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PoiincAL Division, Practical Alliance: Problems for Women in Conflict Eilish Rooney It is still necessary to map the recent past in Northern Ireland. We are so used to the "sound byte," "whaf s happening now" coverage of current events and history that it is easy to lose sight of even the living memory context of the current conflict. This conflict has been going on for over twenty-six years. Long enough for the present generation to remember nothing other than conflict. The pohtical conflict, dramatically visualized in the early media images, continues to shape the hves of people here. In the intervening twenty-six years the western media has developed other transitory obsessions and preoccupations. Northern Ireland, Ulster, the North of Ireland, the Province, the six counties—and the contested pohtical meanings of those titles, is of little interest in a world stage that is crowded with bloodier, newer, more exotic conflicts. The western world's gaze is currently focused on what is seen as the emerging "new world order." Northern Ireland has neither oil, nor arms, nor a large population whose destruction may be counted in the thousands. It is not strategically important. Within the British Isles and Ireland the conflict in the North has not featured as a major, or even a minor, electoral issue in either the British or Irish elections. The conflict is "contained." For people who Uve here the human costs of that containment are enormous. Northern Ireland is a small, contested state of 1.5 milhon people. The pohtical cleavage between unionism and nationalism has defined pohtical , economic, and social life since the setting up of the state in 1922. Broadly, the unionists (50 percent plus population) support the union of Northern Ireland with Great Britain and define the problem as the refusal of the Cathohc, nationalist minority to accept the legitimacy of a state which is supported by a majority of its citizens. The nationalists (40 percent plus population) aspire to some form of united Ireland and view Northern Ireland as an artificial pohtical entity which was gerrymandered in the 1920s to ensure a permanent Protestant, unionist majority. The British Government supports the Unionist veto on constitutional change and says it will do so for as long as the majority of people within Northern Ireland wish to remain a part of the United Kingdom. For many unionists this is unacceptable. In their view the constitution of Northern Ireland should not be subject to the vicissitudes of the ballot box (albeit that they are theoretical for the moment). As one unionist politician put it recently, "fifty per cent plus one could bring about a united Ireland." Constitutional © 1995 Journal of Women's History, Vol 6 No. 4/Vol. 7 No. 1 CWinter/Spring) 1995 REFLECTIONS: ElIiSH ROONEY 41 nationalists tolerate the veto as long as some form of participation in government is guaranteed for them. Republicans use the historical argument to reject the veto and cite the sectarian nature of the state in support of their position. At various points in the history of Northern Ireland this pohtical cleavage has erupted into violent confrontation and repression. Between 1968 and 1994 over 3,000 people have been killed; 36,000 injured; 22,000 charged with terrorist offenses or detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act; there have been 33,000 shootings, 16,000 explosions, incendiaries and defusings. It is a measure of how we are used to large-scale devastation that the impact of these figures has to be translated into the context of a country with a greater population in order to be appreciated. Were these ratios transposed into a country the size of Great Britain (population approximately 54 million), the numbers killed and injured in this period would be approximately 108,000 and 1,188,000 respectively. More than 792,000 people would have been charged or detained. In this context, the scale of the conflict seems staggering and yet, it has continued for over a generation. Indeed it has come to be seen as an "acceptable level of violence." Northern Ireland is a profoundly unstable society whatever the perspective from which it is viewed. Beginning with Women This phase of conflict started...


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