Gendering constitutional conversations surrounding Irish unity
by Hollie ENNIS
10 August 2022
As part of the Fiéle an Phobail programme, Fidelma Ashe, professor of politics at the University of Ulster and member of the Transitional Justice Institute, presented the findings of the recent report, “Gendering constitutional conversations: Women’s inclusion through constitutional discussion”, which details the project that Ashe and her colleagues, Eilish Rooney and Joanna McMinn, undertook at the Transitional Justice Institute. The report highlights the demand and need for the greater inclusion of women in the discussion surrounding constitutional politics.
Ashe outlined how this was achieved through workshops of 20 grassroots-level women’s groups from the north, south, and the border county regions. She expressed how the workshops served as safe spaces for women to discuss the politically sensitive issue of a border poll. This safeness was crafted through the researchers adopting no official stance on unity. The research revealed that women desire the creation of safe spaces to discuss sensitive topics and become further informed. It also highlighted other concerns, such as the lack of women’s involvement in decision-making processes and the lack of clarity felt by women in the processes surrounding constitutional debates.
The recommendations from the report were then briefly discussed; prominent takeaway factors were the call for recognition and investment of women’s participation, as well as addressing the structural/cultural barriers preventing women’s participation and safety.
Following Ashe’s presentation, two other panellists, Claire Hackett and Sarah Creighton, shared their responses to the research, with the session concluding with audience questions. Claire Hackett, in her response, reiterated the importance of establishing a process, particularly one inherently linked to the ideals of participation and inclusion. However, as she subsequently pointed out, this leads to the more significant question of who will take responsibility for the development and oversight of such a process. Further, she commended the focus on providing a safe space for discussion. She expressed the need to go further and “name the threats” that present barriers to women’s safety and inclusion in constitutional debate and processes.
Sarah Creighton expressed the importance of the research, not only in displaying the increase in conversations surrounding the topic of unity in the past years, but the cross-community and cross-border nature of the study. Creighton remarked that although conversations are occurring in unity, it is often “people talking among themselves”. Providing a unionist perspective, she commented on the importance of including female voices and providing a safe space for female opinion. She expressed this as necessary, as political unionism is often viewed as “white, male and conservative”. Furthermore, on the issue of inclusion, Creighton highlighted the need for expansion beyond gender, to incorporate minorities and ensure grassroots engagement.
Overall, this informative and thought-provoking discussion served as a basis to bring into focus the gendered lens. This lens is often left on the periphery when debate and processes surrounding constitutional politics are envisioned. However, it is evident — due to the findings reported by Ashe and the subsequent discussion — that there is a demand and need for ensuring greater inclusion and safeguarding of women’s voices in constitutional debate and processes.