The political wing of the IRA has discovered a new weapon: women. Has Irish nationalism become the fast track to women's liberation? Or is it just cosmetic?

Seth Linder
Sunday 19 February 1995 00:02 GMT

WHEN THE leaders of the Irish Republican movement occupied parts of Dublin in the Easter Rising of 1916, they issued a proclamation from the "Provisional Government of the Irish Republic", guaranteeing "equal rights and equal opportunities" to all their citizens. The rising, led by members of Sinn Fein, the 10-year-old nationalist party, failed. But it increased the nationalists' popularity, and led, eventually, to the setting up of the Irish Republic with Eamonn De Valera, an ex-Sinn Fein leader, at its head.

The promise of equality, however, had been lost along the way. If, in 1916, the women of what was to become the Irish Republic had imagined that they would win an equal place in Irish society, they were soon disappointed.

In the early Thirties, De Valera, now head of the governing Fianna Fail party, passed a series of parliamentary acts that limited women's role in the new state. Married women were banned from working in the Civil Service, while the proportion of female to male workers was left to Ministerial "discretion". De Valera's 1937 constitution, which finally enshrined the independence of the 26 counties of the South, was seen as the final betrayal of the thousands of female activists who had supported the struggle for independence. "By her life within the home," it declared, "woman gives to the state a support without which the common good cannot be achieved."

It was a cruel blow. Women - once described by De Valera as "the boldest and most unmanageable of revolutionaries" - had effectively been removed from the action. But it was a policy with which Sinn Fein's men seemed comfortable. Like many working-class movements - the British Labour Party, for example, or the TUC - Sinn Fein was socially conservative at heart; indeed, with its Roman Catholic tradition, perhaps more conservative than most. And so it remained. Sinn Fein survived on both sides of the border, putting up candidates in both elections (although in the North, as the political wing of the IRA, its successful members refused to take their seats in the British Parliament). A few women began to become involved in the Seventies and Eighties, but Sinn Fein still appeared to be a predominantly male party right up until 1988, when Margaret Thatcher enforced the broadcast ban on British television which effectively consigned the party's doings to outer darkness.

Last December, however, when the ban was lifted and Sinn Fein re-emerged from the political shadows, a startlingly new version of the party was presented to the public. The first signs of this change - to a mainland audience, at least - came at Stormont Castle, where the historic preliminary talks with British Government officials were held. As the battered black cab unloaded the Sinn Fein delegation in the grounds, it wasn't Martin McGuinness or his two male colleagues who caught the media's attention, but the two women with them: Lucilita Bhreatnach, Sinn Fein's general secretary; and Siobhan O'Hanlon, a member of the party's Belfast Executive and a close adviser to Gerry Adams.

Next weekend, when the party holds its Ard Fheis (annual conference) in Dublin, Bhreat-nach and O'Hanlon will be prominent again, as will dozens of other women. In fact, women will be better represented at all levels than in any other political party in Britain or Ireland. Sinn Fein has changed since De Valera's days. And it has changed since Britain last saw it. Indeed, as the fog of censorship clears and the suspicion of the media wanes, the party that is being revealed seems positively liberated. The women of Sinn Fein are not only visible: they have emerged as major players in the developing peace process and are staking their claim for a say in Ireland's future, poised to transform the new Ireland they are negotiating for into the sort of equal, pluralistic society that many feminists dream of. Given the difficulties that women have encountered securing a foothold in the political parties of mainland Britain, it is worth enquiring what it is about Sinn Fein that has allowed its female politicians to advance so rapidly towards power. Does their progress offer lessons for women everywhere? Or is there less to it than meets the eye?

IN A numerical sense, there can be no doubt that the feminisation of Sinn Fein is genuine. There are more women in positions of power in the party than ever before. Half of the Sinn Fein delegation to the National Forum of Peace and Reconciliation (NFPR) in Dublin are women, and eight women now sit on the party's 30-strong national executive. Not only does a woman hold the powerful position of general secretary but women head the Education and Foreign Affairs departments. For the last three years there has been a female director of publicity, and the important Belfast and Derry executives are both represented nationally by women.

