With Posie Parker aka Kelly-Jay Keen en route to Belfast this year with her Let Women Speak public meeting tour, and my passing expression of apprehension on Twitter being very quickly interpreted in classic default sectarian terms or a coy statement on Irish/English dynamics, I’m back struggling to grasp the celebrated analogies from last year using similar hands across the barricades imagery. I’m not for a second knocking the rounds of applause for women across the divide working together, or their courageous labours, it’s just the analogy doesn’t sit comfortably with me and I don’t fully buy into these apparent divides as a convincing parallel. Particularly as shorthand for suspension of mutual ideological hostilities uniting left and right outlooks.
The celebrated citing of women across the North coming together to challenge self ID was in response to perennially fraught twitter discussions on the merits/need to form coalitions that transcend traditional points on the standard political axis, which is increasingly meaningless anyway. So we often tell ourselves and each other, which isn’t that difficult given the sense of betrayal by the left steamrolling their way forward to beat back women as bigots for attempting to responsibly reconcile and balance rights those self ID directly affects: women and people with gender dysphoria. The idea that women across the two traditional communities (as local parlance goes) of the North working together is to be taken as proof of an ability to overcome savagely diametrically opposed positions and carve out intransigence smashing possibilities only half staggers, if it gets up out of the armchair at all.
Women across all communities have always worked together on fundamental issues concerning women. From holding the place together during the worst of the Conflict, to organising and delivering services for women affected by male violence, to being the driving force for pressurising the establishment to secure equal status on reproductive rights with the rest of the UK. This despite being met by a fortified wall of male resistance and political dysfunction across every hue within mainstream & rehabilitated ‘grassroots’ politics for decades. Male dominated institutions of every creed and shade.
Ironically, the emergence of the funded sector’s involvement in grassroots campaigns in recent years has led to the unforgivable decimation of that working class coalition and foundation that evolved from the ground up for meaningful participation of working class women before their subsequent relegation on twitter by members of the Northern branch of Irish Feminism (c) to occasionally head-patted volunteers offering diversionary activities for young people. Despite the twitter aided culture of predominately middle class names & ‘activists’ on the scene, these women continue to form the background of authentic class based action in communities starved of employment, education & childcare opportunities. Eschewing industry speak, self-regarding bios and soundbites, they still carry out the bulk of women’s social and peace labours in the meaningful sense. They don’t follow a parallel of right and left. That parallel doesn’t align with cooperation and in turn it obscures relevant and critical divergences within left & right outlooks where they very much matter for women locally.
The demographics of the North have changed in a way consistent with the rest of the island through inward migration with over 12 per cent (possibly higher) of the population from minority communities. Women from these communities are very much part of the heavy-lifting of navigating a multi-cultural society in a post-conflict era. One of the legitimate criticisms of funding criteria & framing in recent years is its unstinting devotion to outdated ideas of the classic two community structure.
It’s also worth mentioning the biggest immigrant group to the island is those coming over or returning from England. The status of English people, the complicated history of the returned children of emigrants with dual identities, and the fate of economic migrant reversal, shows up the symbiosis between our islands in ways far beyond and much more enriching than the crude tale of displaced natives condemned to Britain. It’s not so simple. They too roll up their sleeves with other women.
The default image of two irrational native groups at war with one another over religion was largely manufactured propaganda that suited the establishment across the islands, but it was not a wholly accurate one. That’s not to diminish the reality of the Conflict or its roots, causes and devastation. But it has always been narrated by men with the social history of women never written in then as now. Life behind crude headlines is significantly different and less compatible with these images & to me far from ideas of a left & right laying down their opposing ideologies. The labours of women largely stem from a left union and working class tradition and that is still vital for securing power and resources.
If by the right, we can settle on socially conservative elements, then those are still very much alive and continue to pose significant threats to the stability of the region as well as the rights & prospects of women including minority women, Travellers, lesbians, and disabled women. These socially conservative elements have historically shown up as a patchwork across all political establishments – mainstream and grassroots. Those on the side of green didn’t turn a word in Rome’s mouth and only showed up lately to hitch their wagon to the cause of abortion when it has become politically advantageous.
For current funded sector activists to concentrate their ire on the bad Brit women (many of them Irish), and make them receptacles for their anger at inaction, just shows how far women have been socialised to see women as the only instigators of change or challenge to that brutal male driven regime. The inaccuracies of the historical revisionism on involvement of women in Britain in helping Irish women access abortion are already documented elsewhere.
