enshrining 'interference' by the south in the affairs of the north. At worst, the proposals were seen to pave the road to 'Dublin rule'.

This language, and the list of categories where harmonisation would be possible, were cited as evidence of the capacity of these institutional relationships to develop without clearly defined limits.[11] Women and men, from nationalist and unionist perspectives, expressed shared views on the controversial proposals about the north-south body and the language of the document. As with other constitutional questions or crises in Northern Ireland, women and men pulled in behind their 'communality of interests'.[12]

The 'democratic dialogue' harnessed by the Ulster People's College in its seminars on the Framework Document generated common, and different, interests amongst participants, and recalled for me my first such experiences, in a 'People's Inquiry' into education. The inquiry was organised in west Belfast by Springhill Community House. All experiences and views were welcomed, listened to and examined. The inquiry was recorded and later published. It was followed by other inquiries into employment, religion and justice.

With these empowering experiences in mind, and anticipating the debilitating frustrations with progress in the 'talks process', Elizabeth Meehan's proposals for various mechanisms to liberate, enlarge and order democratic debate within and between communities are welcome.[13] She proposes citizens' juries and consensus conferences.

Given the problems we face in the future, this may seem a weak note on which to end. But organised, face-to-face dialogue has played a vital role for women in neighbourhood groups and the wider voluntary sector. The experiences of conducting dialogue around hard issues, of mounting tactical alliances and campaigns around shared interests, and of working to improve life within communities have not made women shed their political allegiances-but they have made a difference to the women involved. Without this, the Women's Coalition would not have been on the electoral lists in May, productively annoying most of the political parties.

This is a society in transition - the Framework Document is one marker. Yet if its proposals were realised, in all their specificity and lack of clarity, they would not resolve problems at the heart of western democracies at the end of the century The alienation, exclusion - perhaps even expulsion - of many men, women and children from social participation into the politics of survival, within a voiceless 'underclass', is not addressed there. The absence of women from decision-making goes unmentioned. That major economic decisions - affecting living standards, poverty and job prospects - are taken by private institutions beyond minimal democratic accountability is invisible in its list of protected rights.

The passionate and practical challenge is the creation of a more just society Democratic dialogue has a role to play in that future.


1What is loosely described as the Framework Document actually encompasses two documents-one by the British government primarily about proposed 'internal' institutions for Northern Ireland, and one reflecting the two governments' view of north-south and amended British-Irish arrangements-wrapped up in Northern Ireland Office, Frameworks for the Future, Belfast, 1995.
2 Carol Pateman uses this argument in relation to democracy to claim that "women have never been and still are not admitted as full and equal members and citizens in any country known as a 'democracy"'; see her 'Feminism and democracy', in Graeme Duncan ed, Democratic Theory and Practice, Cambridge University Press, 1993.
3This discussion is confined to the elected assembly proposed in the FD. In Northern Ireland government departments, centralised agencies, and area boards with appointed members administer key services such as housing, economic development, health and social services, and education. In important ways, direct rule has become government by appointed administration and public agency. See Michael Connolly, Politics and Policy-making in Northern Ireland, Philip Allen, London, 1990.
4The coalition is an instance of practical political opportunity (and energy) taking a leap where feminist theoretical imaginings have not gone before. The coalition ran 70 candidates for the election, gaining 7,731 votes (1 per cent), representation at the talks table and two seats in the forum.
5See Anne Phillips, 'Why should the sex of the representatives matter?', in Women and Public Policy: The Shifting Boundaries between the Public and Private Domains, Erasmus University, Rotterdam (1994).
6 David Beetham, 'Liberal democracy and the limits of democratisation', in David Held ed, Prospects for Democracy: North South East West, Polity, Cambridge, 1993
7Added to this relatively transparent point are the subtle impacts of professionalisation within western politics: political representatives are drawn increasingly from the professions of law, accountancy, higher education and so on. Northern Ireland appears, however, to be insulated from these professionalisation processes. There may be many reasons for this: political violence, no regional decision-making assembly, political stagnation, the absence of a professional political ladder, and alternative access to decisionmaking via quangos and Northern Ireland Office appointments. This has sometimes been seen as the flight of the middle classes in Northern Ireland from politics. The seriously wealthy, though, rarely enter the fray of representative assemblies-perhaps, they do not need to. For analysis of British democracy, economy and the state, and the relationship between them, see Will Hutton, The State We're In, Vintage, London, 1995.
8 Since the 1994 ceasefires there have been significant tactical collaborations between community development organisations, and individuals, in Catholic and Protestant west Belfast around strategies for responding to economic and educational initiatives in the area.
9The two governments' condition for Sinn Féin's participation in the talks was a resumption of the IRA ceasefire. The party could have participated in the forum but elected to abstain.
10 D Pankhurst and J Pearce, 'Feminist perspectives on democratisation in the south: engendering or adding women in?', in H Afshar ed, Women and Politics in the Third World, Routledge, London, 1996
11 In his submission to the Ulster People's College seminar on the Framework Document (April 1995), Arthur Aughey noted the disparity between the detail of the document's proposals for institutions within Northern Ireland and the lack of clarity on the north-south body In his view, this fostered unionist fears that the document promoted a nationalist agenda. Paul Bew argued for a careful reading: he drew attention to the confusion about the requirement for unionist agreement to the 'dynamic' of a north-south body and to the limitations of harmonisation, while also noting the conditionality of proposed action on the republic's constitutional claim to the six counties. Fionnuala 0 Connor claimed the thinking in the document was signalled in the early uses of language referring to 'the people of the island of Ireland' and the British government's statement that it had 'no limits' to impose on the north-south body
12 The expression is Linda Colley's and comes from her review of Olwen Hufton's The Prospect Before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe 1500-1800 (Harper Collins, 1995) in the Observer Review, November 5th 1995. Colley applauds Hufton's approach to the 'commonality of interests' between women and men, too often undervalued in much feminist writing on history
13 Elizabeth Meehan, 'Democracy unbound', in DD report 3, Reconstituting Politics, 1996

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