Lost in transition? Republican women and the peace process

Women may occupy senior political roles in Sinn Féin but many feel erased from history

Mary Lou McDonald,  the  president of Sinn Féin, and  vice-president Michelle O’Neill at the party’s ard fheis last year. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Mary Lou McDonald, the president of Sinn Féin, and vice-president Michelle O’Neill at the party’s ard fheis last year. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images


August 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of events which many see as the start of the Troubles, a conflict which engulfed the North of Ireland from 1969 until its peace accord of 1998, claiming over 3,600 lives and injuring over 22,000 people.

As with previous manifestations of armed republicanism in Irish history, women were central figures within the Provisional IRA throughout the Troubles. But what happens to such women after confict has ended? During the transition, the rhetoric of equality and rights tends to mask the reconstruction of patriarchal power.

While this article shows that the Irish peace process was an ambiguous period for republican women, simplified suggestions that female combatants, such as republican women return to prewar domestic life conceals their agency and overlooks the nuanced complexities involved within a cohort of women who do not fit the gendered archetype.

Given the pain, loss and trauma associated with the Troubles, however, there are many who believe that the focus should be on the victims of political violence, not the protagonists. However, if we wish to understand the complex ways in which non-state militant movements emerge and sustain themselves, then we need to examine the experiences of combatant women, as well as men.

Commemoration & the ‘Invisibility’ of Women

Even though women have always been central to war and armed groups globally, their roles are frequently precluded or erased from the historical record; the post-Troubles commemorative landscape in Northern Ireland is no exception.

Commemoration plays a significant and deeply influential role in the shaping of collective memories and dominant narratives of wartime roles and events. It is, however, as much a process of forgetting as it is remembering. As well embodying a highly selective process, commemorative work is also highly gendered. More often than not, the male protagonist dominates the commemorative landscape with a notable relative absence of militant women.

When I commenced my research with republican women in 2012 and 2013 there was a palpable flurry of activism among interviewees who were channelling energies into various mechanisms for recognising women’s contribution to the republican movement. Much of these commemorative actions were born out of a collective frustration with their perpetual invisibility in republican memorialisation.

There exists a broad consensus among former female IRA members that republican acts of memorialisation during the peace process period are not reflecting their experiences or contributions in a meaningful or accurate way, despite the fact that most also stated that “the movement was doing its best” to include women. “Siobhan” from Derry, a former prisoner, stated: “I think if I hear the words ‘son, father, husband’ once more then I’m going to squeal because you’d nearly think that women played no role at all in the IRA.”

While many interviewees highlight wall murals, republican songs, republican functions as prominent examples of “women’s invisibility”, it the prison protest period of 1976 to 1981 that causes much frustration.

The prison protests of the late 1970s and early 1980s remains a dominant focal point for republican commemoration, with the faces of the 10 men who died on hunger strike in 1981 dominating wall murals, commemorative parades, books, and documentaries, among others. In 2001, a 10ft figurative sculpture depicting a masked man in military uniform, wearing dark glasses and a beret was erected in Derry city cemetery to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the hunger strikes, much to the chagrin of many republican women.

Many women were concerned and frustrated that their prison protest experiences in Armagh jail, including three hunger strikers Mairéad Farrell, Mary Doyle and Mairéad Nugent in 1980, were being overlooked. In addition to the women in Armagh Jail, upon their imprisonment in 1973 for their part in IRA bombings in London, Dolores and Marian Price embarked on a hunger strike in a campaign to be repatriated to a prison in Northern Ireland where IRA prisoners were designated as special category status, a status not granted to IRA prisoners in England. The hunger strike of the Price sisters lasted over 200 days with both women being force-fed by prison authorities for 167 of them.

And yet, the story and experiences of the Price sisters and those of Armagh Jail remain relatively overlooked in the pantheon of republican prison experiences. The perennial question among most republican women I interviewed is “were we not in Armagh on the [prison] protest also?” As one former Armagh prisoner told me: “women have just been wiped out of history and even with regards to the hunger strike and that. Some people are making documentaries or writing books about it, and it’s like Armagh didn’t exist and that can be very frustrating.”

While republican commemorative endeavours in the early years of the peace process reflected a largely masculine vision of “republican military contributions”, republican women began articulating their own “alternative” forms of commemoration such as memorial gardens, drama and plays, writing and publishing their own stories, establishing their own history museum. In the aftermath of the 1994 IRA ceasefire, the Falls Women’s Centre produced a video documentary entitled What Did You Do in the War Mammy?, based on interviews and testimonies from republican women. The Irish Republican History Museum located in Conway Street just off the Falls Road in west Belfast contains many references and exhibits of women’s wider contribution to the struggle, opened in 2007 and was the culmination of years of work by former prisoner Eileen Hickey.

