Gendering the 'post-conflict' narrative in Northern Ireland's peace process.

Author:Gilmartin, Niall


In addition to the arduous task of ending decades of violent conflict and securing power-sharing among the main political parties, the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) also marked itself out as significant for its inclusion and commitment to 'the right of women to full and equal participation in political life'. Moreover, some have suggested that the wider peace process was unique due to the relatively high levels of visibility and participation of women (Deiana 2013). This article explores the position of women in Northern Ireland today and by doing so seeks to problematise the 'post-conflict' narrative by gendering peace and security. Conventional approaches to conflict seek to separate various forms of conflict in hermetically sealed categories. Invariably, physical political violence is treated as an anomalous event, with relatively clear start and end points. While dominant, state-centric forms of peacebuilding claim to be universally beneficial, evidence from the so-called post-conflict period around the world demonstrates a continuity of violence for women, with many also facing new forms of violent practices. The article begins by exploring women's formal and informal political activism, moving on to examine increased levels of gender-based violence, before finally considering women's security in relation to the struggle for reproductive rights. While these issues are also commonplace in other regions free from the residue of armed conflict, 'the combination of challenging patriarchy and the particular impact of living with political violence for such a long time offers a unique voice for feminism in Northern Ireland' (Little 2002: 172). Given the deeply polarised conditions that define Northern Irish society, women of course do not represent a homogeneous bloc, and so we need to be attentive to the differences as well as the similarities among women in the region. This article, therefore, does not claim a universal experience for every woman in Northern Ireland. It does, however, cover a multiplicity of issues relevant to many.

While women can and do work for common goals across the ethno-national divide, this does not indicate the existence of an innate commonality of interest which can form the basis for sustained political activism. Once we shift the analysis away from reductive, essentialist approaches, the reality of women's multiple standpoints in Northern Ireland delineates a complex and often conflicting set of needs, interests and experiences. Notwithstanding the important fissures of difference between women in the region, power relations between the sexes remain pervasive and largely undisturbed. As part of the special edition of Capital & Class published to mark the signing of the GFA, Linda Connolly (1999) convincingly argued for the integration of Northern Ireland's heterogeneous feminist politics into the overall drive towards a negotiated settlement. Despite the rhetoric and widespread sense of optimism in the initial aftermath of the agreement, this article argues that traditional forms of male power are a feature of Northern Irish life that remain uninterrupted by the peace process.

Women's representation in electoral politics in Northern Ireland

Historically, Northern Ireland's record on female descriptive representation is profoundly bleak. During the first 50years of its existence (1921-1972), a total of nine women were elected to its devolved parliament, representing a mere 4% of all elected members during that period. The eruption of armed conflict in 1969 positioned state-centric issues firmly as the primary concerns of Northern Irish political life. The links between militarism and hegemonic masculinity (though women were active protagonists in the conflict also) served to reaffirm the orthodoxy of male political dominance, ensuring that the realm of politics was conceptualised and presented as a thoroughly masculine one. Elections to Westminster lucidly illustrate the predominance of men, with only three female MPs elected in the region prior to the GFA. In 1998, the prospect of a new chamber comprising 108 Assembly members presented a sizeable and new field of opportunity for women to cultivate political advances. Furthermore, the proportional representation (PR) electoral system has proven to be favourable in increasing levels of female representation (Connolly 2013). Despite some very recent modest increases, women's formal participation over the course of the last two decades is marked by vast levels of under-representation, where the gendered characteristics of Northern Irish formal politics since 1998 have proven quite resilient to change. Regardless of the spotlight on gender and women's right to political participation during the GFA negotiations, the first 1998 Assembly dolefully indicated 'business as usual', with women comprising 16% of the overall candidates and a paltry 13% of those elected to the new chamber. Due to an increase of female candidates representing Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party (rising 10% and 11%, respectively), the 2003 Assembly elections produced a modest increase from 14 female Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) in 1998 to 18. Given the rhetorical commitments to women's full and equal political participation, one would expect the sounding of alarm bells within the main political parties in reaction to the dispiriting patterns of women's representation in the new Assembly. The 2003 and 2007 Assembly elections revealed overt stagnation in the political fortunes of women, with just 18 female political representatives elected in both elections. The doleful gender consistencies across several electoral contests are indicative of the low priority afforded by the main political parties to women's equal political representation. Appraisals of Northern Ireland's female representation would be entirely dispiriting were it not for the modest yet significant upturn in the 2016 Assembly contest. While the number of female MLAs rose to 20 in 2011, a total of 30 female members were elected to the Assembly in May 2016, representing a 50% increase from 2011. The recent Assembly elections in March 2017 once again reaffirmed this relatively progressive trend with women comprising 27 of the now reduced figure of 90 seats, again representing a relatively respectable 30%. The 2016 and 2017 figures stand out as the largest number of female MLAs elected since 1998 but are also important gains given that they effectively 'stopped the rot' in the dismally low levels of female MLAs up to that point.

The barriers to women's participation in Northern Ireland are attributed to several factors including the pervasiveness of gender stereotypes, male monopoly of power, gender division of domestic labour, education, training and occupational status, among others (Galligan 2013; Porter 2003). Despite the glaring dearth of women within their ranks of elected representatives, mainstream political parties have demonstrated no initiative or interest in gender equality, and their organisational structures do not prioritise the incorporation of gender considerations (Donaghy 2004). This is particularly pertinent when examining the issue of candidate selection processes. Sinn Fein marks itself as relatively distinctive by reserving 50% of its Ard Comhairle (National Executive) seats for women and pursuing an 'unofficial' 30% quota target for local candidate selection (Gilmartin 2017). Such strategies have had an impact, particularly in its Assembly representation, thus positioning the party as comparatively progressive in terms of female representation. As a nationalist party, the SDLP is disposed towards a relatively conservative standpoint, adopting a more cautious approach to issues of gender quotas and candidacy. Candidate nominations remain embedded in local selection processes, which invariably favour incumbents, typically male MLAs, who also have a strong say in choosing their running mates. The DUP remains firmly wedded to its ostensibly meritocratic approach, rejecting mechanisms of quotas or positive discrimination. Because of its aversion to what it sees as superficial tokenism (Braniff & Whiting 2016), the DUP therefore lags significantly in its promotion of female representatives. Until recently, the UUP situated the locus of candidate selection power at a local level. In 2007, the party introduced candidate shortlists, constituency primaries and a headquarters-dominated selection committee which retained the final decision on candidates (Galligan 2013: 424). While the shift of selection power from localised associations to party headquarters is significant, it has yet to make any discernible impact on the male dominance among its party candidates. The headquarters of the Alliance party takes the lead in candidacy selection and provides an approved list of potential candidates to each constituency organisation, providing the party with a strong female membership among its political representatives. Given the vast discrepancies between men and women's paid occupations and education as well as the gendered discrepancies in pay and domestic labour responsibilities, it is safe to conclude that the merit principle, however, is tipped well in favour of male candidates. In view of their role as the primary gateway to political representation, the often diverse candidate selection processes within political parties remain a significant factor in determining the gender composition of Northern Ireland's public representatives. One of the few effective measures for ensuring an increase in female political representation is the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates NI) Act 2002 which provides for political parties to positively discriminate in order to increase the number of female election candidates. Despite the availability of such a provision, not a single political party in Northern Ireland has utilised what is potentially a highly productive...

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