Gender Equality in Northern Ireland – in urgent need of a ‘Fresh Start’

by Michelle Rouse

Northern Ireland’s 1998 Good Friday Agreement contains many references to equality and human rights, and one specific reference to the “full and equal participation of women in public life”. Women were also involved at important points in the negotiating process, leading many to believe that the Agreement could significantly transform women’s roles in Northern Ireland. Michelle Rouse argues, however, that in the 18 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed, parties to the process have failed to capitalise on that potential and in its absence a particularly negative legal and political discourse on gender now dominates Northern Ireland.

There is nothing new under the sun, or so the idiom goes at least, and the gender dynamics which lurk beneath the surface of the Northern Irish peace process would certainly appear to support this assessment. It is an enduring truth that women remain the most historically marginalised and excluded group across all conflicts and all jurisdictions. It is equally true that women and men will experience conflict in different ways and will have very different needs in the post-conflict period. Feminist analysis of conflict suggests that applying a gender lens to how specific issues of human rights, security and political participation are framed in peace agreements may provide an effective litmus test for how women’s specific needs will be addressed in the post-conflict system. In other words, we need to give specific attention to the issue of gender if we are to fully understand the ways in which women are served or underserved by the Good Friday Agreement and the current system in Northern Ireland.  This piece shines a spotlight on a significant failing of Northern Ireland’s world renowned peace process – namely, that it has systematically failed to address the post-conflict needs of women.

‘Northern Ireland’s world renowned peace process…has systematically failed to address the post-conflict needs of women.’

StormontGeneral

Stormont, Belfast – the seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

How are Human Rights and Gender Equality spelled out in the Good Friday Agreement?

The Good Friday Agreement affirms “the right of equal opportunity in all social and economic activity, regardless of class, creed, disability, gender or ethnicity’.  This “duty” is located within the Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity Section of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). This was enacted in legislation by Section 75 of the subsequent 1998 Northern Ireland Act.  The section 75 duty was exalted by many as ‘unique and world leading’, earning the impressive moniker of the ‘single most extensive positive duty imposed in the UK’.

The statutory equality duty has not delivered in respect of gendered inequality: reasons why

The available evidence however, overwhelmingly indicates that the statutory equality duty has not reduced gendered inequality. Conversely, problems with implementation may have actually compounded discrimination and inequality for the most marginalised women.

Critiques of the duty cite ‘institutional resistance’ as a key impediment. Theories range from the benign, attributing this to an inherently conservative civil service resistant to innovation; to the more malign, suggestive of tolerance for the promotion of equality further down the food chain but resistant to implementation at the top.

‘Available evidence…overwhelmingly indicates that the statutory equality duty has not delivered in respect of gendered inequality.’

Budgets:

Certainly when it comes to the ‘big’ decisions, there is ample evidence of a systematic failure to subject policy to full impact assessment. For instance, the Investment strategy for Northern Ireland and the Budget have not once, in 18 years, been subject to a proper Equality Impact Assessment process. Instead, a bespoke ‘high level impact assessment’ has been crafted to cover this. The Equality Commission has emphatically rejected the use of high level impact assessment, but without enforcement powers it can do little about it. What is beyond dispute is the stark fact that no significant budget decisions have been re-profiled or adjusted as a result of identified gender impacts.

Intersectionality:

Section 75 has also been critiqued on the basis of a failure to be responsive to intersectionality of discrimination in the lives of women in general, and in particular, its failure to acknowledge the distinct interplay of gender, religious belief and political opinion which exists in NI.

Evidence of a worsening situation in terms of the intersectionality of women’s inequality can be determined from the statistics of housing need in North Belfast. The women who are most impacted by social housing inequalities are statistically more likely to be lone parents, have less disposable income and less control over family income. They constitute the ‘low paid and unofficial labour market’.