Whether or not this means that the feminisation process is genuine in a political sense is a different matter. After all, say the sceptics, is this not a most opportune time for the Folletting of the Sinn Fein women? Under the highly-respected Presidency of Mary Robinson and with the power of the Catholic Church waning, social values in the south are changing fast. For Sinn Fein to break down the psychological barriers, north and south, and carve a niche for itself in whatever all-Ireland structure it hopes will emerge from the peace process, it must broaden the party's appeal and forge alliances outside. Who better for the task than the progressive women now coming to prominence?

This is not to deny that they have gained their current influence on merit. But after decades of close association with the IRA, Sinn Fein has an image problem; and, as it takes the republican argument into the peace process, feminisation may prove to be a remarkably effective PR tool. It already seems to have wrong-footed not only the watching media but all the grey-suited mainstream parties in Britain and Ireland with which Sinn Fein are starting to do business.

Emily O'Reilly, chief political correspondent of the Sunday Business Post in Ireland, is among those who suspect tokenism. "Sinn Fein does put forward a very progressive image of itself," she says, "and part of this is a public espousal of a lot of women's issues, coming across as a gender-bias-free party and putting certain women to the fore. But if you look at the power structure, apart from women like Lucilita Bhreat- nach and Rita O'Hare [Sinn Fein's director of publicity], it's still McGuinness and Adams."

Yet there is something about Sinn Fein's history - and the history of women's involvement in Sinn Fein - that suggests that the party's feminisation should not be dismissed so lightly.

Women have been hugely active on the Republican side during the current round of Troubles. At first, their role was generally secondary: bin-rattling to warn of approaching soldiers; running support campaigns for prisoners' rights; and so on. But gradually they have moved into the foreground. In 1968 they won the right to full membership of the IRA, and many have fought and died for the Republican cause since then. And, because of the particular way in which the Troubles have developed, their role has steadily become less subservient. Necessity has proved the mother of liberation.

Bernadette McAliskey (Devlin), the only Republican ever to take a seat in Westminster (though she was never a member of Sinn Fein), sees the introduction of internment in 1971 as the moment of women's first major breakthrough in Irish politics. Large numbers of Catholic men were either in hiding or imprisoned without trial, and, she says, "Women suddenly found themselves responsible for the maintenance of the family unit, organising the welfare of the prisoners and their families, running committees, withholding the rents and rates. Necessity created a support network of women, like a large ill-defined kibbutz, that lasts to this day. If I had to do something, someone else fed my children and vice versa."

Like miners' wives in mid-Eighties Britain, women were forced to develop a new political awareness; and in Ulster this soon came to include awareness of sexual politics. It was women's "ironing out" of contradictions between the national and social struggle, McAliskey says, that first began to push Republican ideology towards recognising women's rights. "Women campaigning against the brutality of soldiers, for instance, also raised the issue of domestic violence, demanding women's shelters and the like."

Mary Nelis, Sinn Fein councillor in Derry and one of three female Sinn Fein delegates to the National Forum of Peace and Reconciliation, tells a similar story of development through adversity. "When most of our men went into prison they left us at the kitchen sink, washing the dishes and looking after the babies. When they got out and expected to find their dinners on the table we weren't there. We were out on the streets with our placards and they had to make their own dinners. That's how the Troubles have changed us."

IF THERE were men in the nationalist movement to whom such changes were unwelcome, traditionalist prejudice has not prevented a number of strong- minded women from achieving positions of power within the party. Lucilita Bhreatnach, General Secretary of Sinn Fein since 1987, and Siobhan O'Hanlon (who spent six years as a Republican prisoner in Armagh jail), are only the best-known. Several have been involved with the party for some time but have only recently achieved real influence.

Dodie McGuinness - a former Sinn Fein councillor who is now a member of the party's delegation to the NFPR in Dublin and a member of its Six County (Northern Ireland) executive - joined the party in 1971. A softly- spoken woman in her early forties who doesn't relish her public profile, she says that Sinn Fein "were part of a survival network then. You didn't think about it being male-dominated, but looking back it was. British soldiers had just come on the streets and Sinn Fein set up incident centres, monitoring people who had been arrested and disappeared."

