Sinn Féin national women's conference sets Agenda for Change
Women are the motors of change in politics and the economy.
Issues of childcare, quality training, equality of opportunities,
full representation of women must be urgently addressed. These
are top priorities, according to 200 participants at last
Saturday's gathering. Mary Maguire reports.
``We were only fighting for our rights. What we didn't know at the
time was what we were starting. But looking back on it, we can't
see how we could have done anything else. It should have been
done years beforehand, and if it was tomorrow, we'd do it again.''
It is with these words from republican and civil rights activist
Annie-Mary Gildernew that Sinn Féin chairperson Mitchel
McLaughlin opened the party's national women's conference.
The determination weaved in her words was an inspiration to the
200 activists from Sinn Féin, Sinn Féin Youth, Saoirse as well as
representatives of women's associations gathered last Saturday in
Dublin's Russell Court Hotel for a day of discussions and
Mitchel McLaughlin continued to remind the public of SF's
commitment to gender equality in the representation structures as
well as election candidates. So far, one third of the parties
candidates elected to the new assembly are women. More than ten
departments are headed by women. SF Youth are also setting a very
high standard for the future in terms of gender balance. The
party policy on the issues of women's rights and gender equality
is under review by a special committee. A new policy document
will be presented to the 1999 Ard Fheis. New national party Cuige
structures are working with SF National Women's Forum to
establish forums in the Six Counties, Munster, Baile Atha Claith,
Connacht Ulster and Leinster.
``We support the setting of timescales to achieve equality of
outcome in employment structures, education and training, argued
How can we build a new Ireland and ignore the fact that women are
politically and economically under-represented, except in the low
paid, unskilled sectors of our economy? It is crucial, as we move
into a changed political climate and as the transformation of
Irish society continues, that women articulate their agenda, that
they reach out to other groups and build alliances to push for
His words had certainly not echoed in deaf ears when the
discussions started on the following themes: the Good Friday
Agreement, Equality agenda and women's rights, and Irish Unity.
During the first panel discussion, SF assembly member and senior
negotiator Bairbre de Brún focused on ways women could seize the
opportunity to ensure that they ``steam-roll the implementation of
the provisions laid out in the Good Friday agreement''.
``An enormous amount of work has to be done to ensure that all
stand up to commitments made in relation to democratisation,
human rights, gender, equality and the full participation of
women in every aspect of life.'' She also talked of the respect
and equality that was to be shown by all participants in the
process when dealing with political opponents. ``There will be
real change for women. There will be real change for everyone'',
concluded Bairbre de Brún.
Women's Coalition member Kate Fearon went on to highlight the
differences between the agreement provisions and the bill that is
to be passed in the British Parliament. Were such separate
interpretations expectable? ``It is very difficult for civil
servants to understand why the equality provisions included in
the agreement were so important,'' she said.
Through humour and personal experiences, Féile an Phobal director
Catroina Ruane emphasised the power women have to break the rigid
division between their private life and their community. As a
proud mother, she talked of the radical changes women have
brought in society. ``But we have to be careful that by climbing
up the ladder, we don't pull it up behind us'', she noted.
The second panel session was dedicated to the equality agenda and
women's rights. National Women's Council chairwoman Noreen Byrne
talked of the contribution of women to the economy through their
work in the home and a delegation visit to Roisín McAliskey
during her inhumane detention.
EOC Director of research and investigation Joan McKiernan
highlighted the fact that women compose 70% of low-wages workers,
earn generally 25% less than men and that action was the only way
Assembly member Michelle Gildernew talked of the importance of
developing childcare facilities as well as focusing on new
approaches to women's issues. ``The 1997 British general election
was seen as a breakthrough,'' she added. ``But the government went
on to implement legislation drafted by the Tories, making it
worse. We have to make sure we don't make the errors others try
to push us into''. During the discussion, SF General Secretary
Lucilita Breathnach talked of the changes that have occurred due
to the work of women. ``Sinn Féin encourages and wants to see more
change. That is our main focus.''
After lunch, participants split into three working groups. Drugs
and conflict in our communities was facilitated by Joan Byrne,
from the Saol Dublin project. They came to the conclusions that
drug-related problems went from one working-class area to
another. Communities feel isolated and lack adequate resources to
deal with the problem. ``More money is being spent on Croke Park
than on the drug problem,'' explained Angela Donnelly, the group's
rapporteur. A multi-faceted approach has to be taken. This
includes: education and prevention, methadone treatment, adequate
counselling, care projects and ``finding our anger to say enough
is enough,'' concluded Angela Donnelly.
