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2 March 2006 Edition

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Interview: Eibhlin Glenholmes Sinn Féin's Co-ordinator for Gender Equality

BY LAURA FRIEL

National liberation and women's liberation inextricably linked

Eibhlin Glenholmes is passionate and determined. Recently appointed Sinn Féin's National Co-ordinator for Gender Equality and member of the Ard Chomhairle, she brings her history as a republican and experience as a woman to the role. Her personal warmth is underpinned by energetic determination and a clarity about what needs to be done and why.

"You cannot cherry-pick on the Equality Agenda. National liberation and women's liberation are inextricably linked", she says.

Originally from the Short Strand, Glenholmes became a republican in her early teens. In 1986 she fought extradition to England in the High Court in Dublin. Following a sensational day in which she was released, then rearrested amid chaotic scenes and Garda gunfire on O'Connell Street, only to be released again in a second hearing, Eibhlin disappeared from view.

In 2001, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement her situation as an 'On The Run' was resolved and she returned to Belfast to continue her role as a republican activist.

Glenholmes roots her understanding of the relationship between women's liberation and the national question in the history of republicanism and this now informs her responsibility for gender equality within Sinn Féin.

Eibhlin is re-arrested for extradition by Garda? in BHS, O'Connell Street, 22 March 1986 "In the run up to 1916, three major forces came together, the labour movement, the national liberation movement and the women's movement. This alliance ensured that in the demand for national freedom was an advanced social programme for labour and women's rights", says Glenholmes.

"The defeat of the revolutionary forces in the aftermath of 1921 meant reactionary forces, opposed to the radical ideology of equality, attempted to subjugate women to the sole role of unpaid homemakers," she says. The 1937 Constitution affirmed that reactionary position declaring that 'by her life within the home, woman gives to the state a support without which common good cannot be achieved'.

"But Irish women have always refused to have their role defined or restricted, particularly when that role is in opposition to their inherent desire for freedom and innate good sense", she says.

Next Saturday, 4 March, Sinn Féin's Equality Department hosts a Women's Conference in Belfast's Balmoral Hotel as a precursor to International Women's Day four days later.

"The conference celebrates the contribution of women in freedom struggles around the world. There are a number of speakers from a range of countries as well as poetry reading, drama and music," says Glenholmes.

"The conference is entitled Voices for a very specific reason. As women we often hear about the need to "see more women" but gender equality is not just about seeing, it's also about starting to listen. We need to create spaces where women's voices can be heard."

As part of the 25th Anniversary of the 1981 Hunger Strikes, the conference will pay tribute to the 44 protesting republican POWs in Armagh Women's Prison. "Sile Darragh will be accepting a presentation on behalf of women POWs," says Glenholmes.

Sinn Féin's Dublin Cuige are also launching a poster as part of their celebration of International Women's Day.

"Sinn Fein's Party Development Department has been charged with creating and developing programmes and mechanisms by which we will truly become representative of society. Within that department I have responsibility to ensure gender equality. I will use whatever tools are necessary to ensure that women are not just seen but are also heard," says Glenholmes.

"I want to hear women speak on social and economic issues. Every woman I've ever met is an expert and that expertise is grounded in her experience of the day-to-day realities of life. She'll know how the latest government policy is impacting on the education of her children, the impact of the economy on securing the necessities of life and the inadequacies in the provision of services. She'll know because she is dealing with these agencies on a daily basis", she says.

"No one can be free unless we are all free and that is why outreach is also at the heart of this project. I am appealing to women who do not come from a traditional Sinn Fein background to get involved and help us get it right."

"I want to see women from ethnic minorities, our sisters from the new Irish, women from the Travelling Community, Women working inside and outside the home, female comrades of Oglaigh na hÉireann and women from the feminist movement bringing their knowledge, skills and life experience to Sinn Féin", she says.

"Gender Equality isn't just an aspiration, for republicans it is a fundamental part of our project, both in terms of building the party and building a nation of equals. Sinn Féin wants to get it right and the best guarantors of that endeavour are women themselves."

Eibhlin Gleholmes believes Sinn Féin is the party which most ably demonstrates its openness to the contribution of women and knows that women bring a different perspective and vibrancy. "It's already happening, anyone who attended last week's Ard Fheis can be in no doubt about the expanding role of women, especially young women within Sinn Féin", she says.

"Sinn Fein is committed to developing strategies to further attract and enhance the talent of Irish women. If there is anyone out there who still questions the credibility of women as political agents of change, I say get real.

"From Markievicz to Maire Drumm, Mairéad Farrell to Sheena Campbell, republicans always had strong, capable women role models. Today we have Mary Lou, Bairbre, Martina and Caitriona, I could go on and on, but the one person I would like to specifically mention is Lucilita Breathnach who put the whole issue of gender equality on the political agenda in the party.

"But the talent doesn't stop with Sinn Féin. Look outside the party, at the hundreds of women in positions of responsibility within the community and voluntary sectors in every community throughout Ireland."

Glenholmes makes a point of acknowledging the support and encouragement received from male as well as female comrades since taking this post. "The groundswell of goodwill has been encouraging, particularly from many young men who do not question my, or any other woman's, right to be seated at the table", she says.

"Sinn Fein's determination to further mobilise women's talent has already begun. Last December Sinn Féin invited former republican women activists to a local meeting in Belfast and asked them to re-engage with the party. The response was immediate and encouraging. Not only did most of the women invited attend, but out of 76 women present, 61 left the meeting as members of Sinn Féin.

"In the past there have been differences between women who primarily identified themselves as feminists and women who saw themselves as republicans.

"In the 1970's and 80's some feminists believed republican women were engaging in an armed struggle that held no promise for them as women. At the time republican women, especially the POWs, felt betrayed. At the very moment they needed the support of other women, some women denied them all recognition.

"As republicans we understood the only arena in which we could achieve freedom as women was in the context of establishing a democratic socialist republic.

"We live in exciting times. Sinn Féin is a dynamic party of change. We are determined to build a better future, an Ireland of equals in which, regardless of the differences that have been used to divide us in the past such as gender, class, religion, ethnicity, all our talents will be cherished."

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