Women Have Not Been Idle: Socialist Feminism from Northern Ireland

It can be difficult to know where to start sometimes, so perhaps I will start with myself. I came to activism relatively late in life. Coming from an academic background, I was committed to feminism and socialism as political principles long before I felt the urgency of action. I was in my early 30s when a proverbial fire was lit underneath me in the form of the birth of my first child. It seems almost cheesy to put it in those terms, but I looked at her tiny, confused face and I thought, as clearly as I have ever thought anything, “it’s time.”

I live in Northern Ireland, and to say it’s a place apart would be to understate it. For decades it made international headlines as the location of what we call The Troubles in a pretty perfect illustration of our tendency to understate things. When the violence ended and a peace agreement was put in place, Northern Ireland enjoyed a brief period of international acclaim, with peace studies and international relations students the world over examining the process in a million undergraduate essays. And then the interest waned, but the people of Northern Ireland had to continue the process. To say there were obstacles to normal politics would be another understatement. It took the better part of a decade to set up a working government, one that stipulates “mandatory coalition,” meaning that the two largest parties representing Nationalists and Unionists, respectively, must share power. Given that most of the time their mutual disrespect and distrust is so obvious as to make one wonder how literally anything gets done, it is a disheartening fact that the common ground they do manage to find tends to thwart almost any progressive cause you could name.

One of the legacies of a 30 year conflict is that a lot of bread and butter issues get pushed aside while the focus of political debate becomes the central disagreement on the so-called ‘Constitutional Question.’ In practice, this meant that anything that could be classed as a women’s issue was very much on the back burner. As a corollary, a decades long conflict saw the lionizing of strong, often belligerent, men on either side. Now that the violence is (mostly) over, the parties that – on paper at least – represent these two sides are both led by women (Arlene Foster leads the Democratic Unionist Party, Michelle O’Neill leads Sinn Féin in the North), but the tricky issues of dealing with the past conflict, of a perceived lack of rights or of cultural conflict persist. And so politics is still not normal – we haven’t even had a government for over a year – and women’s issues still take a back seat to arguments about flags, about parades, about language rights, and on and on forever.

While all this is going on, women have not been idle. There is a proud feminist tradition here, operating quietly and determinedly behind the scenes for much of that time. During the conflict women, many bereaved, many missing family members to incarceration, many risking their own safety, organized across sectarian lines to set up women’s centres. These centres, still in operation today, provided educational and training opportunities, help with childcare and a social outlet when it was so desperately needed. Women were involved with the civil rights movement, and active in the conflict itself. Two women – again on a cross community basis – organized a peace movement that saw them win the Nobel Prize for Peace. A cross community coalition of women managed to get a seat at the table in the peace negotiations and, despite derision and opposition, managed to become a voice for the bread and butter issues at a vital moment in the history of Northern Ireland.

And so when I went looking for a home for my activism, it was no surprise that there was a thriving community of feminist activism in Belfast. When I first went to a meeting of Belfast Feminist Network (BFN), preparations were under way for a contribution to the city’s annual Culture Night. It was a fun introduction to what would expand and branch off to become a major part of my life. BFN works on all kinds of issues, responding to government consultations for proposed legislation on sex work and on coercive control and domestic abuse, providing media comment, organizing events, and contributing to the city’s International Women’s Day march and its associated events. From BFN I got involved with Hollaback! Belfast, the local branch of the international anti-street harassment movement, and I am now the director. We are hoping to roll out two projects this year; a bystander intervention training program as part of Reclaim the Night, and a campaign on the issue of sexual harassment at gigs and in music venues for women musicians and fans. A number of us from BFN and Hollaback! revived the Reclaim the Night movement, dormant since the 80s, organizing an annual march against gender-based violence and street harassment. A distinct and proud feature of feminism in Northern Ireland, like our sisters in the Republic, is our commitment to intersectional feminism; as such we make sure that our movement includes and consciously platforms trans and non-binary people and sex workers.

