50.50: Feature

Why are Northern Ireland’s women being silenced over Brexit?

Brexit is a disruptive force in women’s lives, yet patriarchy means their opinions are often discounted or ignored

Amanda Ferguson
13 January 2022, 1.12pm
The border between Strabane (Northern Ireland) and Lifford (Republic of Ireland)
Jonathan Porter / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

When women’s voices are excluded, you have to wonder if those doing the excluding didn’t notice, or noticed and just didn’t care.

This is the case in Northern Ireland, which has previously been described as an “armed patriarchy”, where women are routinely excluded from policymaking or permitted only token involvement.

Worse still, when women in Northern Ireland do share their views, they are hounded and abused online (and often off too). Though horrifying, this is perhaps not surprising: Northern Ireland is one of the most dangerous places in Europe to be a woman, with three times as many femicides as England or Wales.

This exclusion is particularly visible in the never-ending Brexit drama, where women’s concerns range from the financial implications to their ability to continue their cross-border lives unimpeded. Remember, some farms straddle the invisible border in Ireland and families may move many times a day between the two jurisdictions.

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“For women, it’s largely not about trucks and tariffs, but about how they live their lives, and they have been excluded from the beginning,” explains Louise Coyle, director of Northern Ireland Rural Women’s Network.

Coyle and Brexit expert Katy Hayward have often been the only women present at high-level meetings involving Westminster cabinet minister Michael Gove, Maroš Šefčovič, the European Union’s point person on Brexit, or the former UK Brexit minister, David Frost.

Coyle describes the situation as “ridiculous”:“There was no attempt to include women in the discussion from the get-go. On how Brexit would impact women, their communities and families.” She told organisers she would not participate in future meetings if the gender imbalance was not addressed.

Hayward, a professor of political sociology at Queen’s University Belfast, agrees – describing Northern Ireland as “a particularly misogynistic society”.

An online ‘abuse fest’

The Northern Ireland Protocol effectively keeps the country in the EU’s single market, so goods can move freely between it and the Republic of Ireland. Checks now take place on some goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. But women are worried about a lack of clarity and the potential impact on social cohesion and community relations between neighbours from different identity backgrounds.

The two main political parties in Northern Ireland have opposing views on the protocol. Irish Republican party Sinn Féin views it as a necessary mitigation against the worst impacts of Brexit, while the British Unionist DUP has repeatedly threatened to withdraw its ministers from the Stormont Executive if the protocol checks on goods are not done away with.

Cross-community peacebuilding workshops and events, which had become normalised in women’s organisations, are now less frequent.

“Women don’t feel safe to be visible on this stuff at the moment,” says Coyle. “We are seeing a chilling effect among Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist women in their willingness to engage in good relations work, so we are back to doing single identity work on the harder topics.

“I think that is coming from the big Unionist parties saying they are anti-protocol.”

Women who gave evidence at a Westminster Northern Ireland affairs committee evidence session last autumn were targeted with sinister and misogynistic online abuse.

“There was an attitude of ‘who are women to be talking about anything?’ and ‘get back in your place’, which was no doubt borne out in smaller ways in local areas,” Coyle says. Coyle herself largely escaped the abuse.

Other women, such as Eileen Weir, a cross-community hero and women’s sector stalwart from the Shankill Women’s Centre in Belfast, were less lucky. Weir gave detailed evidence to the committee, in which she stated factually that the Loyalist Communities Council (an umbrella group representing Loyalist paramilitaries) doesn’t speak for everyone and that community propaganda is rife.

She was targeted online with personalised abuse, which forced her to go ‘underground’ for two weeks. “It caused fear in me,” Weir says. “I am not saying I was threatened or anything would have happened, but I was fearful for myself and that is new for me. I have challenged people all my career.”

Women are being intimidated if they speak out against the agreed narrative of a minority of men

According to Weir, who helps coordinate the 22 groups that make up the Greater North Belfast Women’s Network, many in the women’s sector are having to “work below the radar” for the first time since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement – in part because of the toxicity surrounding Brexit and protocol debates.

“Women are telling me that in-person and online they are being intimidated if they speak out against the agreed narrative of a minority of men,” she says.

Rachel Powell, from the women’s rights group Women’s Resource and Development Agency (WRDA), agrees, describing the online situation as an “abuse fest”.

“It is ridiculous and so common. It’s all connected to patriarchy,” Powell explains. “When women speak about political ideas, it’s controversial and the mansplaining, sexism, misogyny and online abuse that follows from men is so severe, and is marginalising women and girls.

“We need law reform to protect women online. It has to be UK government-wide and for our devolved assembly. There has to be some sort of consequence. If this is the way some people are willing to portray themselves publicly, imagine what they are doing behind closed doors.”

Elaine Crory, also from WRDA, concurs, saying the situation is “out of control”.

She says: “With politics, and particularly with Brexit, there is a feeling it is men’s business. It is such a sensitive topic, they think it is one for Nationalists and Unionists and anyone else who wants to talk about it has to be that first, before anything else […] It’s like ‘How dare you say anything. This is not your topic.’”

Fearful of the future

There is – perhaps – some reason for hope. British foreign secretary Liz Truss was appointed as David Frost’s replacement on the Brexit brief last month, and is due to meet with Maroš Šefčovič today, having already met with the DUP, Sinn Féin and various business leaders.

Louise Coyle is looking forward to a new start. “[Truss’s] previous role as minister for women and equalities will mean she is well placed to understand the disproportionate impact [that] uncertainty – particularly around rights and movement – may have on women,” Coyle says.

But Elaine Crory says the women she works with are concerned about being undervalued and lied to over Brexit, and worried by a lack of control and consent to what is unfolding. They feel besieged, mocked and fearful of the future.

“A lot of Unionist women have told me they understand and know that most English people don’t see Northern Ireland Unionists as British. They are afraid of the British government taking a stance, pushing us into [a new] border poll [on Irish unity],” she explains.

There is a sense, Crory says, that games are being played at the highest level, that “the British government has shafted them and the middle ground is slipping”. “The feeling that Northern Ireland is protected at all costs is slipping, and that will outlast the current [Westminster] government,” she adds.

This could have dangerous repercussions for women. For Crory, the patriarchal nature of Northern Irish society is there for anyone who cares to open their eyes to it. “Once you see it, you can’t stop seeing it.”

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