The politics of defining 'armed conflict' in Northern Ireland

It is hard to see the British Government's resistance to implementing UNSCR 1325 as anything other than denying women and girls their rightful place in post-conflict Northern Ireland. Women in Northern Ireland argue that their full participation at all levels of decision-making is crucial to peacebuilding.

Elizabeth Law Ann Marie Gray
26 June 2014

International Women's Day parade in Belfast, 2013. Demotix / Stephen Barnes

This month, the UK launched its third National Action Plan on Women and Security amid much fanfare. Foreign Secretary William Hague pledged to “lead from the front” in putting women at the centre of peace and security. Yet the British government does not agree that the conflict in Northern Ireland meets the definition of ‘armed conflict’, which they consider essential for implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1325.  The Resolution formally acknowledges women’s right to participate in all aspects of conflict prevention and resolution, post conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding. When asked last year by the Committee to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) why the resolution had not been implemented in Northern Ireland, the UK Head of Delegation replied that “the position of her Government, which had been endorsed by the First Minister of Northern Ireland and the Democratic Unionist Party but not by the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland or Sinn Féin, was that the situation in Northern Ireland did not constitute an armed conflict as defined under international law”.  As a consequence, Northern Ireland, despite it being a post-conflict society, has not been included in the National Action Plan.

Recognition of the right of women to full and equal participation in Northern Ireland was integral to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which also bound the Assembly to pursue “the advancement of women in public life”.  Two years later, the UN Security Council introduced UNSCR 1325 on women, peace and security. In 2009, the UK reported to the UN that “within Northern Ireland, UNSCR 1325 is widely acknowledged as an important international commitment to women’s equality and empowerment”.  However there is little evidence to show the effective implementation of these commitments to women today. Mechanisms set up to deal with the legacy of the conflict, such as Healing Through Remembering and the Consultative Group on the Past, continue to be composed mainly of men with no recognition that women should be equally represented.  Only one woman in twelve members was appointed to the Maze Long Kesh Development Corporation Board, established in 2011 to oversee the development of a peace centre at the former paramilitary prison. The Haass / O’Sullivan talks, which began in the autumn of 2013, were tasked to deal with the legacy of the past and ongoing issues such as flags and parades. The draft report, published following the failure of the talks to reach agreement in December 2013, mentions gender only once, as one of a list of possible themes for consideration through a Commission on Identity, Culture and Tradition.

Why is UNSCR 1325 so important for women in Northern Ireland?

At the Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform (NIWEP) we believe that the full implementation of UNSCR 1325 is crucial. After a Westminster inquiry into the implementation of the Resolution was dropped due to lack of funds in 2011, NIWEP took up the work.  NIWEP has been instrumental in the setting up of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s All Party Group on UNSCR 1325  and it provides the secretariat to the group.  NIWEP’s expertise in women and decision making and on the UNSCR 1325 meant that it was well placed to work with the APG to ensure that the Inquiry was completed.  A significant step in this process was establishment of a panel of experts on women and conflict, women and decision-making and gender equality to hear oral testimony in December 2013.  This allowed the Inquiry to hear directly from women across Northern Ireland (both women from local communities and from women’s NGOs) in open and closed sessions. The inquiry called witnesses from political parties, from equality and human rights bodies, from relevant public bodies and from civil society in general including the trades unions.  Disappointingly, although invited, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) responsible for the Gender Equality Strategy did not give evidence. 

Amongst the most poignant and compelling evidence presented was what women said on violence itself.  Issues relating to women’s safety, fear of crime, sexual violence and domestic violence were raised by many witnesses.  The 2013 gender equality statistics from the OFMDFM found that women had a higher fear for their personal security and of crime in terms of their community settings, at 39 per cent, than men at 26 per cent. The continuing paramilitary threat to women was also addressed – especially in the closed session of the Inquiry.

In post-conflict societies domestic and sexual violence against women often increases or intensifies.  We know that there has been an increase in incidences of domestic and sexual violence in Northern Ireland since the signing of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement. While the gathering of informal testimonies from organisations, including the Women’s Resource and Development Agency, indicates this is linked to the conflict, no research has been carried out to properly assess this. There has been an increasing focus on research looking at the link between the conflict, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental health conditions, yet there has been no in-depth analysis on how the conflict may have normalised violent behaviour within our society, and how this may have affected the proliferation of violence against women. There is also little understanding of conflict-related trauma and the specific impact of this on women. This is a huge oversight in the peacebuilding process and is one reflection of the neglect of gender issues on the part of government in Northern Ireland. 

Domestic violence perpetrated by paramilitaries or those with paramilitary connections against their partners or families was not adequately dealt with during the conflict.  This was due in part to the power wielded by paramilitaries in certain communities where there was suspicion of and hostility to the police. Paramilitaries were also being protected by their organisations, and women feared reporting to the police. Under the terms of the Early Release Scheme included in the Good Friday Agreement, prisoners released on licence committing further crime can be returned to prison.  Expert organisations, including Women’s Aid have reported that women are being pressured by their community not to report domestic violence to the police for this reason.  There is also concern about violence against women being addressed through community restorative justice practices which amount to ‘self policing’ by paramilitary groups.

A worsening situation

Before it was dropped due to lack of funds, the Westminster group collected written and oral evidence for their inquiry (a report will be published in autumn of this year). It found that the mood was deeply pessimistic amongst women in local communities, representatives from expert NGOs and representatives of statutory bodies working on gender issues.  Time and again it was argued that without appropriate and robust intervention nothing will change with regard to women’s representation and that, in fact, the picture will regress further.  In addition to the lack of women in electoral politics and the low numbers of women appointed to public bodies, it was argued that women are being increasingly marginalised within community organisations.  The Panel heard testimony which showed the pressures on women within local communities to be compliant and passive to the ‘set political agenda’ and not to ‘rock the boat’. Witnesses reported that within Republican / Nationalist communities women are silenced because, if they are critical at all, it is seen as a critique of the peace process. In the Protestant / Loyalist communities women do not see any space for actually speaking out and there is still great concern about recruitment to paramilitaries and criminality in both communities. 

The pessimism about women’s representation and ability to influence decisions in peacebuilding is reinforced by the increasing disengagement of young women from politics, and the danger that young women will increasingly see this lack of participation as the norm. Research has shown that the conflict had a profound effect on the lives of young women in Northern Ireland. However, the policy and resource focus continues to be predominantly on young men who are more likely to become engaged in violence.  Young women saw politics in Northern Ireland as tribal and sectarian and saw little value even in voting.

Action is needed

Last year, the CEDAW Committee repeated its call made in 2008 for the implementation of UNSCR 1325, stating that it: “remains concerned at the low representation of women in the post-conflict process in Northern Ireland and the failure to fully implement Security Council Resolution 1325.” On completing a mission to the UK this year, Rashida Manjoo, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, called for the development of strategies and action plans in Northern Ireland “to ensure the increased participation of women at all levels of decision-making and in mechanisms for the prevention, management and resolution of conflict”. Government has yet to respond.

It is essential that post-conflict reconstruction is seen through a gendered analysis so that the impact of the conflict on women is identified, their contribution to the peace is recognised and their needs are met.  It is hard to see government resistance to implementing UNSCR 1325 in Northern Ireland as anything other than denying women and girls their rightful attention and participation, and it is failing to respond to compelling evidence of the impact of the conflict on women.

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