The Stormont House Agreement was intended to augment Northern Ireland’s earlier peace agreements, contending with unresolved issues relating to the legacy of the Troubles, as well as other sources of political contestation, including the devolution of Corporation Tax and welfare reform. The all-party talks that led to the agreement were billed as a resumption of the 2013 failed Haass-O’Sullivan talks, which had sought to deal with issues around the past as well as flags, emblems and parades. The intervening year had seen the Northern Ireland Assembly come close to collapse, so there was some relief when agreement was reached in December of last year.
As this series has sought to explore, central to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was the commitment to address gender inequalities in Northern Irish society, including women’s right to “full and equal political participation” – a commitment which has yet to be fulfilled. Yet there is nothing in the Stormont House Agreement to suggest progress towards this promise. Quite the opposite; the deal contains much that will impede such progress. It has two main elements: austerity measures and dealing with the past. The impact of both elements on women was not acknowledged, but each should be greeted with alarm by advocates of women’s rights.
UN Security Council Resolution 1325 formally acknowledges women’s right to participate in all aspects of conflict prevention and resolution, post conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding. In December 2013, at the Stormont Parliament Buildings, an ‘Inquiry into the Actions and Level of Implementation of UNSCR 1325 Women, Peace and Security for Women in Northern Ireland since the Peace Process’ was held. The inquiry took into account a broad range of issues, including the impact of the conflict on women’s continuing economic inequality in Northern Ireland; the fate of women’s groups; the level of implementation of the Good Friday Agreement’s commitment to the ‘full and equal political participation of women’, and the rights of women victims of the conflict.
In relation to each of these issues, the SHA offers no progress. Indeed, the one and only time women are mentioned in the fourteen pages of the Agreement is in relation to “outstanding commitments” where there is a passing nod towards the Bill of Rights and other equality issues, including the “advancement of women in public life”.
The austerity measures contained in the first two pages of the SHA will impact on women to a disproportionate extent and will act to prevent their “full and equal political participation”. The extension of welfare reform, even with the temporary supplementary payments to ease the impact of cuts, will make many women’s lives more difficult.
One of the worrying elements of Universal Credit is the single household payment which is to go routinely to one member of the household. Even in the most equal household, this payment to one person will represent a loss of independent income for women. Universal Credit (UC) changes could mark the start of a return to a ‘male breadwinner’ model in couple households. Universal Credit aims to “make work pay” through a system of earnings disregards and a tapering of withdrawal of benefits as earnings rise. However, this help towards making work pay is available to only one person in a couple household and the income of a second low paid worker will be taxed at a very high marginal rate. While this improves the incentive for one person in a couple household to move into employment, it may be a disincentive to second earners (mainly women) entering or continuing to work. A report for the Scottish Executive warned that such second earners could lose up to 4.5% of net income. The loss is likely to be even more in Northern Ireland where childcare is the most expensive in the UK, outside London. This comes on top of the disproportionate hit that women have already taken through the years of austerity, causing women in Northern Ireland to establish the “empty purse” campaign.
But it is the cuts to benefits that are being introduced as part of welfare reform that will have the most devastating effects on women. Women manage family poverty, which means they do most of the worrying when ends simply won’t meet. And women with large families are most at risk of being in severe and persistent poverty. Yet, it appears, the SHA accepts the imposition of a benefit cap on households. While in London the cap has affected those claiming Housing Benefit, in Northern Ireland where housing costs are lower, 470 families with more than four children will be hit by the cap. So, in a region where abortion is not available and there is no childcare strategy, a woman faced with a fifth or subsequent pregnancy will know that she will not receive a brass farthing towards the upkeep of that child, should she and her partner lose their jobs.
The Welfare Reform Bill, which had passed all but the final stages in the Assembly during February, was withdrawn suddenly after one of the government parties, Sinn Fein, withdrew support for it on 9th March. The party was concerned that they had agreed to an inadequate level of funding for the proposed system of ‘top-ups’ to help those hit hardest by welfare reform. It is unclear when the Bill will return to the Assembly but it is unlikely to be before the Westminster General Election.
Austerity and the legacy of conflict
A report for the Commission for Victims and Survivors found that four out of ten people in the region have suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because of the conflict. PTSD exacerbates all forms of mental ill-health. For women who are trying to manage poverty on a day-to-day basis, such daily stress exacerbates both their PTSD and other illnesses. Yet many of those victims of the conflict, now struggling with mental illness, are likely to lose up to £5,000 a year as a result of welfare reform. This is because the Personal Independence Payment, which is to replace Disability Living Allowance, is designed to cut by one fifth the numbers who receive this benefit. Modelling by the Stormont Department that oversees welfare reform suggests that a quarter of those currently receiving DLA will not receive PIP while a further third will see their benefit reduced, with those receiving DLA for reasons of mental ill-health most likely to be cut.
The 2013 concluding observations of the CEDAW committee recognised this in its concerns that “the austerity measures introduced by the State party have resulted in serious cuts in funding for organisations providing social services to women…[and] have had a negative impact on women with disabilities and older women.” The Committee “is further concerned that budgetary cuts in the public sector, disproportionately affect women, due to their concentration in this sector”.
The provision in the SHA for 20,000 public sector jobs to be cut will be a big blow to young women studying today in the hope of getting a decent job in the future. While the redundancies are ‘voluntary’, the 20,000 jobs will be gone forever. Women make up 65 per cent of the public sector workforce, which provides the best quality work for women; the gender pay gap for full time employees is half that in the private sector. Family-friendly policies are more available in the public sector. Even if jobs become available in the private sector for women, it is unlikely they will match the pay and conditions of the jobs lost. This would result in a widening of the overall gender pay gap and worsening levels of female poverty.
In relation to dealing with the past, pressure from victims did lead the Stormont administration to establish an Historical Abuse Inquiry to “examine if the institutions or the state failed in their duties towards children under 18 in their residential care and if failings were systemic”. However, the Inquiry does not include examination of the abuse suffered by women of 18 and over in the Magdalene Laundries or Mother and Baby Homes. An estimated 30,000 women were confined in these institutions, run ostensibly to house what the institutions termed “fallen women”. Amnesty International has urged the Northern Ireland executive to launch a “thorough and effective investigation into allegations of abuse suffered within these institutions”, including inhumane and degrading treatment, arbitrary deprivation of liberty and forced labour. Despite lobbying by the women’s sector, the SHA failed to deal with the abuse of women in the Inquiry. The parties were evidently unwilling to include any suggestion that the past might be gendered.
The fact that the word “women” appears only once in the Stormont House Agreement does not mean that it will not have a huge impact on the women of Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, it will be overwhelmingly a negative impact. The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day events in Belfast was “no peace without women”. The peace process had promised women full and equal participation in building a new Northern Ireland society. The Stormont House Agreement suggests this promise has been forgotten.