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1 March 2019 Edition

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In 2019 Sinn Féin must focus on social sites of struggle

• Many involved with the Repeal campaign are now keen to push on

The overwhelming vote for Repeal of the Eighth Amendment represented a watershed moment for Irish society and has to be understood as the product of sustained and determined struggle by thousands of predominantly working-class women over the past 35 years, with the support of allies in the progressive trade union movement, in communities and on the political left. 

To build on this momentum there are other sites of struggle that need to be focused on by Sinn Féin and the broad left. They are religious control of the education system; the question of unpaid and reproductive labour undertaken predominantly by women; and keeping the issue of universal childcare on the political agenda throughout Ireland.

Sinn Féin President, Mary Lou McDonald was a persuasive contributor to the repeal side, indicating a significant modernisation of the party, one which, I believe, like many other working class movements, has socially conservative roots. 

While some were critical of her uncompromising confrontation of the party’s conservative elements, it would appear that the majority were glad that Sinn Féin had finally nailed its colours to the mast. Sinn Féin’s participation in the Alliance For Choice #TrustWomen campaign after the last Ard Fheis was a historical moment for Irish women’s rights and marked a possibility for profound change. 

Having decisively broken the moral authority of the Catholic Church, stemmed the tide of attacks on women’s rights and invigorated an entire generation of young people across the island, many involved with the Repeal campaign are now keen to push on. 

Already the Tories are coming under intense pressure to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to the North in the face of DUP opposition, while the accompanying campaign for marriage equality, too, raises the unfulfilled demand of ‘British rights for British citizens’ first articulated in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. 

The Irish government must increase its efforts to ensure the British government fulfils its obligations and demonstrate that it fully supports a rights-based society in the north. In the South, the next phase for the Repeal movement is securing proper legislative provisions for abortion. 

Others are turning their attention to the Church’s grip on education, which is an anathema to the fundamental republican principle of Church and State separation and, as we know, has caused untold damage to the lives of Irish citizens. There is much work to be done, but it is clear that working-class Irish people are becoming increasingly politicised, organised and active in their communities and are seeking a more representative and inclusive education system at primary and second levels. 

Another issue that is both pertinent to the current moment and neglected as a potential site of struggle for the left is that of unpaid and reproductive labour; this is the unpaid cleaning, cooking and childcare work, the repetitive domestic chores, that are not counted in the economic data of GDP and national wealth but are fundamental to Irish capitalist survival and accumulation.

Irish women are still constrained by legislation and cultural norms established by the Church, state, and economic and political elites to engage primarily in the gendered tasks of cooking, cleaning and caring without due recognition that such tasks themselves constitute important forms of labour. 

Mary Lou McDonald was a persuasive contributor to the repeal side

• Mary Lou McDonald was a persuasive contributor to the repeal side

Despite significant advances, the social, economic and cultural dynamics that reinforce gendered and class roles persist. One manifestation of this is the fact that, according to the 2018 OECD national time use surveys, Irish women carry out more than 70 percent of unpaid household work. The majority of these women are from working-class backgrounds, and unable to afford the costs of childcare and other domestic supports.

This figure compares unfavourably with other small open economies and peer countries in northern Europe, where high quality state-sponsored childcare provision, state support for those with caring responsibilities and different social norms are among the factors enabling more balanced gender participation in the labour market. Recent OECD figures show that only Italy and Portugal had a higher rate of unpaid labour.

This situation has been exacerbated through austerity, with the decimation of key public services, the removal of income supports for lone parents and carers, and the increasingly low-wage and precarious nature of employment in Ireland. And while the 26 Counties was previously home to a half-arsed welfare state, with a special role reserved for the Church and charities, we are seeing the increasing privatisation of social reproduction from welfare and pensions to social care and children’s services. 

Moving forward, there is a definite need to investigate and better understand the value of unpaid and reproductive labour in Ireland. A ground-breaking study published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in 2014 shows that total unpaid work in the UK had a value of £1.01 trillion, equivalent to 56 percent of GDP. The study shows that women put in more than double the proportion of paid work when it comes to cooking, childcare and housework, while also revealing that people on lower incomes tended to carry out more unpaid work than other income brackets.

We need a full picture of the nature of unpaid and socially reproductive labour in Ireland and its role in sustaining Irish capitalism and perpetuating inequality. We need to consider how we might advance policy solutions that compensate unpaid labour, ensure that capital begins to shoulder the cost for social reproduction and ultimately have a transformative impact on Irish society. 

A useful starting point might be for Sinn Féin to initiate a national, cross-border conversation around a universal public childcare system. This is already party policy and as it has been advocated in the past by Unite, Right2Change, Indepedents4Change, among others, and most recently endorsed by the ICTU Women’s Conference in March of this year, is sure to garner support from the broad left. 

Such a campaign has the potential to unite trade unions and communities, the low paid and the unemployed, migrant and ‘homegrown’ workers, all in pursuit of an objective that will reduce the burden of unpaid labour, reduce gender and class inequalities, remove a significant barrier to employment and contribute to the common good. 

These are steps that would improve people’s lives while beginning to address the basis and logic of Irish capitalism itself, as such they would build on and seek to honour the considerable achievements of the Repeal movement. 

Rights-based campaigns of recent years have laid the ground for national conversations around issues such as treatment of women, marginalisation, housing and income inequalities. The success of the Repeal movement needs to become a catalyst for productive rage, prompting introspection and politicisation thereby strengthening a re-energised political movement and giving new impetus to its key demands.  

Amy Ward is a political activist, trade union member, socialist republican, researcher and writer.

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