A threat to women and peace in Northern Ireland

by Clare Bailey

Europe’s Green parties made historic gains in the recent European elections in a ‘Green wave’ that also hit a number of local, regional and national elections. Here Clare Bailey sets out the Green Party (Northern Ireland)’s argument that a hard Brexit must be avoided because of the threat it poses to the Northern Ireland peace process, to women and to the task of averting climate breakdown.

As the Tory leadership contest rumbles on – which is a bit like moving the deckchairs around on the Titanic – a no-deal situation is back on the agenda. If this happens, it will be catastrophic for the economy and society across Britain and Ireland, but particularly so in Northern Ireland.

Yet it will be women in Northern Ireland bearing the brunt of a no-deal Brexit. This is because Brexit is putting women’s rights under threat, because Brexit will further de-stabilise the peace-building in the region, and because it will mean that the role of women in the peace process will be further undermined.

Brexit is bad for women

The women’s sector in Northern Ireland and the border regions rightly view Brexit in a negative light. They fear that a Brexit-induced economic downturn would deepen poverty among women and families. Working women here share the concerns of their sisters in Britain that Brexit will expand the gender pay gap, dismantle work-related protections and erode the principles of equality and non-discrimination built into law through four decades of EU membership. They are also concerned that the community and voluntary sector, a vital support to the peace process, will lose access to at least some of the funding available through the EU.

Conflict is gendered…

Northern Ireland has gone through forty years of conflict which has had massive physical and psychological impacts on individuals, families, communities and in turn geographical and cultural relationships. The vast majority of those killed in the conflict were men. The majority of surviving family members are women. A person’s experience of conflict and their conflict legacy needs are heavily shaped by gender. Victimhood is gendered, as are coping strategies. Only when viewed through a gender lens does the broader legacy of the conflict emerge.

So women have experienced the conflict differently from men, but their voices and experiences have been largely invisible, as they were silenced and excluded in their communities once the peace process had been established. Yet these are the very women who kept families and communities together throughout the Troubles and continued working across communities when it was dangerous to do so. Women are a significant presence in victims’ organisations in providing and receiving services. They are a vital part of peace-building.

…as is peace-building

Still the dominant perspective on the conflict reflects a narrow, binary ‘two communities’ narrative of Catholic/Nationalist/Republican and Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist, which informs our community relations policies and political agreements. It reflects an environment where gender and issues that predominantly impact on women such as domestic and sexual violence are not considered relevant. The absence and exclusion of women from the peace process and its narratives has exacerbated this. The outworkings of this is that women who have been heavily involved in peace-building work have noted a shrinking of the space for their participation, as this work became male dominated following the GFA and the release of mostly male political prisoners.

The shrinking of space for women’s participation in peace-building is compounded by the hyper-masculinity of the conflict. Our conflict is viewed through a sectarian lens with a focus on death, incidents, violence and blame, rather than stories, relationships and processes. The power and control still wielded by paramilitary groups in communities continues to silence, exclude and intimidate women. The insufficiencies of the GFA are accompanied by rising levels of domestic violence, sexual abuse, mental-ill health and drug and alcohol misuse.

Membership of the EU may have delivered legislative protections in theory, but the reality for women on the ground in Northern Ireland has been minimal. Exiting will only exacerbate the situation of women.

If the EU’s Peace funding for Northern Ireland is scrapped as a consequence of Brexit, this puts in peril financial support for the women’s sector, which has acted both as a cornerstone of peace-building and as well as a lifeline and protection for victims of sexual and domestic violence in a post-conflict society. Yet peace is built in local communities from the ground up through community development, education, and capacity building. Thus there is a real danger of Brexit de-stabilising peace-building in Northern Ireland as a consequence of making impossible the work of hundreds of small grassroots initiative especially in the women’s sector.

More women at the decision-making table!

Women have been a vital part of peace-building in Northern Ireland, and their participation needs to be recognised as such. As communities try to build peace and transition from conflict, we need more women in politics and public life, and we need to address sectarianism, domestic and sexual violence and abuse, class and poverty. Yet the existing high levels of gender inequality hinder women’s participation in developing meaningful and sustainable responses to conflict, in peace-building and in reconstruction processes. With Brexit it is likely that equality and human rights will be eroded – in a region where women are denied legal access to abortion in almost every circumstance, with devastating consequences for those who are forced to go down the illegal route or travel to England.

The Brexit moloch and climate breakdown

Irrespective of the centrality of Northern Ireland to the Brexit saga, and the damage it would do to our region, Brexit has simultaneously diverted the attention away from the vital issues we need to address in Northern Ireland to build real peace. It has also consumed far too much of the attention we need to tackle some of the most urgent questions of our time, namely climate breakdown.

It is well-known that the world’s leading climate scientists have warned there are only twelve years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty. Climate breakdown is increasingly viewed as a threat-multiplier, driving the likelihood of violent conflict arising from pre-existing and complex interactions between political, economic, religious, ethnic or other cultural forces. Hundreds of millions of people will be affected by this, particularly women, particularly in the global South.

Solidarity across borders and with nature

This means that we must tackle gender inequality and environmental destruction together. Social and environmental issues should not be treated as separate. The causes for the oppression of women, people of colour and the environment stem from the same place. The capitalist system driven at its core by the maximisation of profit, regardless of social and ecological costs, is incompatible with a just and sustainable future. All of these issues need to be tackled collectively with the aim of eliminating all forms of domination while recognising and embracing the interdependence and connection humans have with the earth.

What is to be done?

A new society and just transition would orient production towards the satisfaction of authentic needs, including water, food, clothing, housing and basic services as health education transport and culture. We must address the ‘growth’ question which means putting an end to shocking waste of resources under capitalism, driven by large-scale production of useless and harmful products. As we support and join our sisters and allies fighting for equal pay, for domestic violence shelters, for better child care, and for all the efforts to stop the daily exploitation and suffering of women, we see these efforts as bandages on a very unhealthy system.

Brexit is a symptom, not a cause, of this system. Curing this unhealthy system, rather than just patching it up, will make for a more sustainable future, through a just transition to save the planet and our very existence. Brexit seems quite irrelevant when we are faced with the extinction of humanity, but I’d rather be working with my Green colleagues across Europe to challenge it.

The local and the global

The people of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union, just as the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted in support of the GFA. I believe as one of the 4 Remain parties we, the Green Party Northern Ireland, have a shared responsibility to protect jobs, economic stability, the environment and people’s livelihoods in the region. At the very least, this means avoiding a hard border, protecting the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and the relative peace of the past twenty years, while staying within the Single Market and a Customs Union.

That does not mean we should be naïve about the EU or its shortcomings. We recognise, for example, the democratic deficit that exists at the heart of the EU institutions, which are designed to be resistant to popular will. We also condemn the shame of Fortress Europe and the racist attitudes that prevail within the EU institutions, a racism experienced first-hand by friend and colleague Magid Magid on his first day in Strasbourg for the opening of the European Parliament. But we also understand that the challenges of today require a transnational response and that we must work together with our colleagues and allies across the EU to tackle the threats to the environment and humanity globally while fighting institutional racism.

About the author: Clare Bailey is a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for Northern Ireland, Leader of the Green Party NI and a longtime activist in the women’s movement.

by Clare Bailey

Originally published on 22 July 2019 at brexitblog-rosalux.eu as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.