Insulting the women of Northern Ireland

Racist abuse directed at the politician Anna Lo is indicative of the disrespect shown to women in Northern Ireland who are speaking up for peace at a time of rising tensions. Anne McVicker told Niki Seth-Smith it is time to go "back to basics".

Anne McVicker
6 May 2014

This article is part of 5050's series on women and peacebuilding in Northern Ireland.

On International Women's Day this year in Belfast, loyalists directed racist abuse at Anna Lo, a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA). There was a rally from the Art College to Belfast City Hall, where the women were to be welcomed by the Lord Mayor. I hear there was a problem with loyalist flag protesters?

Well it just so happened that the flag protesters took over. They placed themselves strategically where our stage was. The crowd started to take control and edge forward to force the flag protesters back - the crowd was absolutely brilliant. The Lord Mayor wanted to meet the rally as has happened ever year, but security had come out and said to me that given that the flag protesters were there, it could be quite volatile if the Lord Mayor came out. I said that's okay, there was a reception later at City Hall and he could meet us there. I had forgotten about Anna Lo.

Anna Lo is a member of the Alliance Party and has recently come under attack for proposing that flags and sectarian murals be removed on the route of the Giro d'Italia cycling tour to be held this month. Was that the issue that fuelled the abuse against her? 

Number one, she's Alliance, then there's how the flag debate started. And she's Chinese. They started to turn on her: they said, "Go back to China, you Chink", absolutely awful. Anna couldn't actually get off the stage. We were trying to get the police - there was only one set of steps so that was the way she had to exit. The police weren't prepared to get involved. Someone doesn't need to touch you for it to be an assault - they were shouting into her face, and there were things thrown on stage, empty coffee cups aimed at Anna. I have to say she got a great reception [from the rally crowd]. It was people from the rally that made the corridor that got her down the steps. We, the rally organisers, have put in a complaint with the police, which will go to the Ombudsman. 


International Women's Day, Anna Lo is far right. Demotix / Seah Harkin

IWD flag protesters.jpg

International Women's Day rally with flag protestors. Demotix / Stephen Barnes

So there are several factors here: her gender, her race, and her decision to discuss issues she has said herself, "a lot of people are maybe scared of speaking out about". 

Anna is a brave woman. Today, she made a comment that Ireland is a very small place; it would make more sense for it to be united. They're all on the radio, on the Nolan Show, on The View last night, saying ‘how dare she, how dare she make a statement like that?’

Didn't the abuse also show disrespect to women more generally, given that this was International Women's Day and women were being silenced? 

Yes it was. There was a young speaker, Meadhbh Bermingham, only twenty, talking about her experience as a young gay woman. There were people saying 'pack o' lezzies'. Usually the reception in the City Hall would be around 100 people. Because of what happened it was crowded, last count it was 380 and we ended up in a bigger room, the ballroom. It was great; everyone had a great time.

Given that encounter, how can women in Northern Ireland and women's groups reach out to the flag protesters?

This has been going on since the Christmas before last. They're still assembling every Saturday [outside Belfast City Hall] and there'll be more of them if they know something's going on. We need to go back to basics with them: talk. Even at the [International Woman's Day] rally there were conversations going on. One of the flag protesters said 'this doesn't concern me, I've got two sons'. Someone from the rally said, 'if you had daughters, wouldn't you want them to be treated like your sons are?' It's really about going back to basics. 


Anne McVicker. Demotix / Sean Harkin

Women's centres continue to play a a crucial part in the work of peace building and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Yet there appears to be a deliberate move by the government to  de-politicise the women's centres.

That's been going on for a long time. I remember back when I was director of Shankill Women's Centre. It must have been about 1996 and we were about to go into a partnership with the North and West Health and Social Services Trust and move into this big social services building. It was a really big jump for us. I remember being put under pressure from social services: 'Can you not call yourselves a family centre?' It would have made it easier but we stuck to our guns. Now some of the centres work with men. That takes services and resources away from women and children. I object to that. There are already agencies that provide services for men. Some of the women's centres have lost their way.

But women's centres are doing great work in education, training, support, drop-ins - they have different specialisms: some specialise in counselling, or have excellent advice provision… some really innovative work is going on. In terms of welfare reform, through RTA (Reclaim the Agenda) we have been bringing women's centres together, protesting, doing pickets at various government offices. The protest against the Welfare Reform Bill belongs really to the women's centres. 

Through the Haass-O'Sullivan talks, there is a new commitment from government to ‘Deal with the Past’. Are women's voices being listened to here?

You have to remember that the political parties invited Haass; it was never intended to be based in the community. The whole process was about the parties getting agreement….you have a dearth of women in the political parties, there were only two women at the talks: Naomi Long and Jennifer McCann. The Haass [draft] proposals are probably workable, but there isn't the willingness of the parties to push them through. In the absence of that, we don't have a chance.

Personally I think victims and survivors are being used by the government. They pull in the victims saying, 'How do the victims feel? How are they going to get justice?' Well maybe if the government pulled their finger out and started agreeing before the survivors die? Quite honestly, the politicians have done nothing for us. It's just a carve up between the DUP [Democratic Unionist Party] and Sinn Fein. The DUP are in a situation where they have to appease grassroots loyalism, they're trying to put the PUP [Progressive Unionist Party] out of business. That's the game that they're playing and if they're playing that game nothing's going to happen.

Incidents of domestic violence have tripled since the Good Friday Agreement, look at the stuff that's coming out on sexual abuse. There's an awful lot more to come. While the conflict was going on, there was a lot of stuff that wasn't dealt with. Gerry Adam's niece was an example of that: because she was Gerry Adam's niece, whenever she went to the police to make a complaint, the police were more concerned with getting Gerry Adams than dealing with that. There were a couple of brothers sentenced last week who abused one of the brother’s daughter and son. They were connected to the INLA [Irish National Liberation Army]… more is going to come out here. 

What needs to be done to address the gender imbalance in Stormont and the absence of women’s real influence in politics?

The 'Troubles' was a conflict, but they don’t recognize that. That’s why 1325 isn’t implemented. I think if 1325 had been implemented it would have made so much difference with women having a say. The joke has always been that the woman that gets closest to the table is the one that cleans it. This is about countries coming out of conflict and post-conflict reconstruction. They're so bloody arrogant to think they are the only ones that can handle that. What about women, 52 percent of the population?

I don't believe in a woman's party. The Woman's Coalition wasn't about that: it was about trying to promote women, saying women need to be involved. All the parties should do better. It's not just about quotas for political parties, there should be quotas set for public appointments and decision-making bodies. There are 108 MLAs, I think its 18 percent or less who are women. The two women MEPs are a fluke. And the DUP has dynasties: that's why [MEP] Diane Dodd is in there. Anna Lo is standing. It would be a laugh if there were three MEP's who are women! 

Why can't you have affirmative action? It's within the law that they can do that but they choose not to do it. We do it for communities! At Shankill Women's Centre we advertised in Catholic newspapers by putting a statement, 'we welcome applicants from different communities, from Catholic communities'. Everybody had to do it. I don't know what this big deal is, saying we don't do quotas, we don't do affirmative action. I think it's insulting when people say, 'why should women who aren't up to the job end up getting it?' Does that mean people in the PSNI [Police Service of Northern Ireland] are only there because they're female or Catholic or from an ethnic minority group? I find that attitude insulting. 

If women were involved more at all levels, it wouldn't suddenly be 'happy days', but women bring a different perspective. 52 percent of our valuable resources are not being used, are being ignored. I just think we're a poorer society because of that.

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