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

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Power, Politics, Positionings -
Women in Northern Ireland


Kate Fearon

The homogeneity of Northern Ireland's political representatives remains as stark as ever. If it is a function of a democracy to be representative and reflective of the population, Northern Ireland is clearly lacking.

Since women in political parties themselves encounter problems - not so much a glass ceiling, more a very sticky floor - what then do women outside party politics do for representation? What avenues does the state provide? Are these satisfactory? How might any new institutional framework for women be legitimated?

Roisín McDonough has outlined the experience of women in the voluntary and community sectors. But women in other walks of life also organise as women, or operate for women. Conservative estimates suggest there are more than 1,000 groups working for or by women in Northern Ireland - that's about one for every 750 women in the region. These span church, disability, mother-and-toddler, charitable, business, voluntary, community and lobbying concerns.

This suggests two things: that many women clearly identify as women and that they organise as such. Geographical location, class, colour, religion, educational background are irrelevant: at every level women are creating and maintaining a space for themselves which society, as they have experienced it, has failed to provide. The localised nature of many of the groups suggests that the principle of autonomy is important, and by extrapolation that 'subsidiarity' - requiring that decisions be taken as closely as possible to the citizens affected by them - would feature in any political programmes such groups might deliver, were they in a position to do so.

Existing autonomous provision is, for the most part, self-generated, with some (usually non-recurrent and non-guaranteed) assistance from the state. A triad of frameworks delivers services specifically for women in the region: the nongovernmental, semi-govermental[1] and governmental sectors. The groups they are required to accommodate can be codified into five types: community, research, networking, education and advocacy.

Community-based groups are the most common. These respond, usually locally, to the needs of women practically defined. They operate for their group members or for women in the immediate area. They may come together to solve a local problem, to exchange information, or to offer or enjoy support. Very few have a feminist agenda or are fired by feminism in any way; if anything, there is a rejection of a feminist label, however "woman-centred" or "womanist"[2] their activities may be.

Many such women, while pursuing a de facto feminist path, identify feminism with those polarised media images which ridicule its ideals. As Michele Kirsch says, "Feminism, the word, as opposed to the ideal, has a bit of an image crisis. Too many people, too many women, have taken the lazy option of associating the word with its caricature instead of its character."[3] In those terms, the majority of women and men in Northern Ireland adopt the lazy option.[4]

While most such groups work within their own communities, there are some examples of well-established inter-group work, such as the Belfast-based Women's Information Group. But very few of these groups devote energy to changing policy - their concerns are with the immediacy of women's lives. The bigger women's centres and network groups like the Women's Support Network may work on a policy level, but their capacity to do so region-wide is limited by, inter alia, lack of resources.

Research groups with a broader policy outlook are more likely to be found in the academy or the public sector, and are not autonomous in the community sense. The Equal Opportunities Commission for Northern Ireland (EOCNI) and the Centre for Research on Women (based at the University of Ulster) are regular producers of salient research, but there are constraints on their and others' advocacy of their findings.

There are fewer region-wide advocacy groups. Those that are identify closely with feminism, and tend to use the research produced in the region to support their causes. Groups campaigning for reproductive rights, lesbian and bisexual women's rights, or equality for women in 'national' and European politics work at this level. They are likely to have national or international associates, and often support comes from these quarters. The Northern Ireland Women's European Platform (NIWEP), instrumental in the formation of the Women's Coalition, is a prime example.

Likely also to be affiliates of national and international parent bodies are networking groups. The Business and Professional Women (BPW), church groupings, the Women's Institute and so on operate region-wide and nationally, for their own membership.

The Women's Resource and Development Agency and the Opportunities for Women Learning project ofthe Workers' Educational Association (WEA) are the two biggest training and education providers for women in the region, aiming mostly at adult woman returners. While many other groups will design and provide training initiatives for their memberships, the WRDA and OWL programmes have the greatest number of participants, and are able to offer both continuity and development in their courses year by year, on a regional basis.

There is, then, a raft of organisations in Northern Ireland, diverse in size and nature - autonomous and non-autonomous; state, semi-state and non-state; some subscribing to a feminist agenda, some rejecting such a definition - but all working for and run chiefly by women. The United Kingdom government readily acknowledges the work women do in the non-governmental sector[5] and the contribution they have made to progress in Northern Ireland, where many non-governmental organisations have relatively easy access to government.

