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9 March 2006 Edition

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Belfast womens conference: Raising the profile of women in Sinn Féin

BY PEADAR WHELAN

Ibtihaj El-Halabi, representing the Office of the General Delegation of Palestine

Ibtihaj El-Halabi, representing the Office of the General Delegation of Palestine

Palestinian and Basque speakers address republican women

Republican women from across the Six Counties, and some from further afield, gathered at the Balmoral Hotel on the outskirts of West Belfast on Saturday, 4 March for a day-long conference.

Organised by Sinn Féin's Equality Department, the conference was a precursor to International Women's Day which falls on March 8. Entitled Voices - Women in International Struggle, the conference set out to celebrate the contribution of women in freedom struggles around the world.

Setting the tone for the day, a video that linked the experiences of women involved in struggle throughout the world, was shown. Regardless of the viciousness and brutality of the regime- the British occupied Six Counties, apartheid South Africa, the Basque Country or occupied Palestine, the video captured the fact that it was women who bore the brunt of repression and who remained steadfast, becoming a shining light Féin's National Co-ordinator for Gender Equality, touched on women's experience of the struggle against British rule.

Scattered throughout the audience were many former political prisoners, women who took part in breaking the Falls Curfew, visited the jails and collected for the prisoners. There were many women whose energy drove the Relatives Action Committees at a time when Sinn Féin didn't have a clear strategy as to how to raise the issue of the Blanket Protest.

"You are the young women who went to jail, who endured the strip searches, the no wash protest, the beatings by thugs dressed as screws", Glenholmes told the crowd and acknowledged the sacrifice and commitment of the many women and young girls who passed through Armagh and Maghaberry gaols.

However, it was clear that there were many for all.

The conference was addressed by Rosa Iriarte representing Bilgune Feminista, the Women's organisation of the Basque Independence Movement and Ibtihaj El-Halabi, representing the Office of the General Delegation of Palestine. They outlined the contribution of Basque and Palestinian women to their respective struggles, their speeches all the more interesting given the critical junctures currently facing both struggles.

Asked about the recent victory of Hamas in the elections to the Palestinian authority, El-Halabi acknowledged that Hamas had won their mandate fairly at the polls and that their mandate must be respected.

Rosa McLaughlin of Sinn Féin's Belfast Sinn Féin Executive, a former political prisoner, welcomed Jackie Currie, recently appointed Equality Co-ordinator to the Belfast Executi other young women and girls in the audience who would have benefited from hearing the history of the last 35 years. It was heartening to see so many new faces swelling the ranks of the conference, and it was such a boost to see the many 'older' faces of women who may not have been too active in recent years but who have now come back into the heart of things.

Glenholmes urged women to ensure "that what you did for over 30 long years does not get airbrushed out of history or that some day some young woman does not ask, 'what happened to the women? Where did the women go?'"

She cited the history of those years leading up to the Tan War when three major forces came together in Ireland. "The National movement, with the participation of the workers and the Women's Movement ,ensured that the radical social programmes, the Programme of the First Dáil and the Proclamation itself enshrined the rights of both sectors.

"What happve. She then outlined progress made within Belfast over the past number of months, as the party puts structures in place to ensure that the number of women who are active in the party are represented in officer boards throughout the various Comhairlí Ceanntair and Cumainn.

"The Belfast Review report set a target of 50 women per year to be recruited into the party. Since our last conference, four months ago, we have seen 60 women join the party. There are more women in places of responsibility throughout the Belfast Sinn Féin structure now than there ever were. Women are holding the positions of Chair and Vice-Chair in more cumainn now than was ever the case", said McLaughlin.

She also pointed out that the party needed a strategy to recruit women into the party and that all areas of political work- recruitment, outreach, equality and youth needed to target women and build on the recent successes.

Eibhlín Glenholmes, Sinnened post Civil War; what happened when De Valera came to draft the 1937 Constitution? Women were told that their role was in the home, not through choice, but because that was the role the state decided for them. We were silenced. We lost the war and we lost our voices and our right to be heard. That can never be allowed to happen again", she said.

The conference's afternoon session was more of a social occasion. It began with some Irish dancing. Belfast singer Bríd Ní Chianáin then entertained the crowd with some rousing songs in both English and Irish.

Just before a piece of drama by the acclaimed Justus Theatre company, there was a moving presentation to Síle Darragh on behalf of the protesting women political prisoners in Armagh Jail.

In her acceptance speech Darragh, who was a former OC of the Women prisoners, remembered Mairéad Farrell and Marie Wright, former OCs of the women prisoners but who are now dead. Ho Féin's National Co-ordinator for Gender Equality, touched on women's experience of the struggle against British rule.

Scattered throughout the audience were many former political prisoners, women who took part in breaking the Falls Curfew, visited the jails and collected for the prisoners. There were many women whose energy drove the Relatives Action Committees at a time when Sinn Féin didn't have a clear strategy as to how to raise the issue of the Blanket Protest.

"You are the young women who went to jail, who endured the strip searches, the no wash protest, the beatings by thugs dressed as screws", Glenholmes told the crowd and acknowledged the sacrifice and commitment of the many women and young girls who passed through Armagh and Maghaberry gaols.

However, it was clear that there were manywever, it was to the family of Eileen Hickey, also a former OC of the women prisoners and who died recently, that the presentation of a bog oak Celtic Cross was given. Eileen's husband Johnny Haddock, who was clearly moved by the occasion, said that the Cross would be placed in the Republican Museum, based in Conway Mill, to which Eileen devoted so much of her later years developing.

After the presentation Justus performed their drama depicting the inspirational Maíre Drumm, acted by Bridie McMahon, making one of her most fiery speeches in Belfast. As she made her speech, at the time, someone from the crowd shouted 'Up the IRA'. Drumm responded by saying: "Don't shout 'Up the IRA', join the IRA", a retort that lead to Drumm's imprisonment at Armagh Jail. Drumm was one of the first republican prisoners whom a 17- other young women and girls in the audience who would have benefited from hearing the history of the last 35 years. It was heartening to see so many new faces swelling the ranks of the conference, and it was such a boost to see the many 'older' faces of women who may not have been too active in recent years but who have now come back into the heart of things.

Glenholmes urged women to ensure "that what you did for over 30 long years does not get airbrushed out of history or that some day some young woman does not ask, 'what happened to the women? Where did the women go?'"

She cited the history of those years leading up to the Tan War when three major forces came together in Ireland. "The National movement, with the participation of the workers and the Women's Movement ,ensured that the radical social programmes, the Programme of the First Dáil and the Proclamation itself enshrined the rights of both sectors.

"What happyear-old Bridie McMahon met when she herself was arrested and jailed in the early 1970s.

The large turnout at Saturday's conference is a huge boost to those working to ensure an increase in the number of women joining Sinn Féin.






Poster launched by Dublin Sinn Féin this week to mark International Women's Day and to highlight women in political activism.

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