Meanwhile, political unionism, dominated by the DUP in a powersharing holding arrangement that trails far behind evolving demographics and contemporary political appetites of the people, occupy the caricature of evangelical social conservatism in the public imagination. They operate in tandem with loyalist gangs & associates relied on to manipulate & whip up social and political anxiety under the guise of unspecified perilous threats to the status of the Union. None of which ever seems to encompass issues pertaining to the quality of life, life expectancy or prospects of women.
Working class women in those communities, already disenfranchised by third generation unemployment and poverty, condemned to subsistence living, voiceless and marginalised by an industry based community infrastructure and many at the mercy of criminal gang driven money lenders given a free pass by their respectable political wing in Stormont are the main casualties. Their voices drowned out & ignored by political forces that cynically exploit their fears and by a local media obsessed with respectability & parliamentary politics. Middle class moderate unionism expresses little sense of responsibility to engage with or promote their interests. Yet, moderate unionists are among the more socially liberal demographics & working class women in loyalist areas depend on this for the political will to implement abortion services, if their leaders continue to drag their heels. They can’t win. The story of working class women across the North of whatever background doesn’t deviate from this predestination by toxic patriarchal politics and is unlikely to any time soon.
So back to gender self ID and competing views on coalitions growing ever more heated. If we have to go with a Northern analogy at all, and I’m still not convinced, then a broad church sharing a similar end goal works for me, somewhat. Whether that’s nationalism/republicanism or unionism/loyalism. Both with an eye on a shared goal to be achieved but by strategically different methods and means, with frequent overlaps & points of cooperation and codependency along the way. All will argue their legitimacy, and support will move between and across from old school and transient supporters adopting a pic ‘n’ mix depending on context, strength of political principles and their willingness to bend or not. It also echoes a class dimension with each political strand traditionally associated with working and middle class communities respectively and twinned under a single identity in various states of flux as new and unexpected challenges arise.
When I heard Kelly-Jay was coming (which she is free to do & as someone who considers this issue a global one, certainly a Western one, it’s above borders), my first thought wasn’t anything at all to do with nationality or religion or traditional divisions. Not in the classic sense anyway. Those, frankly lazy, default divides and talking points exploited by the Northern left and women’s funded sector who seized on them as weapons to defend their desertion of basic democracy with disastrously gratuitous sectarianism. A kind dangerously reinforced by an ignorant Southern wing of Irish Feminism (c) spawned on middle class twitter.
My first thought was Jamie Bryson, then Jolene Bunting and her various associates and the likelihood of them turning up to be cheered on. Rightly or possibly wrongly, it detonated an instinctive dread of these chancers who will ostensibly promote the language of women’s rights while actively working against women in the day to day reality. Who exploit disenfranchised young people to stoke the flames of racism, division, and sexism that detrimentally affects so many women here undermining their personal and collective stability and participation in their own politics in ways that are no better than the respectable twitter establishment.
They’re free to exercise their freedom of speech but it would be naive and highly dishonest to believe they are acting in good faith or have the interests of women at heart. They do not and are highly divisive. They are first and foremost opportunists promoting the politics of division who seek leverage and women, as they are for the left establishment, the perfect group for them to benefit from. It has nothing at all to do with purity of feminism or leftism and everything to do with political honesty.
Abortion is still not being commissioned & women are rightfully angry. As much I defend women in Britain against sectarianism, lies & inaccuracy, it is absolutely fair to say this cause is largely ignored by top-hitters particularly where abortion is concerned with talk centred on the fall-out from America and infiltration of far right elements. The problems are much closer to home.
The house is on fire. But it has been on fire for decades in multiple rooms. There is no one single fire to fight and those extinguishing the flames can’t isolate the proximity of women to other toxic flames when it comes to letting women speak of the reality of their rights and threats to the quality of life of their children.
When letting women speak, surely it can be permitted – if not accepted or agreed with by all – that a speaker who has expressly stated abortion can be forfeited as a legitimate casualty in this battle against self ID, will be a cause for struggle and discomfort for many women including me. Because context awakens political principles laid down during formative political development long before single issue firefighting came along and they can’t always be sacrificed in the name of it. If letting women speak, against the mix of these local dynamics, feeling uneasy is neither unreasonable or surprising. It’s not an order or a demand, it just is. A reminder that place and principles matter even when our own side betrays us. Especially when they do.