There is a 'national' machinery for women in both the UK and the Republic of Ireland. In London, there is a cabinet sub-committee on women's issues, with supporting networks of officials and the independent Equal Opportunities Commissions.[6] It has supported the proposal for a United Nations rapporteur on violence against women, and has signed up to the European Union's Third Medium Term Action Programme on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men. In Northern Ireland, an Interdepartmental Group on Women's Issues, made up of officials from all the departments and the Northern Ireland Office, is examining the funding of women's groups in the region, and plans to examine issues of domestic violence, childcare and public appointments.[7]

There is also the Women's National Commission, publicly-funded but operationally independent, which is recognised as a means of consulting UK women on a wide range of policy issues, "aiming to ensure that women's views are given due weight in government".[8] The work of the commission does not, in effect, extend to Northern Ireland: it has only one representative from the region, drawn from the Women's Forum, whose membership of some 30 organisations derives almost exclusively from a networking base[9] and which does not consult more widely in any formal sense.

In the republic, a Department of Equality and Law Reform was established in 1993, with responsibility to ensure equality became a reality through institutional, administrative and legal reform. There is also an Employment Equality Agency, which has a remit to work towards the elimination of discrimination in employment and to keep the operation of anti-discrimination law under review. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Women's Rights, embracing parliamentarians from both houses, has been in operation since 1983. Its terms of reference include consideration of how any areas of discrimination against women can be eliminated and obstacles to their full participation in political, social and economic life removed.

The National Women's Council of Ireland, while funded almost entirely by government, is independent in policy terms and is answerable only to an executive committee elected from its members - NGos representative wholly or mainly of women's interests and concerns. It is recognised by government as the body which puts forward women s concerns and perspectives and is perceived as an informed and constructive critic of policy initiatives. Its leaders enjoy ready access to senior politicians and policy-makers. While it has a much higher profile than its UK counterpart, the Women's National Commission, for Northern Ireland women this is largely irrelevant since effectively they fall between the two pillars on which each government consults and is lobbied on women-identified issues.

This sketch gives some flavour of what women have done for themselves - with little and uncertain assistance from the state - and of the structures government has established. But women should not have to organise their own representation and the issue of representation in formal arenas will not go away A number of commentators have recently called for greater cohesion among all these avenues through which a 'woman's voice' is articulated in Northern Ireland. Some have called for a separate 'department of women's affairs',[10] arguing that women are so marginalised that they need a place 'to focus energy on'. Others" have urged that a second chamber with a gender balance should complement any more conventional democratic structure, or that there should be an elected women's assembly.

Since so much is currently available, albeit with no guarantees of permanence, it might be better for the moment to look to existing institutional arrangements, and see if they could combine to offer a more focused and enduring pathway for the advancement of women in all aspects of politics and society in Northern Ireland.

Many platforms have been created over the years, including in recent times,[12] to discuss formal politics and how women's participation might be enhanced. Common problems arise: resources, administration, access and so on. Many such events have been or are organised on a part-time, even voluntary basis; many of the groups described above have been involved in one or other of them. Each conference or report is informative and useful in itself - but their sporadic nature, reliance on goodwill, lack of funding and almost guaranteed non-coverage by the regional media are all less than satisfactory.

Many conference delegates call for the same things. Government attends some of them, and may provide money for another. But there is neither overall strategy nor a group that will take all the recommendations, design a platform for action and oversee-even on the government's behalf - implementation. Many groups have the will, but not the time or money, to do so. Thus, many recommendations fall by the wayside, if invariably revisited when similar conferences are convened.

A first step towards cohesion and focus would be to describe and explain the number, role and inter-relationships of all the groups claiming to represent or work for women. A Northern Ireland Convention on Women (NICOW) could undertake this task over 18 months. It would also have a secondary remit to make recommendations on the means, administrative and legislative, by which women would be able to participate on equal terms and conditions with men in economic, social, political and cultural life; to this end, it could consider the efficacy and feasibility of positive action measures.[13] Autonomous advocacy of course, hidden or overt, underpins all of this.

