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New Hibernia Review 6.1 (2002) 44-58

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The Origins and Early Years of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition

Constance B. Rynder

Until the formation of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition (NIWC) in 1996, women in Northern Ireland were virtually absent from national political life. Rarely did the major parties in either the nationalist or the Unionist community grant women a meaningful voice in policy decisions, or serious leadership roles in the formal political process. During its fifty-year existence, only nine women served in the Northern Ireland Parliament (Stormont). Of the eighteen Northern Ireland MPs elected to the United Kingdom Parliament at Westminster in June, 2001, three are women; only three others have ever sat at Westminster since the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921. No Northern Ireland woman has yet been elected to the European Parliament.

Gender discrimination in Ulster's political life derives from several sources. From 1972 to 1998, Northern Ireland was ruled directly by the British government, the result of unrelenting civil and sectarian strife known in the province as the "Troubles." A quarter of a century of sectarian violence certainly discouraged many women from trying to enter the formal political system, as public officials were frequently targets for both the Irish Republican Army and for Protestant paramilitaries. More important, polarization between the two communities bred mutual suspicion between Catholic and Protestant women, undermining their potential for collective political action. 1 During the 1980s and early 1990s, women channeled their civic energies into community-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and avoided traditional political mechanisms. As one activist put it, " What passes for politics in Northern Ireland is limited and the base for formal political participation is very narrow, structured as it is by both community divisions and violence." 2 Northern Ireland was, as one activist described it, an "armed patriarchy."3 [End Page 44]

Conservative social and political attitudes in Northern Ireland have also limited women's access to public roles. "Church and state," writes Monica McWilliams, "have combined together . . . to ensure that the prime role for women [is] as home-makers and mothers." 4 Those who seek to expand this role into the public sphere must grapple not only with male-dominated political institutions but also with patriarchal religious institutions whose hold on society is often far greater in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in Western Europe. The churches in Ulster—Protestant as well as Catholic—still dominate education, social services, family life, and community identity. In some cases, most notably the Reverend Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), religion and politics have been fused into a fundamentalist ideology that denies women an independent voice in any arena.

During the "Troubles," the four largest political parties in Northern Ireland almost exclusively focused on constitutional questions. Maintaining the union with "Protestant" Britain defined Unionism, often to the exclusion of other policy issues. Likewise, dissolving that union and "re-uniting" with the largely Catholic Republic of Ireland provided nationalist parties with their raison d'être. The agendas of women activists were sacrificed to the United Kingdom vs. United Ireland struggle. Hence, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), with its historic connection to the Orange Order, relegated women members to supporting roles at best, as did Ian Paisley's antifeminist DUP. On the nationalist side, the Social Democrat and Labour Party (SDLP) remained similarly hidebound until the start of peace talks in 1996. The hard-core republican Sinn Féin had a better record for gender inclusiveness, but may have been motivated in part by a desire to soften its international public image as the political wing of the IRA.

The 1994 cease-fires, and the arrangements for beginning All Party peace talks, seemed to offer new hope for greater participation by formerly excluded groups. Yet, when pressed by female community leaders to guarantee women a voice in the negotiations, none of the mainstream parties responded positively. Their refusal to take women seriously as peace negotiators galvanized three feminists into action: Monica McWilliams, a university lecturer whose research on domestic violence had made...


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