Catholics represented 73% of those on waiting lists, but only 35.7% of those awarded accommodation, whereas Protestant applicants constituted 26.2% of the waiting lists but represented 64% of those offered accommodation. The stark nature of these statistics has been significant enough to draw the attention of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

There have been suggestions that NGOs and Women’s Groups too, may be consciously avoiding combining religious and political inequalities in reports and lobbying as a tactical approach to their own survival.  If groups are seen to be divisive, overtly political or departing from the narrative of ‘balance, their funding and broad based appeal could be put in jeopardy.

‘Section 75 has failed to be responsive to intersectionality of discrimination in the lives of women in general, and in particular, to acknowledge the distinct interplay of gender, religious belief and political opinion which exists in Northern Ireland.’

Ireland-Capitals

For those who may not be familiar with it, this map shows Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Security

Issues of security, while central to any peace agreement, are not typically dealt with in a way that takes account of the particular post-conflict threats to women’s security. The application of a gender lens to issues of women’s security in post-Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland is very revealing.

Physical Security

Arguably, one of the most pressing risks to women’s physical security and integrity is intimate partner violence (IPV). Mc Williams and Ni Aoláin note that IPV can actually increase in the post-conflict setting and may take on particular features as a result of access to legal and illegal weaponry. This means that policy responses to intimate partner violence in post-conflict institutional arrangements must be robust and created for the specific context which they will address.

The ‘Tackling Sexual Violence and Abuse Regional Strategy‘, however, failed at the most basic level to acknowledge the transitional context it was created for, and the particularities of the problem it ostensibly seeks to address. It further failed to identify and situate government-related responses within a human rights framework of state obligations. The effect of which, according to McWilliams and Ni Aoláin was to make individuals ‘pleaders for protection’ rather than bearers of rights and status.

The Strategy’s approach to domestic violence as ‘irrespective of gender’ has led to the capture of other forms of abuse which can occur in the domestic setting.  This composite approach has obscured the unequal power dynamics in intimate partner relationships, which form the kernel of the problem.

‘The “Tackling Sexual Violence and Abuse Regional Strategy”…failed at the most basic level to acknowledge the transitional context it was created for…’

Legal Security

Feminist analysis also recommends that the reform of substantive law, i.e. the law defining rights and duties, must also involve the reform of law enforcement. In conflicts which have featured an ethnic divide, scholars recommend that agreements must examine compositional issues including gender requirements.

The Good Friday Agreement established an Independent Commission on Policing. Compositional data illustrated that 8% of the RUC (the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Northern Ireland’s police force from 1922 to 2001) identified as Catholic and 13% as female. Female officers were over represented in the part-time reserve and underrepresented at senior levels. The Equal Opportunities Commission did advocate that a gender quota should be included, but this advice was disregarded. The Police Act 2000 which followed made provision for 50/50 Catholic/Protestant recruitment quotas, but committed only to a ‘gender action plan’.

The distinction in the two approaches taken to create compositional change could hardly be starker. The religious element was considered so politically important that it necessitated the immediate introduction of quotas, in order to make massive change occur rapidly. The issue of gender representation however was not similarly regarded, in spite of the UK’s obligations under CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women)]. The Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women also noted its concern about the failure to introduce ‘temporary special measures to address the under representation of women in decision-making positions in the public and private sectors as well as in political life.’

Ulster PM Blair/Ahern sign
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern sign the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998. www.bbc.co.uk/history/events/good_friday_agreement

Economic Security

The Montreal principles on women’s rights hold that economic, social and cultural rights have a particular significance for women and further acknowledge that women’s pre-disposition to socio-economic deprivation is worsened in conflict and post- conflict settings. As such, women clearly have the most to gain from the articulation of socio-economic rights within any Bill of Rights.

The creation of legally enforceable economic and social rights would go right to the core of pervasive structural inequalities, which subordinate women as ‘lesser’. Justiciable rights, i.e. rights which are subject to trail in a court of law, have the potential to be truly redistributive. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission recommended the inclusion of legally enforceable socio-economic rights in a Bill of Rights, a position supported by over 90% of those polled by Millward Brown Ulster. The Northern Ireland Office however determined that the conferral of socio- economic rights in Northern Ireland would give rise to unjustified inequality across the UK. The current British Government’s commitment to repeal the 1998 Human Rights Act bodes ill for rights enhancement, and indeed it  suggests that regression on existing civil and political rights is more likely.

