Not only does a woman hold the powerful position of general secretary but women head the Education and Foreign Affairs departments
Not only does a woman hold the powerful position of general secretary but women head the Education and Foreign Affairs departments. For the last three years there has been a female director of publicity, and the important Belfast and Derry executives are both represented nationally by women.Whether or not this means that the feminisation process is genuine in a political sense is a different matter. After all, say the sceptics, is this not a most opportune time for the Folletting of the Sinn Fein women? Under the highly-respected Presidency of Mary Robinson and with the power of the Catholic Church waning, social values in the south are changing fast. For Sinn Fein to break down the psychological barriers, north and south, and carve a niche for itself in whatever all-Ireland structure it hopes will emerge from the peace process, it must broaden the party's appeal and forge alliances outside.
Who better for the task than the progressive women now coming to prominence?This is not to deny that they have gained their current influence on merit. But after decades of close association with the IRA, Sinn Fein has an image problem; and, as it takes the republican argument into the peace process, feminisation may prove to be a remarkably effective PR tool. It already seems to have wrong-footed not only the watching media but all the grey-suited mainstream parties in Britain and Ireland with which Sinn Fein are starting to do business.Emily O'Reilly, chief political correspondent of the Sunday Business Post in Ireland, is among those who suspect tokenism. "Sinn Fein does put forward a very progressive image of itself," she says, "and part of this is a public espousal of a lot of women's issues, coming across as a gender-bias-free party and putting certain women to the fore. But if you look at the power structure, apart from women like Lucilita Bhreat- nach and Rita O'Hare [Sinn Fein's director of publicity], it's still McGuinness and Adams."Yet there is something about Sinn Fein's history - and the history of women's involvement in Sinn Fein - that suggests that the party's feminisation should not be dismissed so lightly.Women have been hugely active on the Republican side during the current round of Troubles. At first, their role was generally secondary: bin-rattling to warn of approaching soldiers; running support campaigns for prisoners' rights; and so on But gradually they have moved into the foreground.
In 1968 they won the right to full membership of the IRA, and many have fought and died for the Republican cause since then. And, because of the particular way in which the Troubles have developed, their role has steadily become less subservient. Necessity has proved the mother of liberation.Bernadette McAliskey (Devlin), the only Republican ever to take a seat in Westminster (though she was never a member of Sinn Fein), sees the introduction of internment in 1971 as the moment of women's first major breakthrough in Irish politics. Large numbers of Catholic men were either in hiding or imprisoned without trial, and, she says, "Women suddenly found themselves responsible for the maintenance of the family unit, organising the welfare of the prisoners and their families, running committees, withholding the rents and rates. Necessity created a support network of women, like a large ill-defined kibbutz, that lasts to this day. If I had to do something, someone else fed my children and vice versa."Like miners' wives in mid-Eighties Britain, women were forced to develop a new political awareness; and in Ulster this soon came to include awareness of sexual politics.
It was women's "ironing out" of contradictions between the national and social struggle, McAliskey says, that first began to push Republican ideology towards recognising women's rights. "Women campaigning against the brutality of soldiers, for instance, also raised the issue of domestic violence, demanding women's shelters and the like."Mary Nelis, Sinn Fein councillor in Derry and one of three female Sinn Fein delegates to the National Forum of Peace and Reconciliation, tells a similar story of development through adversity. "When most of our men went into prison they left us at the kitchen sink, washing the dishes and looking after the babies. When they got out and expected to find their dinners on the table we weren't there.