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10 September 1998 Edition

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The really powerful women

By Mary Nelis

It was a man, who else, that told the women delegates attending the Vital Voices, Women in Democracy Conference in Belfast, that they must lead the way in delivering lasting peace in the north.

Mo Mowlam said the conference illustrated ``how powerful women in the north are'' She said it was no coincidence that 75% of women voted for the Good Friday Agreement. She stopped short of stating that when push came to shove, the 75% women only voted 14 of their gender, out of a total of 108, into the Assembly set up to implement the Agreement. It seems the women in the north stood firmly behind their men, in terms of the control of political power in future new arrangements.

It was the powerful men, Trimble and Mallon, who expressed concern about the under-representation of women, which they described as less than satisfactory.

And indeed only seven of the fourteen women elected represented the SDLP, the DUP, the Official Unionists, the Alliance and the UK Unionists.

The track record of these parties in promoting the political equality of women does not exactly shine forth as a guiding light for any model of governance, to paraphrase Seamus Mallon.

But still, we hoped the Vital Voices from the platform at the Waterfront might enlighten us. The conference was subtitled ``Women in Democracy''.

Mo Mowlam identified the Womens Coalition as the party which is doing that, challenging the exclusion of women from full participation in the north's political life.

The Womens Coalition looked slightly embarrassed at being singled out by Mo. Like Mo, they are aware that Sinn Fein not only put forward the largest number of women candidates for the Assembly election, but also elected the largest number, five in all, a fact Mo chose to ignore in her praise.

Nevertheless, the Womens Coalition did take the initiative in trying to address the lack of proper representation of women, within a male dominated political ethos.

The Vital Voices Conference claimed to focus on all aspects of women's lives and the invitation list read like a who's who in the international professional and business world of corporate US and Ireland. Yes, these were powerful women, in as much as power is defined within the patriarchial structure of world capitalism, where the dependency needs of women can play into the hands of any astute political leader. And all the astute political people came. The keynote speakers praised the women delegates who they said were the women who had fought the battles for peace, and sustained hope in their communities and had made peace possible.

Only those with little or no understanding of the conflict of the past 70 years would make such a claim, for with few notable exceptions, those women at the coalface of struggle in all the communities are rarely invited to such conferences. That in itself negates the value of such events for it's the vital voices of these women, excluded all their lives, who will create the democratic future of Ireland.

What a difference it would have made for delegates to hear the voices of women, who have been and still are the authentic vital voice of a community which has survived the worst excesses of the British war machine in the north. These women held the line in the face of a regime which institutionalised death, imprisonment, discrimination, deprivation, dispossession and division, many paid the price of justice with their lives.

In the sanitised surroundings of the Waterfront Hall, one wondered if such conferences were organised to promote the notion of the ``normal society'', with women represented in the boardrooms and backrooms, as equals, yet the atmosphere in the hall was far from normal and was totally out of step with the reality of life for the majority of women in the north. As I listened to the keynote speakers, I wondered if any of them had experienced the fear of the women who emerged from homes for the first time to take their place in the struggle for civil rights. I thought of women at Burntollet and the Falls Road curfew. Could these speakers ever understand the shock and pain of seeing those they loved murdered, not by the IRA but by soldiers described as ``the peace keepers'' and then have to endure the further grief of seeing the peacekeepers decorated by their government for a job well done?

How would Mo Mowlam react if her front door was kicked in at 6 o clock in the morning and she awakes to find a gun thrust into her neck. Some 400,000 women in the north know the terror of the house search.

And would Seamus Mallon have comforted his wife as they endured the agony of ``the interrogation wake'' that undescribable anxiety in homes when one's child was being detained for seven days in places like Castlereagh.

And Trimble, who abused the platform as a conference for women and the tragedy of the Omagh bomb, to attack the republican movement. Was he thinking of the terrorised Catholic community in his constituency in Portadown and the part played in the continuing saga of sectarian hatred by his best friend and fellow solicitor Mr Monteith.

We will never know, for the vital voices of those women who continue the struggle for democracy were not heard at this conference.

Nor do they intend to take on the responsibility `for delivering peace' with all power currently invested in the military might of male securocrats and political leaders still expecting their women to have the dinner ready when they return from a hard day at the despatch box.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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