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'Peacemakers? Peacekeepers? - Women in Northern Ireland 1969-1995' by Valerie Morgan

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Text: Valerie Morgan ... Page Compiled: Martin Melaugh

The following publication has been contributed by the author Valerie Morgan, with the permission of the publishers. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.

Peacemakers? Peacekeepers?
Women in Northern Ireland 1969-1995
by Valerie Morgan
Published by INCORE, Londonderry 1996
ISBN 1 85923 039 3 (Paperback) £2.50

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This publication is copyright Valerie Morgan 1996 and is included on the CAIN site by permission of INCORE. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without express written permission. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

Peacemakers? Peacekeepers? - Women in Northern Ireland 1969 - 1995

A Professorial Lecture
Given at the University of Ulster
on Wednesday, 25th October 1995

Valerie Morgan

The conflict in Northern Ireland, of which the violence between 1969 and 1994 was the most prolonged and dramatic manifestation, has attracted a huge volume of writing and research much of it originating in the Centre for the Study of Conflict in the University of Ulster. A considerable proportion of this investigation has sought to uncover and explain the underlying basis of the division between the two sections of the community, to somehow find 'the real problem'. As Seamus Dunn has recently suggested, however, in the preface to the book 'Facets of the Conflict in Northern Ireland', it may be more realistic to conceptualise the situation as one of a society which actually faces a complicated set of interlocking problems (Dunn,1995). In this reading of Northern Ireland some of the issues will persist for a long time even if the current Republican and Loyalist ceasefires can be translated into a more secure political accommodation. If this is the case it is essential to try to obtain as clear an understanding as possible of the roles and attitudes of different social, economic and geographical sub-groups across Northern Ireland in order to begin to piece together the complex jigsaw of expectations, antagonisms and alliances from which new structures will have to be built.

Women cannot be defined as a 'sub-group' in numerical terms and in any case to write about 'women' in Northern Ireland as if they were a single group is ridiculous - it ignores the enormous diversity of their experiences, skills and backgrounds. At the same time because their experiences, attitudes and aspirations have so frequently been neglected in analyses of our situation or subsumed into composite pictures which are actually based on data collected predominantly from men, attempts to present women's views of the Northern Ireland conflict do seem justified. This is especially relevant at this point in the peace process when the voices of all sections of society - from as wide a spectrum as possible - need to be heard and understood. A number of recent studies have begun this process of presenting women's voices and there is currently a considerable upsurge in research and policy related studies and in activism relating to and initiated by women. As is evident in the work of, amongst others, Celia Davies, Eileen Evason, Grace Fraser, Eithne McLaughlin, Monica McWilliams, Bob Millar, Pamela Montgomery, Gillian Robinson, Eilish Rooney and Rick Wilford (Rooney,1992; Taillon,1992; Morgan,1995; Morgan,1995b)

One of the major tasks of such work has been to re-examine women's experiences over the last twenty six years and to reassess the models which have been used to describe and explain these experiences. In common with women in many other situations of violent conflict, including South Africa, the Middle East, Bosnia and Rwanda, women in Northern Ireland have frequently been portrayed as more moderate in their views than men and as actual or potential peacemakers. The detailed empirical studies of women's experiences and actions which are now becoming available, from many scenes of violence around the world, suggest that these are over simplified and over generalised perceptions - perceptions which need to be analysed and understood but also critically challenged (O'Donnell,1977; Morgan,1992).

Part of the basis for seeing women in conflicted societies as less aggressive and more peace-loving than men may arise from their relatively low visibility. This may well be a significant factor in Northern Ireland particularly in terms of analyses based on political, economic and social life. For example, data collated by the Equal Opportunities Commission for Northern Ireland indicated that whilst 47% of women of working age were in paid employment in 1991 they were heavily concentrated in traditional areas related to the service industries, clerical work, education and health related occupations. And even within these areas they still hold a disproportionately small number of management positions. Even now, almost as Key Stage 1 teachers are women, whilst the great majority of principals of large primary schools are men. The disparity is even more marked in political sphere where there are currently no Northern Irish women representatives in either the Westminster or European parliaments and at local government level only 11.2% of councillors were women in 1990 (Rooney,1992; EOCNI,1993).