Mary Nelis, a 60-year-old with nine grown-up children, has similar memories. Sinn Fein in the Seventies had seemed to her "very nationalistic and right- wing and, though there were strong women in it, still a very male-orientated party". The turning-point for her came in 1976, when the British government removed the special category status for Republican prisoners (a decision that led, ultimately, to the hunger strikes at the H-Blocks and Armagh women's prison). Relatives' Action Committees, consisting almost entirely of women, were formed, and organised demonstrations, pickets and speaking tours in Europe and the US. Nelis, who had two sons imprisoned in the H-Blocks at the time, became active on the committees. The experience changed her view of politics. "If you look at the women who were leading the committees, the mothers, wives, sisters - dozens of amazing women - you realise Sinn Fein learnt a lot about their political future from them; the whole moulding of politics around the prison struggle, that led to Sinn Fein becoming electorally involved in constitutional politics [in the early Eighties]." In 1980, largely at the urging of her children, Nelis joined Sinn Fein.

It was an exciting moment to join. Lucilita Bhreatnach, a married woman in her early thirties who is tipped as a possible future leader of the party, recalls that at the previous year's Ard Fheis, there was "a long queue of women right up to the rostrum, speaking on their need to be recognised in a more fundamental manner." Shortly afterwards, the Sinn Fein's women's department was formed, and with it the party's first women's policy document that tackled the kind of issues that people tend to associate with women's departments: abortion, divorce, child care and women's rights.

It was the beginning of a hard struggle: against the party's conservative elements, and against its traditional identity as a single-issue party, preoccupied with fighting the British presence in Ulster and little else. "I think there was very strong resistance at the beginning," says Marie Mulholland, an independent feminist and community activist in Derry, "and substantial pockets remain, particularly in rural areas." She left Sinn Fein in the early Eighties, unhappy, even then, at the lack of progress made by women and what she calls the "hierarchy of priorities" demanded by the national question. "The constant dilemma of women in Republicanism over the last 25 years is the demand that you bury your own particular issue in the greater cause of liberation." In the past half-dozen years or so, however, women have managed to extend the Sinn Fein agenda in some unlikely ways. There is now a pro-divorce policy, for example, and child care and creches for women activists. A "pro-choice" policy on abortion has so far proved too much for the party, adopted at one Ard Fheis only to be overturned the next. (The party's current abortion policy, which opposes the forces in society which compel women to have abortions and allows abortion in certain circumstances, has something of the fudge about it.) But, as Mairead Keane, a single mother in her late thirties who was head of the Sinn Fein's women's department between 1987 and 1993, says: "What do you do? Take a pro-choice policy with no support? Or advance the issue by discussion incrementally in that direction?"

ARTICULATE, assured, equally at home espousing women's rights or social justice, women like Mairead Keane - and Lucilita Bhreatnach and many other Sinn Fein activists - seem precisely the sort of women that Barbara Follett and her supporters would like to bring into the British Labour Party with their Emily's List. Except, that is, for the one factor that has overshadowed Sinn Fein's agenda for 25 years: violence. The question of their party's support for the IRA - and, by implication, for the IRA's military campaign - has had many ramifications for Sinn Fein's women, most critically alienating them from many women's groups, in both parts of Ireland, which would otherwise have been their natural allies.

Una Gillespie, Sinn Fein councillor for the nationalist Upper Falls district of Belfast, angrily disputes the suggestion that feminism should be about pacifism. In her early thirties, an ex-counsellor at a rape crisis centre and a campaigner for gay rights, she believes that pacifism is a luxury of middle class liberals. "It's easy for them to talk about South Africa and Palestine, issues that don't affect you and when people are killed they somehow don't bleed. In a struggle you have no choice. It's a reaction to circumstances. If someone puts me up against a wall and puts their hand around my throat, I'll kick. Everyone has an instinct for survival."

Mary Nelis is equally uncompromising. "I couldn't have given my support to the armed struggle if I hadn't sat down and thought through the emotion that I might kill someone. You can't just support the right of others to kill."

None the less, like many Sinn Fein women, Nelis feels that with the end of the "armed struggle", she and they may have an important contribution to make in the months ahead. A small, friendly woman, sitting huddled in an anorak against the cold drafts that pervade Sinn Fein's run-down Derry office, she recalls a recent speaking engagement before a hostile, largely Protestant audience. "People were saying, `You support the IRA, you're nothing but a bunch of murdering scum.' But as a wee, fat, middle- aged grandmother I don't exactly fit the image of a demonic psychopath, and I was able to break down the barriers. One young guy there, whose father was a policeman, said `You murdered my father.' I was able to sit down and talk with him afterwards and tell him I deeply regretted the death of his father. And I do. Why shouldn't I? He was just as much a victim of British colonial policy as the IRA volunteer."