The Fair Play initiative, established by the junior NIO minister Baroness Denton in early 1996, goes some way to presenting a model for this convention, but places emphasis almost exclusively on women recognising their skills and talents in order to contribute to the economy In any event, at the time of writing its steering group had yet to report on its remit of drawing up "an action plan aimed at encouraging women to realise their full potential and to contribute to public life as well as to the economic well being of Northern Ireland".[14]

There have been many calls for an umbrella body, to provide consistency and guard against reinvention of the wheel, and to offer focus and voice to women s priorities and practices - with an emphasis on relatedness, inclusion of the personal dimension, valuing feelings and taking a long-term perspective. In a recent survey,[15] women point to the interconnections between economic, political and social systems and the need for an integrated approach which promotes social cohesion. Women in Northern Ireland are working in all of these areas, but at different times and at different speeds.

Any convention would need to recognise itself as a reflexive rendezvous for responses at all levels. Key organisations to convene and serve on it, at least in the interim, would be the WRDA, the EOC, the WEA, NIWEP, BPW, the universities and trade unions. Representation of rural and urban community-based women's groups, and of younger women, would be essential.

The convention might consider models for an umbrella body including the republic's National Women's Council and the UK National Women's Commission, both of which receive annual public funding. Women's groups in Northern Ireland are eligible to join the UK organisation, but not the southern one, although there are informal links. A Northern Ireland Regional Women's Council (NIRWC) could think long-term and strategically, enhancing communication and co-ordination between all groups working to advance the status of women.

Like many Northern Ireland bodies with 'extra-national' partners, such a council should be able to establish bilateral ties to both 'national' women's organisations, in London and Dublin.[16] While retaining an overall advocacy role, it could provide information and support around the five themes of current activity: community, research, networking, education and advocacy itself. Organisations involved in any of these areas would form the council membership.

The council might also be responsible for an annual or biennial Northern Ireland Gender Audit, such as that currently carried out for Scottish women by Engender,[17] and it could prepare or commission gender-impact assessments of proposed legislation. Lobbying, with others, for improvement of the UK'S Gender Development Index[18] could be a wider concern, as would monitoring representation of women in the Northern Ireland media. It could also establish political clubs for women, facilitate autonomous meetings of women in localities and arrange dialogues between groups.

It might be feared such an organisation would quickly become élitist, losing touch with community-based groups. Such fears should be confronted by the convention in the first instance - an administrative base in mid-Ulster, or four regional bases, and sensitivity to the way groups organise might go some way to addressing them. But there also needs to be recognition of the need for a sustainable, well-resourced structure-accessible to, and promoting the advancement of, women in all arenas in Northern Ireland.

The broader political context, of course, remains highly volatile. Talks are under way to attempt to resolve the conflict, or at least to manage it more efficiently. As Elizabeth Meehan noted in an earlier DD report,[9] there is, though, a sense of a tabula rasa, an opportunity to write a new constitution, or settlement, which reflects the nexus of experiences in the region and internationally.

But the role and representation of women can get deprioritised in the building of any new society Women are caught in a bind: they are not present in sufficient numbers - the critical mass pointed to by Deirdre Heenan and Anne Marie Gray in their chapter - to argue for major change in their status, or to push women - identified issues up the policy agenda. Thus they are dependent on the outcome of any talks process.

Lessons from South Africa should be well heeded if we are to produce a fair and equitable society in Northern Ireland. There, the issue of women's representation and roles were taken seriously and mechanisms were set in train to favour greater participation of women in government. Closer to home, the Scottish Constitutional Convention acknowledged the failure of the British political system to give fair representation to women, and argued that a Scottish parliament would provide the opportunity for a new start: positive action should be taken to "allow women to play their full and equal part in the political process".[20] The gender equality envisaged for such a parliament should be replicated in Northern Ireland.

So, too, the Northern Ireland talks process needs to acknowledge the impact that various solutions, or settlements might have on the women of the region. For example, as Miller et al argue,[21] the consociational formula[22] "reinforces [the] dependency" of a women-identified agenda on male political élites securing agreement, held themselves to represent a society in which there are only two monolithic blocs. The activities of women's organisations, centres and groups, previously described, demonstrate that this does not reflect reality Eilish Rooney has pointed out that while the framework document is ostensibly democratic and gender-free, its language is already "conceptually weighted, including by gender". It is not only electoral systems that need gender-proofed, but the negotiated settlement itself.

The political parties at the negotiating table have the capacity to contribute to enhancing the status of women in Northern Ireland. By providing exclusive space for women internally, parties have recognised de facto that their structures do not treat all equally - that there are particular problems of participation for a significant portion of their membership. Some parties are more aware of this than others, and have begun to incorporate quotas and other positive-action mechanisms to promote women's participation at executive levels. This represents a move forward, but parties should also examine why, particularly in terms of their decision-making processes, they are so unattractive to so many women.