To take a wider view, any analysis of women's roles during over the last 25 years must take account of their traditional place in Irish society and of the ways in which images of women have been used in the iconography through which both sections of the community consciously and unconsciously project their ideology. In comparative terms both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland remain amongst the most rural and traditional areas in western Europe. Data from the Social Attitudes Surveys confirms this in a number of ways. A relatively high proportion of the population live in small towns, hamlets and on scattered farms, the traditional family unit remains the norm in many areas and religious belief and observance rates are much high than in most other EU countries. These characteristics cut across the Protestant / Unionist / Loyalist - Catholic / Nationalist / Republican divide and mean that throughout the community women's roles are still frequently defined in terms responsibilities to home. family and church.

The lives of real women are often constrained by such tradition, but in addition images of women play a prominent role in the religious and political iconography which both sides employ. The Catholic tradition elevates the the figure of Our Lady and often presents her as the Virgin Queen of Ireland whilst the Protestant tradition focuses on biblical women who exemplify the good wife and mother, the 'good women' who selflessly devotes herself to home and family. In the political sphere Nationalist representations of the spirit of Ireland are almost invariably female, showing either the warrior maid of Celtic mythology or a poor suffering old woman. Such images may have little relation to, or relevance for, the actual lives of women in Northern Ireland but their persistence does underlie the rather amorphous ideas surrounding the concept that women occupy a special place in society. This idealised projection includes a role as natural peacemakers, but precludes active involvement in making that peace at a constitutional level.

Turning from such models to the reality of what women have actually done in relation to peace making and the development of community relations in Northern Ireland a brief consideration of peace and peace making may be helpful. The literature is vast, but feminist writers, such as Betty Reardon, have suggested that the usual definition of peace is 'the absence of violence' (Reardon,1985) and that is certainly how peace is currently experienced in Northern Ireland. Reardon, however, argues that a concept of 'positive peace' is more helpful and that this implies both the cessation of violence and the establishment of a secure society in which there is protection from future attack and an environment in which the basic needs of all members of the society can be met. This she suggests means a society in which there is social justice, economic equity and ecological balance. Other more radical feminist writers (Brock-Utne,1989) have gone further an, for example, claimed that liberation from patriarchy is an essential element in making real peace in a divided society. Whilst such thinking has to date had limited impact on the peace process here it is useful in helping to establish a wider definition of the areas in which to seek evidence of women's role in peace-making. In analysing such evidence, however, one of the problems is the diffuse and fragmentary nature of much of the material available. However, a number of clear themes are emerging and there is a growing group of empirical studies of particular local areas and community groups such as those by Eilish Rooney and Grace Fraser and reports focussing on specific issues such as those on domestic violence produced by Joan McKernan and Monica McWilliams and on childcare by Ruth Taillon (Rooney,1992; Taillon,1992; McWilliams,1993)

But it remains quite difficult to structure an overview of women's experiences . Categorisation of course inevitably involves simplification but to provide a structure in which consider women's roles in relation to violence in Northern Ireland Galtung's triangular model with its three elements of physical violence, structural violence and cultural violence may provide a helpful preliminary basis (Galtung,1975).

Physical violence

Taking physical violence first. The Northern Ireland conflict between 1969 and 1994 resulted in almost 3200 deaths directly attributable to violence. Of those killed approximately 200 were women, a figure which suggests that women were much less involved in physical violence than men. However, the long-term impact and consequences of violence for individuals and families has probably weighed most heavily on women, especially in terms of bereavement and separation. But in examining women's attitudes to conflict and responses to physical violence it seems clear that these have spanned the whole range from active support of paramilitaries to direct campaigning for peace. Certainly a blanket assertion that women oppose physical violence in pursuit of political ends a serious oversimplification. Although evidence about the actual recruitment, organisation and operation of the paramilitary groups is limited it is clear that women have been involved in a number of ways, particularly on the Republican side. Much of their activity has been at a support level, - providing safe houses, passing messages etc. But they have also transported guns and bombs and have taken part in major operations. Indeed women IRA prisoners in Maghaberry writing in An Glor Gafa - the Captive Voice - in 1992 commented:-

'Irish women are every bit as revolutionary as Irish men and their resistance is every bit as fierce, be they IRA Volunteers, Sinn Fein activists or campaign organisers and protesters' (An Glor Gafa,1992)

Their influence within the paramilitary organisations over such issues as policy making is very difficult to judge but, in the view of writers such as Buckley, it appears to have been relatively limited and women seem to be particularly peripheral in the Loyalist paramilitary groups (Buckley,1983). On the other hand the involvement of women in a number of high profile Republican paramilitary actions has attracted a great deal of media attention. For example when three IRA members were shot in Gibraltar by the SAS in 1988 there was particular emphasis on the woman member of the team, Mairead Farrell. Prominent republican women have also been the victims of sectarian assassination, for example Maire Drumm and Miriam Daly and 30 female prisoners participated in the H-blocks 'dirty protest' including 3 who went on hunger strike. The numbers may have been small but the direct involvement of women in physical violence either as attackers or victims has been used by both sides in the propaganda battle. Women taking part in operations or being killed because of their identification with 'one side' have been variously portrayed as providing particularly potent exemplars sacrifice or as giving further proof of the depravity of people prepared to use 'even women' to further their violent campaigns.