All of this, of course, has stopped short of naming the major cause that dominates much of our activism; abortion rights. Northern Ireland is legally part of the UK, but the 1967 Abortion Act which allowed access to abortion in England, Scotland and Wales was never extended here – ostensibly because the population – or its political leaders – were not keen to have it on religious grounds. And so it has remained; the laws that govern abortion access here date from 1861 (the Offences Against the Person Act) and 1945 (the Infant Life (Preservation) Act) which allows abortion when the mother’s life is in danger. It is difficult to know how many legal abortions happen in Northern Ireland on these grounds, but we know that the number is small, and arguably it is shrinking. Doctors report uncertainty in the application of the law, and a reluctance to risk prosecution in a climate of fear. One thing we do know is that around two pregnant people travel to Britain for an abortion every day, while an unknown number take safe but illegal abortion pills.

The authorities know this too, and a young woman was prosecuted in 2016 for taking abortion pills and a mother faces prosecution for acquiring the pills for her daughter’s use. Last year saw coordinated police raids on the homes and workplaces of activists who were suspected of importing the pills – on International Women’s Day, no less. Our sisters to the south in the Republic of Ireland face similar laws which are embedded in the country’s Constitution, but authorities there have finally bent to years of activist pressure and will hold a referendum to repeal that amendment this summer. For Northern Ireland, no such end is in sight. Our government is currently MIA, the elected representatives who would sit there are at any rate overwhelmingly anti-choice in even the most dire of circumstances. The public are far more pro-choice than our representatives on this and other rights issues, but the parties know they don’t really have to care; another infuriating side-effect of living in a post conflict society is that many people vote based not on policy positions or in performance but in tribal identities. It seems like we will be left behind again, like we were on marriage equality. And so the despair sets in.

Or, it doesn’t. I am involved with two pro-choice organizations, both of which do sterling work to try to change our laws. Alliance for Choice are involved in campaigning and influencing; through their work with the current opposition party in Westminster, we stand a decent chance of having abortion rights extended directly from there if our current political impasse continues. The same party also successfully added an amendment to the Queen’s Speech (which sets out the legislative agenda of a new government) which allowed Northern Irish people access to free abortions on the NHS instead of paying, effectively, twice. Alliance for Choice volunteers also operate a weekly information stall in Belfast city centre and occasionally in other towns too, offering information and support to the general public. I generally volunteer one Saturday afternoon per month and, while there are moments of negativity, there are many more heartening exchanges with people of all ages and backgrounds and so many stories of horrors endured under our archaic laws. Alliance for Choice has excellent media visibility and does a fantastic job of arguing for our rights again and again against a media that is almost always adversarial.

Rally for Choice is the new kid on the block, it’s focus so far has been getting feet on the street to protest our laws. Last October we organized our second rally in Belfast and it was a huge success, several thousand people marched and it was a riot of colourful smoke, purple flags, samba music and positively focused anger. This clearly enraged the most anti-choice political party of all, one of whom wrote with evident disgust that the atmosphere resembled a “pumped-up street party.” Wait until he sees this year’s rally. It is early days for Rally for Choice, but we aim to be more than an abortion rights campaign group; the plan is to connect all the ways in which our current political reality perpetuates oppression; welfare cuts, minority language rights, equal marriage and LGBT rights generally, migrant rights – all of it. It takes as its motto the words of Audre Lorde “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives.”

All of this work is simultaneously exhausting and energizing. The size of the activist community (there are 1.8 million people in the whole of Northern Ireland) means that most of us wear multiple hats, a Venn diagram of our organizational affiliations is often a circle. This can leave us stretched thin but on a personal level the energy I get from the commitment, bravery, and inventiveness of the people I have met through this work is more than its own reward. They may have the laws, the churches, and tradition on their side, but we have angry women. I know who’s going to win.

From the International Women’s Day Issue of The Socialist:

Out Now! Click to download a copy.

Elaine Coyle

is a scholar-activist organizing for women's rights in Northern Ireland.

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