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19 November 1998 Edition

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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 workshops.

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 Mitchel McLaughlin.

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 real change.''

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 forward.

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 Síochána.

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;
Women must be given support when fighting drug abuse related problems;
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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