It is not difficult to illustrate the view that, whilst some women have seen violence as justified in the context of the Northern Ireland conflict others have been equally strongly opposed its use in any situation or by any group. Throughout the 'Troubles' there have been individuals and groups who have spoken out against violence and these have included men and women from all sections of the community. On the other hand some of the most high profile grass roots peace initiatives have been led by women and had a majority of women amongst their activists. The 'Women for Peace' group was founded in 1972 by Margaret Dougherty and this group played a part in securing the 13 day ceasefire in August 1972. Although it was women committed to a Republican position and the validity of the armed struggle who were amongst the strongest critics of the group's activities. The Peace People, founded in 1976, resulted from an initiative by Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams. This development provides a particularly interesting example of both the potential of and the problems associated with women's actions. It succeeded in moving outside traditional political structures and mobilising large scale support for an end to violence with mass street demonstrations, parades and petitions. In the longer term, however, it proved very difficult to sustain the momentum and to translate the rather amorphous anti-violence sentiments expressed through a mass movement into agreed policies which could influence the established, male dominated, structures

These relative failures caused some disillusionment with generalised peace groups and during the 1980s the emphasis for many women peace activists shifted to lower key community development activities. These tended to focus on specific localities or issues such as the provision of local services and employment opportunities, the development of inter-church groups or the movement for the establishment of integrated schools. Women have been prominent in all these areas but whether it would be fair to claim that this indicates that they have a greater commitment to ending physical violence than men is questionable. It may, however, reflect differences both in the structures through which men and women tend to operate and and in their definitions of peace making. Certainly since the ceasefires women have been active in promoting a range of ways in which discussion of future options for political frameworks can take place across as wide a cross section of the population as possible. This has included use of local radio, meetings for local groups in community centres, larger public meetings and informal one day conferences.

Whilst the actions of women in relation to physical violence, either as paramilitaries and peace activists have attracted widespread attention the actual numbers involved are very small and the great majority of women in Northern Ireland have had little such direct involvement. Recent research by Grace Fraser in small towns and rural areas, where over two thirds of the population live, has suggested that most women have such heavy commitments to family and employment that they have little time available for other activities (Morgan,1993). Where they are involved in organisations these are usually either church, charity or leisure related and very often do not cross the community divide. Most women, therefore have had little opportunity to influence the course of the conflict. Their preoccupation with home, work and family my well have been significant in sustaining relatively 'normal' life and controlling physical violence by preventing a major breakdown in social structure. Although another argument is sometimes posed to the effect that such controls on the impact of violence may have contributed to the reluctance to take risks in order to bring about its end.

Structural violence

Turning now to structural violence. This is a less obvious manifestation of conflict but most deeply divided societies do experience high levels of structural violence. These arise as the state introduces or reinforces mechanisms to maintain law and order and its opponents respond to these. Certainly the legal and administrative structures in Northern Ireland have been deeply affected by the 25 years of violence and legal experts such as Brice Dickson have suggested that many of the freedoms and safeguards of a democratic society have been compromised in the efforts to control paramilitary violence (Dickson,1995). Whilst this has affected the whole population there have been some specific implications for women. Overall much of government policy throughout the 1970s and 1980s focused on the maintenance of law and order and resources were channelled into security policy. This combined with the priorities of a right-wing, free-market Westminster government has meant that both human rights and social policy issues which affect women have received little attention. For example a 1995 report by the family Planning Association suggests that since abortion law in Northern Ireland is still based on the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act amended by the 1945 Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland)Act there are problems of legal interpretation which mean that even women whose pregnancy is the result of incest or rape or whose health would be seriously damaged by continuing the pregnancy may have to travel to Britain for an abortion (Fuerdi, 1995).

