Growing role for women in Irish republican movement


By Catherine Brown

DUBLIN — Just before Ireland voted on the three-part abortion referendum on November 25, Anne Speed, a trade union organiser and Sinn Fein candidate in the previous election, talked to Green Left Weekly about the last 10 years' impact on women and Sinn Fein.

"The second partition of Ireland" was how the Irish Times described the bitter 1983 campaign around the Eighth Amendment, which enshrined in the constitution rights for a foetus above a woman's.

In 1983 the anti-abortion lobby, the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, proposed an amendment to prevent future legislation to give women a choice.

Only weeks later there was a tragic death that highlighted the lack of women's rights under the new amendment. Sheila Hodgers died in Drogheda Hospital, run by a religious order. Hodgers' treatment for cancer had been suspended so as not to endanger the life of the foetus.

"It was a very bitter campaign", explained Speed. "We lost by about two to one. I think they did this because they saw the creeping advances made by the women's movement in the late '70s.

"The fundamentalist right saw we were making gains and were then successful in heading us off. It was very demoralising for women; there was a wave of emigration afterwards. This state has always had high emigration, but I mean activists, people who couldn't take the blow."

Since then Irish women have experienced escalating attacks on their reproductive rights, in a campaign spearheaded by SPUC. Two Dublin pregnancy counselling and abortion referral clinics were closed down. Magazines including Cosmopolitan, Everywoman, Our Bodies Ourselves, the Guardian and even the British Medical Journal were forced off the shelves.

Then in 1986 there was a referendum on divorce. Establishment politicians, including the Fine Gael and Labour Party coalition government, initiated the amendment to allow divorce, which was banned in the constitution." They were unable to deliver their own democratic reform", commented Speed. "After that the women's movement felt totally cornered and very frustrated."

In defeat, the radical women's movement turned in on itself. Still, " women organised in varying shapes and forms — committees and campaigning organisations that have been making changes and gains. The changing consciousness of women has impacted on how we live our lives."

Last year there was a dramatic change in attitudes towards women's issues, particularly around the question of abortion. This resulted on November 25 in the referendum passing freedom to travel abroad and access to information — though the word "abortion" wasn't mentioned.

In Ireland there are two reactionary fundamentalist states, Catholic in the south and Protestant in the north. "Less attention has been paid to the conservative, fundamentalist Protestantism of the six counties", explained Speed.

"The partition of Ireland has weakened the women's movement, and because we have been weakened, the movement for self-determination itself has been weakened. There is definitely an interest in settling the national question. If you didn't have two sectarian states you would have a greater dynamic towards secularism, towards toleration of each other's views, dealing with social issues not from a religious ethos but from social need."

Speed argues that an end to British interference in Ireland would create an opportunity for new politics to emerge. The left could then grow within Irish society, as could a much greater concern for women's rights.

In a country where the government's solution to unemployment is mass emigration, an estimated £300 million is spent on security and maintaining the border. Officially, unemployment in both parts of Ireland exceeds 17%; in some working-class areas it is over 80%.

These social and economic conditions impact heavily on women. More than 1.5 million Irish women (at least half the female population) are classified as living in poverty.

But the '80s also brought significant changes in policy and practice in Sinn Fein, the republican party.

"There was a conscious decision by the Sinn Fein leadership to develop policy as well as to be responding to change in society. We now have in our constitution a quota system whereby 25% of the leadership have to be women. Our national secretary, Lucy Braeathnach, is a woman.

"It is uneven in the sense that we have women who will

participate at all levels in Sinn Fein and the republican movement in a very modest, unassuming, very committed way, but are more reluctant to take on the role of political leadership when it comes to elections in the south", said Speed.

"A lot of that has to do with the day to day life of many of our women members who live in very poor circumstances. Many are dependent on social welfare, and they might be one-parent families, they might have families with unemployment. It is very difficult for them to make the steps to full-time political practice."

Sinn Fein tries to encourage the participation of women by providing child-care at meetings. For those taking on more responsibility, financial assistance is provided where possible.

In the north I was struck by the number of women in leadership positions. This reflects, said Speed, the radicalising experience of the struggle on women in the nationalist communities.

"Women will always feel a much more immediate pull to put themselves forward, and it's been the quality of the women that are there and have burst out and come to the fore.

"In the 26 counties we [Sinn Fein] are far more marginalised. We're small, our relationship to the working-class communities is much less significant than in the occupied nationalist communities in the north. We don't have an occupied state. We've also been censored for 20 years — political censorship that has made it difficult for the party to break out."

At Sinn Fein Women's Conference on November 7, there was discussion on the need for an independent women's organisation.

"My view is that there is a need for republican, nationalist, socialist women to come together to say, 'This is what we think'. There's a space for this. There are women who won't join Sinn Fein.

"The role of such an organisation as I see it would be more educative. I think it's wrong to talk of a movement, as though we don't recognise what's there. I think we do, only we're saying something is missing.

"We would have to take as our starting point a feminist position on the nationalist question. We have to very clearly situate ourselves in the women's movement, as nationalists, republicans, socialists who wish to contribute to the discussion about what future for Irish women."