Feminist campaigner defends role as Sinn Fein leader: Councillor 'fighting two battles': against the British and men. David McKittrick reports

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The Independent Online
FOR FOUR years Una Gillespie worked as a full-time counsellor and education worker at a rape crisis centre, helping women combat domestic violence. She is a former student activist, a socialist, a feminist, a campaigner for women's rights.

She looks and sounds like a left-wing member of the British Labour Party, but she is one of Sinn Fein's leaders in Belfast. She finds no incongruity in working against sexual violence while belonging to a party associated with the IRA.

'I don't see it as a contradiction. To me, what they're both about is removing the root causes and the attitudes that lead to violence.

'We're in the middle of a conflict we didn't create - I was seven when the British Army came on the streets. But when you've tried every peaceful means and you're just being met with violence from the state, I understand why people react with violence,' she said.

Her answer illustrates the great gap that exists between the republican perspective and that of most of the rest of the world. Non-republicans regard the IRA as an aggressive terrorist organisation, but republicans genuinely believe the world is attacking them. Their sense of victimhood is profound.

Ms Gillespie said: 'I would love to live in a peaceful society where you didn't have to lock the security gate going up the stairs at night, didn't have to have bullet-proof glass on your windows, didn't have to worry going out in the mornings if somebody is going to shoot you dead.'

Now 32, she was for two years president of the students' union at a teacher- training college in Belfast, then women's rights officer for a year. She holds a degree in Anglo-Irish literature.

'I wasn't that interested in republicanism at primary school,' she recalled. 'It was during the 1981 hunger strike that I realised it was easy to talk about South Africa or Palestine or Nicaragua or whatever, without looking at what was actually happening to people here on our own streets.

'That's when I made the connection between the international struggles and what was going on here.'

What morals did she draw from the hunger strike, which led to the emergence of Sinn Fein as a political force?

'It was a lesson in how people can find their own power. I find working-class people in England, outside of some of the mining communities, are very demoralised. They don't have a sense of their own power any more, whereas people here still do have - they organise themselves to fight back for whatever rights are left to them.'

Her involvement in campaigns against the strip- searching of female prisoners and against plastic bullets led on to working for Sinn Fein. She was recently elected as a Belfast city councillor after serving two years on the party executive. She has never been jailed or arrested, but says her house has twice been raided by paratroops.

Sinn Fein reserves six of its 24 executive places for women, but few of its councillors are female. Ms Gillespie, who is single and has no children, says at election time practically all the canvassers are women, but few stand for election. This is partly for family reasons and partly because of the danger. In the past five years, loyalist groups have killed about 20 people with Sinn Fein associations; several recent victims have been women.

'For a long time women in Sinn Fein walked round thinking we weren't really targets, that men were a sort of buffer zone between us and the loyalists,' Ms Gillespie said, 'but now women are being killed, and that deters a lot of women from standing.'

Offices she and other Sinn Fein councillors used at Belfast City Hall were last week blown up by Protestants.

A few years ago the party fleetingly took up a pro-abortion position, but this was hurriedly abandoned when it became evident that it was a guaranteed vote-loser in Ireland. Ms Gillespie is plainly not happy with this.

'I'll always argue for a woman's right to choose, but the fact is that I'm a member of a party which has a different policy. All I can do is work to change that.'

She said things were changing. 'If there are any delegations going anywhere now, they'd be very conscious that women have to be involved . . . The party has evolved, but there are still attitudes what have to be challenged, there is still a long way to go.

'Women in Sinn Fein have to fight two sorts of battles - you're fighting the Brits and you're fighting the men in your own organisation.'

Sinn Fein may or may not be about to enter the political processes proper: that looks to be some way off. But either way, its sizeable pool of activists, many of them women, will ensure that it remains a formidable force.

(Photograph omitted)

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