In their responses to structural violence, women have, however, faced problems for a number of reasons. Their actions have been limited partially because, as already indicated, women's power and influence in the political and public spheres in Northern Ireland is itself circumscribed. Overall they had little access to power or to contexts in which legislative decisions are made and their indirect influence on decision makers has until recently had limited impact.

Women's actions in response to problems of human rights have also, however, been affected by the fundamental divisions within the society. Feminist agendas have been both divided and suspect. Amongst Nationalist women there have been protracted debates about the interaction of feminism and the constitutional struggle and the differing priorities for action arising out of each. For many Unionist women there has been a perceived link between feminism and criticism of the state which has made it difficult for them to campaign actively. Overall whilst some Unionist and Nationalist women have campaigned both together over some general issues and over specific cases relating to such things as conditions in prisons, orders excluding individuals from travelling to Britain and alleged miscarriages of justice, these actions have all too often fuelled cross community resentment and soured relations at local level. As when women in many Nationalist areas mounted campaigns against army and police searches and alleged harassment of young men during the 1970s which resulted in such labels as the ' Derrybeg (Newry) petticoat brigade' and the 'Derry bin-bashers'.

The problems feminists faced in uniting over 'strip searching' illustrates the difficulties and complexities of labelling women's responses to structural violence. As Loughran has shown, the issue was taken up mainly by Nationalist women and had clear human rights and more specifically women's rights implications. However, many women from the Unionist tradition, including some feminists, felt unable to support the campaign, on the grounds that the searching was necessary in the context of terrorist violence and that the the problem was to an extent 'self-inflicted' (Loughran,1981).

This does not mean that women in Northern Ireland cannot co-operate across the community on questions of structural violence but, in the past, alliances have often been fragile and sustainable only in areas where the link to the central political and constitutional problems is limited or indirect. In relation to poverty, women's health, childcare and domestic violence, for example, women have mobilised across the community and their actions, whilst sometimes pejoratively labelled as 'feminist', have been more socially acceptable and indeed have brought status and recognition to some of the women involved. Examples include 'Women Together' which was founded by Monica Patterson in 1970, this group:-

'organised projects in individual neighbourhoods - setting up credit unions, youth clubs, playgroups, children's outings and dinners for the elderly (Buckley,1983)

In 1975 the Northern Ireland Women's Rights Movement was established and this has acted as an 'umbrella' for a wide range of organisations from both Nationalist and Unionist areas and has helped women to co-operate over common problems and demands such as the very low level of nursery school provision, the uneven implementation of the 1976 Sex Discrimination Order and legal rights over abortion and divorce.

A specific and important example has been the response to domestic and family violence. Domestic violence is a major human rights issue and a key element in structural violence. During the 1980s there was also increasing awareness of the extent and impact of domestic violence. As in a number of other societies experiencing political violence, including South Africa, the Middle East and parts of Latin America, the response to domestic violence in Northern Ireland was for a long period one of ambivalence or denial. As feminist writers such as Simona Sharoni, writing about women's experiences in the Arab/Israeli situation, have shown, in societies experiencing violent conflict at the community level direct relation to domestic violence is often affected by the overall situation. This may both make it unacceptable to all on the authorities for help and make it dangerous for security forces to respond to reports of attacks in some areas. In addition cultural attitudes sometimes accept and excuse male violence against women, especially by men involved in the paramilitary groups and the security forces, labelling it as a response to stress (Sharoni,1992; McWilliams,1993). By the late 1980s, however, women across the community were actively campaigning against domestic violence and refuge centres and telephone helplines have been established in a number of population centres. Such initiatives may not fit the label of 'peacemaking' in the usually understood sense but they do tackle central elements of gender specific structural violence and they have created an infrastructure of contacts and understandings which a number of women's organisations hope can be built on in the post ceasefire environment.

Cultural violence

The third category of violence is cultural violence. Galtung sees cultural violence as manifesting itself in areas such as religion, language, arts and ideology. In many deeply divided societies differences in these spheres play a major role in sustaining antagonisms, motivating discrimination against 'the other' community and justifying or excusing violence. Analysing the roots of the divisions in these areas has been a major concern of researchers in Northern Ireland over the last 25 years and the policies of government and the major churches have given considerable priority to developing structures which encourage understanding and tolerance. For example in education the establishment of programmes such as 'Education for Mutual Understanding' and 'Cultural Heritage' and their inclusion in the statutory curriculum reflect a belief in the the premise that contact with and understanding of 'the other', especially amongst children and young people will help to reduce violence.

