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Belfast Women's Conference

By Frances Shilton, An Phoblacht/Republican News, Newspaper of Sinn Fein—the Irish Republican movement, 9 March 1995

THE PEACE PROCESS offers an apparatus within which we, as republican feminists, can promote and build upon the awareness evident from your presence here. Issues like British disengagement from Ireland need contributions from women and men. From the republican delegation in talks with civil servants, to the organised activities on the streets, there are places for us all.

So said the women republican prisoners in Maghaberry in a message which opened a lively and informative discussion on The Role of Women in the Peace Process, at the Whiterock College of Further Education, in Belfast on Saturday, 4 March as part of the weekend celebrations of International Women's Day.

The discussion was chaired by Maura McCrory from the Falls Womens Centre, with the two speakers, Sinn Fein Councillor Mary Nelis, and Marie Quiery from Clar na mBan, describing how far women have come in the past 25 years, and how they saw their involvement in the peace process.

Mary Nelis described her childhood and early adulthood, in Derry, of the control which men had over women's lives, in the home, at work, and through religion. She described the unhealthy conditions in which they were forced to live, and how it had first led Nelis, and others, to question the system and the society which allowed such injustice. Through the Women's Tenants Associations of the 1960s women found they all had similar concerns, that they did not necessarily want to produce a child every year, or to have their husbands forced to go to England in search of work.

In 1969, she explained, the women had made the Molotov cocktails, and supplied buckets of water and vinegar to counter the CS gas. It was the women who came up with the ingenious idea of using sanitary pads, soaked in a vinegar solution, as gas masks. The men didn't know what they were, she added. They didn't know what they were using!

It was the prison struggle which brought many women to a more overtly political role. Women in the Republican Movement had paid a high price for such involvement she said they have been harassed, imprisoned, tortured, and murdered.

Of the peace process Nelis declared: We are at peace, even if the state is still at war. Women's role in this, she believes, has been vital.

A country run by women would be no better than that run by men, if the system remains brutal and repressive... This is not the kind of power we want in a New Ireland, she concluded.

Marie Quiery said there has always been a debate among women as to whether they should work with men for political and economic change, or should concentrate their energies in the fight for women's rights. In the 1920s there were 800 branches of Cumann na mBan, and women played a significant role in the struggle, only to find this diminished and themselves again consigned to the home. Quiery added that the women of today were determined not to find themselves in a similar situation in the New Ireland. However, since the majority of political parties are male dominated we see men negotiating with and for men.

At the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation recently, two women were brought before that body to represent all the women of Ireland, no attempt was made to reflect the diversity of women's experiences in Ireland. The conflict of interest which is inevitable while working with men has, she said, to be addressed, it should not be submerged to the greater glory of the movement as a whole.