Picture by Adam Jogee.
The men have left Northern Ireland politics in a mess, with Brexit and a stalled assembly, and it’s the women who have been left to sort it out. That was the response of leading women politicians from the North to a cheeky audience member at Hammersmith Irish Centre on Friday, who argued that a female Northern Ireland Secretary and female party leaders in the DUP, Sinn Fein and Alliance were presiding over political crisis.
If there was unity on that point however, there were significant differences on the way forward, notably on the prospects for the restoration of the Stormont Executive in the shadow of Brexit.
The discussion, chaired by former President Mary McAleese, featured three former Stormont Ministers, including Margaret Ritchie of the SDLP, Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew and independent unionist Claire Sugden, as well as Alliance activist Sorcha Eastwood and Women’s Coalition co-founder Avila Kilmurray.
Gildernew gave a notably bleak assessment of the outlook for Northern Ireland’s political institutions, which was criticised by Sugden, who nevertheless acknowledged the grassroots pressure on Sinn Féin in the run-up to the breakdown of the executive.
The opening round of speeches saw each discussing the background to their initial involvement in politics, an exercise which illuminated how generations of women had responded to the Troubles.
Ritchie described how attempts by her local council to disenfranchise her had prompted her first public activity. Gildernew described her family’s battle for housing rights during the civil rights movement and her own politicisation during the 1981 hunger strikes. Sugden talked of her experience growing up as the daughter of a British soldier who settled in Northern Ireland and later worked as a prison officer. Eastwood discussed how members of her family had joined the Ulster Defence Regiment only to be intimidated out of it in the early 1970s. Kilmurray recounted how she had moved to Northern Ireland from the South to work on a peace project and decided to stay for the long term after a bomb destroyed her Ph.D thesis.
The second phase of the evening featured a more contentious discussion of contemporary political issue, kicking off with a stark judgement from Gildernew that: “The past couple of years have proven I think beyond doubt that the six county state can never really work.”
“When you look at the rights and entitlements that people have in England, Scotland and Wales and in the rest of Ireland, whether that’s on language rights, on equality, on human rights, on reproductive rights, all of that, we are so dysfunctional it’s scary,” she argued.
I cannot see a situation whereby we can survive in the six counties in the current political administrative situation, post Brexit, especially in light of all the issues around the backstop and the fact that the British Government seem to be running down the clock for the past two years. It’s a disaster. I really fear for people in Britain but I really fear for people in Northern Ireland.
In contrast, Ritchie emphasised the need for a revival of the Stormont executive, in spite of the damage which she attributed to Brexit.
I’ve had a life defining experience in the last year in a very personal way that for me was particularly instructive. I had breast surgery and all the attendant treatment thereafter. And I saw so many people that were not defined by political labels awaiting treatment like me. It was no respecter of gender, no respecter of religious or political affiliation. The one thing it taught me was that these people need resources to deliver a health service for our local community and they can’t do at the moment to the level that is required, because we don’t have those political institutions.
Sugden warned that prioritising a united Ireland could compound the political polarisation created by Brexit.
We as politicians have a responsibility to serve the people of Northern Ireland and if there is a pursuit of either ideology, well then it should happen in parallel to actually having institutions up and running. I’m a great believer that whether you pursue a united Ireland or you pursue Northern Ireland staying in the United Kingdom you have to make Northern Ireland work on pragmatic basis more than an ideological one.
Trying to undermine Northern Ireland doesn’t give me any hope for Ireland taking us on and the burden that will be. Northern Ireland working means that we pay for ourselves. It means that we shrink our public sector and grow our private sector. At that point, Ireland may then be able to afford us.
Sugden nevertheless acknowledged that Sinn Fein had been under considerable grassroots pressure in the run-up to the breakdown of the executive.
There was an assumption maybe within the nationalist community, that the DUP were almost walking all over Sinn Fein. In my experience being in government with them, that wasn’t the case.
Eastwood also argued for a renewed focus on Stormont, highlighting a number of issues were the current political breakdown was stalling progress.
Claire in her former role as Justice Minister was extremely passionate about domestic abuse. I know all the other parties are equally as passionate about wanting to tackle that. We saw Stella Creasey on the floor of the house this week talking about the agreement of the domestic abuse bill, and extending that to Northern Ireland. There are issues around that in terms of abortion. We can’t ignore the fact that women are travelling down south, over here. No matter what your view is we need to have compassion and a bit of humanity.
Avila Kilmurray injected a note of scepticism.
I agree we need the institutions up and running. I actually realistically don’t think we’re going to get them, because the British government is dependent on Democratic Unionist votes which means that the British government then is not a neutral arbiter in terms of the outworkings of the Good Friday Agreement. Realistically what we’re going to have to do is look at what other mechanisms can we try and create for conversation.
The Conference; Troubles, Tragedy and Trauma: Women in Northern Ireland Politics was the latest in a series organised by Dr Ivan Gibbons and Michael O'Hare, whose sister Majella O'Hare was shot dead by the British Army in 1976.