Quotas are supposed to be a short-term device to redress an historically embedded imbalance. What is the point of continually injecting women into the process, if the culture which created the imbalance continues to prevail? Parties employing quotas should view them only as a first step to equality, and make use of the competent women who now sit on their executives and policy groups - listening to their experiences and including them in the processes of policy formation and implementation.

A gender evaluation should be carried out by each party to identify what works and what doesn't, in party structures and stances, for their female membership. Those who have introduced quotas should also establish awareness and understanding of the system amongst the whole membership, identify resentment and publish information on what targets (time-and number-specific) the quota system should reach before it is reviewed. Given that female members are unlikely to be critical of their party in public, these evaluations should be conducted confidentially by an independent evaluator.

For all parties, extending the 'woman space' internally to include direct input into policy and management decisions could be easily achieved. The list system of election used in the 1996 forum elections, as Rick Wilford has illustrated, offers an opportunity for parties to demonstrate real commitment to promoting women within their ranks. All it offered women this time, however, was the opportunity to see how precisely little parties cared about including them; all parties need to build women's confidence in them as vehicles for inclusive political expression.

In tandem, parties might consider establishing bi- or multi-lateral committees on women, to examine methods of increasing women's participation in any new systems of governance which are to be determined. They could also explore offering intra- or inter-party mentoring to women, whereby a female party member, councillor or talks delegate could be paired for a specified time with a more senior figure, learning new skills and gaining self-esteem in the process. The mentors could be male or female but, since there are few women at senior levels in parties, they are likely to be male - this could prove even more valuable, however, since it would militate against such schemes being sidelined.

While the parties are in a position to do something, and have important roles in influencing attitudinal change towards women, government also has the capacity to lead, both institutionally and in setting the climate. There is much international precedent on formatting policy which brings real change to women's lives. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which the London and Dublin governments are signatory, declares that everyone has the right to take part in the government of her/his country, and both governments[23] have acceded to the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women. It is recognised internationally that improvement of women's social, economic and political status is essential for the achievement of transparent and accountable government.[24]

It is recognised internationally that, in a world of continuing instability and violence, co-operative approaches to peace and stability are urgently needed. Equal access of women to power structures and full participation by them in all efforts to prevent and resolve conflict are essential. It is recognised internationally that fear of violence, including harassment, is a permanent constraint on the mobility of women and limits their access to resources and basic activities. Violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which they are forced into a subordinate position.

It is recognised internationally that particular provision does have to be made for women. In particular, the UN Charter on the Rights of Women allows of "temporary special measures" to redress inequalities. It is recognised by some domestic political parties that particular provision has to be made. None of this finds practical resonance, however, in Northern Ireland - where it is recognised by women that if they want to be represented and to participate, they must do it themselves.

It has often been suggested that women are not interested in contesting elections or getting involved in formal politics - that they are somehow content to contribute alone to the parallel, but ultimately powerless, sphere of non-governmental organisations. The number of women who contested the forum elections - wherever they ranked on party lists - effectively debunks this myth. This rather showed instead the confidence competence and desire of women to participate in the affairs of governance and in conflict resolution.

It is time government itself had the confidence to institutionalise an acknowledgement of women's contribution to society, giving it real expression in the design and implementation of policy A new umbrella body for women in Northern Ireland should be accorded representative status as a full social partner.

While establishing a regional women's council would be a major undertaking, there are other, smaller things government could do with relative ease. These include increasing the number and enhancing the position of women on public bodies. A simple educational measure would be to include in the common school curriculum the UN declarations and conventions on women's rights and human rights-particularly to equip girls with relevant information for later life.

But other agents of influence need to recognise their responsibilities-including, importantly, the media. The significance of role models can not be overstated and the directory of women contributors being prepared for programme-makers by the BBC is to be welcomed. UTV and the regional press would do well to embark on similar exercises. Training should be available for women and men in media organisations, to challenge cultures which are disadvantaging or derogatory towards women. Amidst the summer civil disorder across Northern Ireland, one newspaper, describing events in the Orange field at Edenderry, spoke of"a man and a fat woman in blue" dancing to accordion music.[25] As illustrated by Liz Fawcett in this report, women for the most part are presented as dependent on, and defined by, their appearance or their relationships to others-usually to a man, but also to children, parents or employers.