Political Participation

In contrast to its myriad of provisions and technical devices aimed at ensuring representation of the different political traditions, the agreement contains no provisions which would give effect to women’s ‘full and equal participation’.

As a consequence, women have remained largely marginalised from participation in public life and in particular remain excluded from positions of power and influence in Northern Ireland.

Notwithstanding recent Assembly election results which saw the number of women elected rise from 19.4% to 28%, an increase of almost 50%, the Northern Ireland Assembly lags well behind other devolved legislatures which polled on the same day. Women comprise 48% of the incoming Welsh Assembly and 35% of the incoming Scottish Parliament. The absence of legal quotas from the framework agreement has been a defining structural inhibitor which has resulted in a ‘catch 22’ situation; unless more women are elected to the Assembly, it is unlikely to generate a more inclusive political agenda.

‘Women have remained largely marginalised from participation in public life and in particular remain excluded from positions of power and influence in Northern Ireland.’


Acknowledging then the paucity of female representation in the political institutions and public life here in general, the concept of a Civic Forum provided an unparalleled opportunity to ensure that women could impact on the decision making process. It was envisaged that representatives from a wide range of sectors, including the women’s sector, would sit alongside the NI Assembly, working as a consultative mechanism on social, economic and cultural matters.

The Civic Forum was suspended in 2002 with the devolved institutions. Unlike the other institutions provided for by the GFA, the Civic Forum was never re-activated. The recent ‘Fresh Start” Agreement makes provision for a ‘compact civic panel’ of 6 members. Appointed directly by the First and deputy First Ministers they will be tasked ‘to consider specific issues relevant to the Programme for Government’. This circumscribed ‘intermediary’ model is far removed from the model of participative governance envisaged by the GFA. Compelling evidence of exclusion of women from the decision-making process within the civil service is illustrated by the profile of the North’s most senior civil servants – the Permanent Secretaries (who head Stormont’s departments) are exclusively male.

‘Women’s demand for equal status has been largely sidelined by politicians and civil servants, who continue to prioritise central power issues.’

While power sharing and consociational arrangements undoubtedly provide stability in transitions from violent conflict, the Northern Ireland experience suggests they may also constrain deeper aspects of political transformation. Women’s demand for equal status has been largely sidelined by politicians and civil servants, who continue to prioritise central power issues. Since the Good Friday Agreement there have been a succession of further negotiations and agreements: Weston Park in 2001, St Andrews in 2006, Hillsborough Castle in 2010, Stormont House in 2015, and a Fresh Start in 2016.  Each of these Agreements has been precipitated by a political crisis arising from outstanding commitments and/or allegations of default by one side or another. Issues have included the impasse over the transfer of policing and justice powers, allegations of armed group activity and problems arising within the complex power-sharing architecture. Ongoing default however in respect of key equality and human rights provisions has not, of itself, been regarded as sufficiently important to precipitate a crisis within the Stormont body politic.

On the contrary, in each successive negotiation since 1998 there has been a steadily declining focus on equality and human rights provisions.  At each successive stage of the implementation process, the process itself has become more exclusive and the agenda too has narrowed considerably, largely at the expense of those measures with inherent transformative potential. Human rights elements have been consistently eroded and power issues aggrandised.

‘…Eighteen years on from 1998, the promise of ‘full and equal participation of women’ may be even more elusive now than it was then.’

The Stormont House Agreement last January –  collapsed all of the outstanding Good Friday Agreement commitments in respect of Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity into one catch –all, generic paragraph. Unsurprisingly, this attrition has coincided with the absence of a specific voice for women at most of the negotiations which have followed the Good Friday Agreement.  The continued absence of this specific voice suggests that eighteen years on from 1998, the promise of ‘full and equal participation of women’ may be even more elusive now than it was then.’

For more on women’s participation in peace processes, and consociational and power-sharing peace agreements, read Tajma Kapic’s piece on women’s political participation in post-conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina

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