However much of the cultural division in Northern Ireland is rooted in the home. the family and the local community, the traditional areas of women's influence. So if women are to be labelled as 'peacemakers' it is in combating cultural violence that they may have the opportunity to be most effective. But once again the range and subtlety of women's experiences and responses make it very difficult to generalise. Women themselves often suffer from the impact of cultural violence, for example in relation to religion. Thus although they form the majority of church attenders they have very limited influence on the decision making structures in any of the major churches and they are often explicitly or implicitly excluded from positions of power. At the same time they are often very powerful within the family as transmitters of culture. Here their wish to protect their families and particularly their children from violence frequently impels them towards peacemaking but this desire often co-exists with a commitment to preserve and transmit their own culture which may lead them consciously or unconsciously to pass on stereotyped and potentially divisive attitudes.

Women frequently operate through informal or so called 'track two' channels and there has been a considerable growth in the range of such groups and organisations over the last 25 years - for example groups focusing on charity, leisure and educational interests. Women have been active in founding and sustaining the majority of these (Morgan,1993). Since, whilst many women have limited time and resources for participation in activities outside the home, a considerable number, especially in urban areas and amongst older and middle class women, do belong to groups campaigning on women's issues, professional associations, charity support groups, leisure interest clubs and societies, adult education classes and church related organisations. The impact of all this activity on conflict reduction and improved community relations is difficult to evaluate but it seems likely that a number of forces still limit its contribution to cultural peacemaking.

Many of the organisations, focus on specific fund raising or professional development goals, for example the Red Cross, Combat Cancer, Oxfam, Save the Children or the Soroptimists. Their formal aims do not include peace building and conflict reduction in the Northern Ireland context and they frequently, either consciously or unconsciously avoid contentious issues. The ways in which members are recruited into groups, usually though existing friends or family contacts means that organisations or local branches are often have limited cross community representation. All this puts constraints on their potential as contributors to the reduction of cultural violence. Of course there are many cases in which groups do actively try to develop contacts but practical problems of finding acceptable neutral venues, knowing how to establish the first links, lack of mobility and limited resources pose serious problems and the fear of failure is itself a serious inhibitor.

Perhaps the most influential organisation in many women's lives, especially in rural areas, is their church and the role of women as 'peacemakers' in the churches provides a clear example of the care needed in interpreting women's responses. Contact between the different Christian denominations in Northern Ireland has traditionally been limited and women's groups and organisations within the various churches have been no exception. Many of the practical barriers to interaction noted above have significance, for example something as obvious as there being a minister's wife as contact point and leader in a Protestant congregation and no equivalent in the local Catholic parish can prove a deterrent where everyone is uncertain and anxious not to make a wrong move.

At a more fundamental level, however, different women interpret the relationship between their religious faith and the conflict in contrasting ways. Some see peacemaking as an integral part of the Christian message and therefore believe that they must become involved in seeking to improve community relations through links with members of other churches. Others, probably the majority, regard religious faith as a personal issue which is not directly related to the problems of a divided society, religion and peacemaking are separate. For others there is a link between their personal faith and the existence of divisions in the society but it focuses on theological differences and is one which leads them to preclude inter church activities. Joint activities with members of other churches, especially across the Catholic/Protestant divide, are seen as dangerous because it is vital to preserve one's own faith and contact could lead pose a risk to personal salvation.


It must by this stage be clear that to describe women as 'peacemakers' in Northern Ireland says little of value. Some women have made a notable contribution to reducing physical, structural and cultural violence - as have some men. But equally their actions have often served to reproduce the divided community rather than challenging it. It would be more accurate to say that women have been both peace makers and peace preventers and that the range of their attitudes and responses has been as wide and varied as that of men. This is not to claim that there are no differences between the experiences and reactions of men and women in relation to the Northern Ireland conflict. However, it does seem more reasonable to try to understand these differences as manifestations of the different historical, social, political and economic roles of women and men than as evidence of a general feminine orientation to peacemaking.

Women's experiences over the last 25 years in Northern Ireland have produced a body of experience and a range of innovative responses which can provide the basis for the new approaches to community action, community politics and community reconciliation which will be vital if progress is to be made in the post ceasefire world. Women may not be peacemakers with a capital P in any simplistic sense but they have provided some of the vital tools which the whole society needs in order to build peace - it now remains to be seen how good women and men will be at using them.

(At the time of writing Professor Valerie Morgan was INCORE's Director of Research)


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