Inequality in access to power, inequality of status in society Lack of education and training. Lack of resources. Lack of childcare facilities. Gross under-representation in all the key decision-making bodies and policy arenas. Such are the positionings of women in Northern Ireland - active and able in spheres far removed from sites of power, kept out of sites where real decisions are made. It is therefore all the more essential to have equal representation in key policy areas, so that the particular experience, knowledge and expertise of women can inform priorities, decisions and practice.

Ann Phillips observes that any system of representation which consistently excludes the voices of women is not just unfair; it does not begin to count as representation.[26] Northern Ireland patently presents such a system-it cannot continue. There is capacity for all significant actors to propose and implement change, and this report has made some suggestions as to achievable actions which are available to them.

But there has to be a will to do so. Cultural change must be concomitant with constitutional or institutional change - not contingent upon it.


1 These are bodies which receive recurrent funding from the state but are independent of it. This category includes, for example, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Workers' Educational Association.
2R Miller, R Wilford and F Donoghue, Women and Political Participation in Northern Ireland, Avebury, Aldershot, 1996, p244
3Cited in Women's Communication Centre, Values and Visions: The Report from the What Women Want Social Survey, London, 1996, p1
4Fieldwork by Miller et al found that only 23.9 per cent of female respondents identified with a feminist label, as did 13.5 per cent of males. But on a scale of 1-10 supporting the perceived aims of the women's movement, the same respondent groups located themselves at 6.2 and 5.8 (op cit, p220). Those who rejected a feminist label had a media-inspired view of feminists' chief activity as bra-burning.
5For example, see the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women: National Report of the UK, HMSO, London, 1994, p27
6England, Scotland and Wales are all subsumed into the 'British' EOC.
7UN Fourth World Conference on Women National Report of the UK, pl36
8ibid, p25
9Organisations like Queen's University Women's Graduates, church groups, and Business and Professional Women are members of the Women's Forum.
10 For example, Annie Campbell of the Downtown Women's Centre in Belfast holds this view.
11 See Women, Politics and Ways Forward, the report of a conference held in the Rural College, Draperstown, in 1995.
12Conference and project reports abound. See note 11, plus Women and Citizenship , Belfast, 1995 and Women Shaping the Future, Belfast, 1996.
13This is drawn from the terms of reference of the Second Commission on the Status of Women in the republic, established in 1990.
14 Fair Play leaflet, HMSO, June 1996
15 Values and Visions, op cit, pl0
16 The student movement pioneered this both! and, rather than either/or, approach to Northern Ireland's unique constitutional positioning.
17Engender is a research and campaigning organisation for women in Scotland. It produces an annual Gender Audit which examines the role and status of women in terms of health, childcare, housing, education, law, ethnic minorities, poverty, media and the arts.
18A country's Gender Development Index is determined by the UN Development Programme. Ranking 174 countries on overall quality of life- as measured by education and literacy, life expectancy and income-generates the Human Development Index. The GuI is the HDI weighted according to gender equity. The 1996 report ranks the 16th and the republic 19th in the world on both indices.
19'Democracy unbound', Reconstituting Politics, 00 report 3, Belfast, 1996, pp 23-40
20 A Report to the Scottish Constitutional Convention from the Executive Committee, Edinburgh, 1992, p35
21 Op cit, pp 244-5
22 See Arend Lijphart, The Politics of Accommodation: Pluralism and Democracy in the Netherlands, University of California Press, 1968; Brendan O'Leary, 'The limits of coercive consociationalism in Northern Ireland', Political Studies, vol 37, 1989, pp 562-88.
22 The republic's government has entered reservations on a number of sections.
24 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women (unedited advance text), New York, 1995, §G181
25'Every colour under the sun except green', Irish News, July 13th 1996
26Ann Phillips, Engendering Democracy, Polity, Cambridge, 1993, p63

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Kate Fearon is assistant director of Democratic Dialogue.

Liz Fawcett was a reporter and correspondent with BBC Northern Ireland before taking up her current post as lecturer in media studies at the University of Ulster

Ann Marie Gray and Deirdre Heenan are lecturers in social policy at UU

Rick Wilford is a lecturer on the politics and policy of the UK, and on women and politics, at the Queen's University, Belfast.

Eilish Rooney is a lecturer in the School of Social and Community Development Science at UU

Roísin McDonough is Making Belfast Work team leader for North Belfast and former chair of the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action

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