It is easy to resort to media stereotypes: to what Anne Cadwallader, Northern Irish correspondent of the Irish Press, calls "this idea that because women are caring, if only the men would let them get together they could sort the whole thing out". The fact is, says Cadwallader, that "Republican women are as single-minded as the men." This single-mindedness leaves little room for fear, and, whatever one may think of the morality of supporting the IRA, it is hard to dispute that being a "Sinn Fein woman" requires a certain amount of courage. "It isn't," Cadwallader explains, "like politics in England. The women have been marginalised, taken huge risks personally. Many women members have been killed, like Maire Drumm (vice president of the party, 1976) and Sheena Campbell (activist, 1993). Even wives and daughters of activists have been killed."

For Una Gillespie, just to become a Sinn Fein councillor was to "live with a death threat over your head", while for Rita O'Hare, Sinn Fein's influential director of publicity, there were other forms of intimidation to be overcome as well: "Section 31 [the Irish Republic's version of the broadcasting ban, which lasted for 10 years until January 1994] was not just legal censorship but created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. People lost their jobs through joining the party." This atmosphere may have encouraged a certain resilience among those who did join, but it also took its toll on recruitment.

Today, however, says O'Hare, "We are seeing more people coming into the party now who might have found it difficult to join before." As Sinn Fein and its women become more visible, attitudes to the party, particularly in the south, are changing. Women's groups, in particular, seem more sympathetic. Anne Taylor, for example, spokesperson for a recent Council for the Status of Women deputation to the National Forum of Peace and Reconciliation, commends Sinn Fein for being "the only party leading into the peace process that has shown they have women involved in key areas of negotiation, the only party where women are key players in the peace process."

HAS INCREASED acceptance translated into real power for Sinn Fein's women? Accusations of tokenism persist. Women are represented in delegations and on platforms, and supply more than a quarter of the places on Sinn Fein's National Executive - but then that is what party policy dictates. How much power they have is a different question.

Author and journalist Nell Macafferty, the founder of the Irish Women's Movement, acknowledges that women are "far stronger in the background than in any other political party in Britain or England" but feels that they still come behind the three men she calls, "the Father, Son and Holy Ghost". "The big thinker in Sinn Fein is Mitchell McLoughlin, the IRA look to Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams is the man." It is still, she notes, the men who are more likely to be the spokesmen. "The women are not great public speakers yet, and the media needed people who could argue their corner in tight soundbites."

Marie Mulholland believes that the element of tokenism has diminished noticeably over the past few years but feels that Sinn Fein women, not unlike their counterparts in the British Labour Party, are still compartmentalised in the area of social issues and not yet involved enough in the larger political arena - in areas like debating economic policy and negotiating with the Clinton administration. Even in the peace process, she says, "the women are having to follow a male agenda. The peace process generally is very much a boy's own club, dictated and interpreted by men."

But both Nell Macafferty and Marie Mulholland say that, in a party noted for its flexibility and sensitivity to the community it represents, the situation is fast changing in the women's favour. Indeed, Marie Mulholland says that she would not be surprised to see a woman leader of the party in a few years' time."There are certainly women there with the intellect and integrity to take it on board, and many more are coming through at the middle level."

If proof were needed that the party has now moved beyond a tokenistic attitude to its women it is surely in the imminent appointment of Mairead Keane in the key role as the party's first lobbyist in Washington which is, for Sinn Fein, where the real focus of power now lies. With the departure of their champion, Albert Reynolds, as leader of the Irish Republic, the party is now more dependent than ever on the Clinton administration to exert its influence on the British government on its behalf.

The real challenge for Sinn Fein is still to come. Whether or not they succeed in achieving their vision of a United Ireland is something that lies in other hands as well as theirs. As Emily O'Reilly says, 25 years of revisionism in the South, where schoolchildren are now more likely to sing "Frre Jacques" than "A Nation Once Again", makes their task even harder. But the women of Sinn Fein have invested too much in the cause, and made too much progress, not to be an integral part of deciding whatever future follows the Troubles. Eamonn De Valera might turn in his grave, but there is little chance of their returning to the home now. !

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