Helen McEntee, Minister for Justice, has something about her of Anne of Green Gables, that timeless, early feminist role model. A serious, thoughtful demeanour underscores a strong survival instinct and a dedication to duty worn like an old-fashioned cloak. At the moment those duties are such as might floor a small army.
She has responsibility for the “ambitious” package of legislation on violence against women in Ireland. But right now, her urgent task is international too: minding the Mother Courages, the thousands of female heads of household making perilous journeys from Ukraine to get their families to safety in Ireland.
She addresses this emotive issue with methodical determination and an absence of virtue signalling. One thing she didn't address was the National Women's Council of Ireland (NWCI) "protest" rally last Saturday ahead of today's International Women's Day. She wasn't asked to. Neither were any women from Government parties.
The exclusion of McEntee, the woman on Ireland’s frontline against gender violence and global displacement of women was, I believe, not only incomprehensible but catastrophic for the NWCI.
For well over a week, the NWCI failed to read the country: the talk on corners and coffee shops was Ukraine and the burning question was “will you open your house to a refugee? And how?”
Helen McEntee was the person to tell us.
But the women’s council didn’t seek that good counsel. Yes, they did announce last Friday that there would be a moment’s silence for Ukraine. And yes, the Ukraine invasion hadn’t happened when the NWCI came up with the idea of marginalising certain women politicians and focusing instead on Opposition women such as Mary Lou McDonald, who had star billing. But when the world changed two weeks ago, they just became more entrenched.
And their timing wasn’t just off on Ukraine. Lionising McDonald at that point was also unfortunate. The rally controversy raged against the backdrop of the resignation of Sinn Féin TD Violet-Anne Wynne, who claimed she had been subjected to “psychological warfare” in the party and seemed equally cut that McDonald had not acknowledged the birth of her new baby. The neglect of that little symbol of sisterhood hurt: a belated present did nothing to assuage the post-partum pain.
Like the NWCI minute's silence for Ukraine, it was too little too late.
Semantics have a way of catching up with questionable agendas: vague language, as Orwell noted, is where the truth hides out
As criticisms of the NWCI rolled in, semantics took over. The title “protest rally” instead of the traditional women’s march became the justification. “Why Government Ministers would just assume they [would] be entitled to a slot at a protest rally is outrageous,” said the NWCI’s head of campaigns and mobilisation.
The list of women speakers appeared to grow in exact ratio to the size of the controversy, until eventually the name Mary Lou McDonald (one of the original “keynote” speakers) was lost in the welter.
But semantics have a way of catching up with questionable agendas: vague language, as Orwell noted, is where the truth hides out. Rachel English’s question to Orla O’Connor, director of the women’s council, on Morning Ireland last Friday was so specific, there was no hiding place.
“A question raised by your critics is why is it appropriate to have the Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald speak when the IRA has been responsible for some pretty appalling crimes against women?” asked English.
“Because we have to engage with all parties,” replied O’Connor. English snatched that hostage to fortune and ran with it. Because the one thing the NWCI were not doing was “engaging with all parties”. But why?
And crucially, why did the director of the NWCI find herself unable to condemn IRA violence at that moment on our national airwaves?
It is hardly because the communications officer was once parliamentary secretary to McDonald (she later worked for longer for Social Democrat Gary Gannon). Or because the head of the extraordinarily titled “campaigns and mobilisation” is a former Sinn Féin adviser and a former member of the party’s Ard Chomhairle. They are career feminists and there is, and must be, a presumption of professionalism which transcends their political affiliations.
Challenge an orthodoxy and you are not a 'real' feminist, according to the council of funded feminists
What is deeply troubling for lifelong feminists is that what was once the very pluralist women’s council is now a “protest” platform requiring a homogeneity of ideas associated with certain political parties.
Fighting for women’s rights has always been a political issue. But feminists came from all walks of political life – left, right and centre. Right now, it seems as if there is only one, true, holy and apostolic feminism. Challenge an orthodoxy and you are not a “real” feminist, according to the council of funded feminists.
Excluding speakers because they are from centrist Coalition parties is not a political act. It is bigoted. How ironic that the NWCI’s recent “identity refresh” promoting “youthful ambition” and “progressive values” should have had the opposite effect.
The National Women’s Council is funded largely from the public purse and works under the governance of a board of executive directors.
The real questions are for the board of the NWCI. How satisfied are they that the organisation of last Saturday’s rally upheld the values and standards of the council? Is the council happy that, because of the exclusion of women from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party there now exists the perception of a coincidence of interest between the National Women’s Council and Sinn Féin?
The real regulator of the NWCI is the Irish public.
With it, pluralism is the touchstone for survival.