Another of Eileen’s initiatives in documenting women’s history culminated in the 2011 book publication of In the Footsteps of Anne, a vast collection of personal testimonies of female ex-prisoners located across a myriad of eclectic military roles.

In 2007, the Women’s Garden of Remembrance opened in the grounds of the Roddy McCorley Society, a prominent republican club located on the Glen Road in West Belfast.

In 2012, a mobile exhibition entitled Women In Struggle, which documented women’s multiple contributions to the republican struggle toured towns and cities across Ireland. In June 2012 I attended an innovative audio and visual exhibition in West Belfast called Captured Voices, which documented the experiences of republican women during state raids on their homes and the incarceration of their loved ones because of the conflict.

The struggle for recognition of women’s republican roles represents a continuity of struggle against sexist and patriarchal attitudes which date to the very birth of the Provisional republican movement. The peace process therefore is merely a new tier of patriarchy which republican women have a long-standing history of resisting.

From the Front-lines of War to the Side-Lines of Peace? The Irish Peace Process

The peace process years witnessed seismic shifts within the republican movement as it transitioned from “revolutionary armed actions” to its current position as a constitutional party engaged in electoral politics. A major focus of my book explores the changes within provisional republicanism during conflict transition and how these impacted upon the political struggles of republican women. It finds that the shoe-horning of political activism into elite, male-dominated peace talks, coupled with the zealous pursuit of electoral politics, squeezed many of the political spaces created by republican women through the conflict years.

Despite the centrality of their roles and labour during the years of armed conflict, there was a lack of direct input for republican women during the formal talk’s process. The relative absence of women directly involved in peace negotiations is compounded by the fact that Sinn Féin primarily focused its energies on future constitutional arrangements, policing and justice, and of course most importantly, early prisoner releases. Gender and the position of women in any post-agreement Northern Ireland was largely ignored by Sinn Féin and all major political parties except for the Women’s Coalition.

The lack of meaningful input within the negotiations is further compounded by the ambiguous demise of the Sinn Féin women’s department during this period. Established in 1979, the department was a prominent and potent feminist platform, advocating around issues which at the time were deemed highly controversial such as divorce, access to contraception, domestic violence and Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) equality, among others.

The department was incredibly important for republican feminists. As a direct result of its agitation, Sinn Féin became the first political party in Ireland to provide child-care at its annual ard fheis (party conference); a subsequent motion at the 1986 ard fheis ensured that the party would pay child-care costs when such facilities are unavailable at party meetings or functions.

When asked about the ending of the women’s department, nobody in my research could pin-point the date or the reasons for its demise. There was no great fanfare, no statement from the party hierarchy announcing the ending of the department, no vast restructuring of the party apparatus; according to most interviewees, the women’s department just “fell away” with the advent of the peace process. While the women’s department is lost in “the fog of peace”, at a time when all attention and energies were focused on peace negotiations, the Sinn Féin equality department emerges in the years after the 1998 peace accord.

The merging of gender and women’s equality with other political issues within what would be called the catch-all equality department meant that what was once a radical tool for republican feminism was replaced with the gender-neutral terminology of citizenship, equality and rights, therefore removing the gender specifics of women’s struggle. What emerged in its place, the equality department, bore little or no resemblance to the radical politics and feminist struggles that went before in the women’s department.

Continuity of activism

While the post-Troubles landscape contains many moments of loss, republican women have made significant progress within constitutional politics when compared with other political parties, and Sinn Féin is accredited with a strong record of promoting women.

Furthermore, many of their current and former elected female representatives in the North of Ireland are former IRA prisoners. Notwithstanding their relative successes in entering formal politics in relatively significant numbers, most have also retained their grassroots, community activism, indicating the importance placed on both sites of political activism. Despite avenues and opportunities to the upper echelons of executive power, the postwar politics of republican women comprises a hybrid, or dual struggle, encompassing both formal and informal activism.

While conventions suggest that once the crisis of war ends, women return to their “pre-conflict roles”, the stories of republican women suggest otherwise. Their politicisation and mobilisation during the Troubles did not end with the signing of the GFA and today, they remain full-time political activists.

Female Combatants after Armed Struggle: Lost in Transition?by Niall Gilmartin is published by Routledge

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