The Labour Movement and Equality Priorities was facilitated by
Kay Kearns, a Union negotiator. Their conclusions were that women
hadn't achieved equality, that emphasis had to be put on the
individual, rather than the group. Bairbre de Brún suggested that
84% of the European working force would be composed of women.
``The question is, whatever way these jobs affect Ireland, will
they affect women?'' she asked.
West Belfast SF councillor Chrissie McAuley called for quality
training for all. Her comment came after a discussion on the
difficulties women had to find a well-paid and skilled job after
having raised children in the family home.
Finally, the issue of child care was predominant. The state
should get more involved, concluded the rapporteur Aíne Ni
Gabhain. ``Ultimately, the type of childcare we get will depend on
the work we put into it.''
The workshop on Prisoners Rights and Needs, facilitated by Edel
Kelly, came to the main conclusion that strip-searching had to be
taken off the statute books. All POWs should be eligible for
parole, regardless of the time left to do. The commission also
has to be more independent. The positive aspects of the POWs'
life should also be emphasised. ``Many of the POWs come out of
jail politically educated and often with degrees,'' said Edel
Kelly. There is a lack of accommodation and the funding is
totally inadequate for the POWs who are released. Education
campaigns should be set up to inform the community on issues
relating to POWs. Counselling must be provided to families who
need to rebuild relationships. Also, adequate resources must be
allocated to projects started up by POWs after their release.
The issue of the Irish language led to an agitated debate. Fianna
Fáil TD Marian McGennis gave a lengthy speech that surprised
many. ``Irish Unity is underwritten in the Belfast agreement. If
Britain has a role to play, it is the one of returning officer,''
she said. She also talked of the ``vaccum'' being created by
``people opposed to change''. But when challenged on what the
Dublin government was prepared to do to break the deadlock, her
answer was evasive.
Kathleen O'Neill, from the education organisation KLEAR stated
that ``if peace is going to work, it will be because of the
efforts of the women.''
National Sinn Féin Organiser Joan O'Connor warned of the vaccum
being created by unionist intransigence. ``The current crisis has
nothing to do with decommissioning. It is because of the failure
of unionists to stand up to their commitments and work with Sinn
Féin. Until the unionists stand up and accept change, there is a
risk that the vaccum be filled by random murders of Catholics,
such as the one of Brian Service. Action must be taken.'' She
concluded her speech with the following words: ``The union is
guaranteed for as long as it takes to make the changes.''
The issue of SF Youth harrassment by the Garda Special Branch,
following the arrest and assault of five members, was also
addressed at length in front of Marian McGennis, FF TD. One
participant argued that ``Sinn Féin had to bring forward the
future of Irish unity and the younger generations''.
Lucilita Breathnach asked: ``Why is the state doing this? It is
because they realise the potential of the movement, that SF Youth
is more powerful than any other youth movement. We will face up
to the state. Today's conference is an example of revolutionary
work, in terms of getting active and mounting challenges.'' SF
assembly member Mary Nellis proposed to organise protests,
rallies, as well as raise the issue of SF Youth abuse with
organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights
Watch and most of all take legal action against the Garda
As the conference closed, Anne Speed, head of Cathoirleach
Women's Forum and conference co-ordinator welcomed Derry ex-POW
Martina Anderson back home. Special presentations were made to SF
national coordinator Joan O'Connor and head of international
affairs Mairéad Keane. Anne Speed also sent greetings to women in
Euskadi. She finally called on the participants to mobilise in
their areas for international women's day on 8 March.
Top priorities set during workshops
- Full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement provisions
regarding democratisation, human rights, gender equality and the
full participation of women;
- Special focus must be given to child care issues;
- Action must be taken to guarantee quality training for all
- Women must be given support when fighting drug abuse related
- Strip searching must be taken off the statute books;
- ''Action'' is the only way forward
The WOMEN'S FORUM operates with a Dublin based Secretariat and
autonomous Cuige Forums. Its aims are to:
- activate Party work on women's rights
- organise women members
- network with the women's movement
- develop outreach work with supporters of women's rights
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