Feminism, nationalism and the re-ordering of post-war political strategies: the case of the Sinn Féin Women’s Department

Guest Post from Dr Niall Gilmartin, Department of Sociology, National University of Ireland Maynooth.

The post draws from research published in Irish Political Studies and available free online until the end of April at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07907184.2016.1146698

The Sinn Féin Women’s Department emerged at a time of great flux within Provisional republicanism. The kernel of the department resided in the prison protests of the late 1970s and early 1980s, a time when the ‘second front’, the political struggle, began to emerge alongside political violence. Given women’s relatively sizable numbers within both the IRA and Sinn Féin, and given their gendered experiences at the hands of state forces, it was perhaps inevitable that republican women developed a gender or feminist consciousness alongside their nationalist and republican ideology during the early to mid-1970s. This is not to suggest that the Provisional movement was some sort of feminist utopia, immune from the patriarchal norms, values and practices which pervaded wider society. Republican women indeed faced gender struggles within the republican movement, despite the rhetoric of women’s equal role alongside their male comrades. Notwithstanding, the formation of the Sinn Féin Women’s Department represented a significant mechanism for republican feminism where its output was prolific and effective both within the republican movement and within wider working class nationalist and republican communities.

Of course a formal, nationalist and male-led political party is hardly the most hospitable space for the development of strong feminist voices and activism. In appraising the Women’s Department however, it is important not to understate the highly conservative and male-dominated political and social landscape which existed on both sides of the Irish border at this time. While women’s sections in other political parties effectively acted as ‘vote getters’, the Sinn Féin Women’s Department advocated around issues which at the time were deemed highly controversial such as divorce, access to contraception, domestic violence and equality for LGBT, among others. Outside of Sinn Féin, the Women’s Department were instrumental in the establishment of many women’s centres within working class nationalist and republican communities, providing essential support and services, from education to child care. Their agitation within the republican movement was also yielding discernible results. Sinn Féin became the first political party in Ireland to provide child-care at its annual Ard Fheis (party conference); a subsequent motion at the 1986 Ard Fheis ensured that the party would pay child-care costs when such facilities are unavailable at party meetings or functions. Today, Sinn Féin is widely hailed for its relatively progressive stance on women and its sustained commitment to gender equality, despite many recent controversies. The party holds a relatively strong record on female political representatives.

Given its many successes, it is curious that such a prolific and salient republican output seems to ‘disappear’ during the formative years of the peace process. The aftermath of the IRA cessation in 1994 saw Provisional republicanism firmly accelerate its departure from previously ‘revolutionary’ positions to a more institutional standpoint. It is precisely at this moment of great political and ideological change that the Women’s Department ‘fades away’ only to re-emerge in the early 2000’s as the ambiguously titled ‘Equality Department’. Having endured and politically thrived during some of the worst years of armed conflict, I suggest that the ambiguous collapse of the Women’s Department is directly related to the republican movement’s ideological shift to institutional politics within the post-cessation period. The feminist politics of the Women’s Department and the overall movement’s shift towards formal, electoral politics constructed two incompatible strategies; the former, an echo of their ‘revolutionary’ past, the latter, the future constitutional direction of the movement. Sinn Féin’s pursuit of electoral gains in the conflict transition period demanded that strong feminist positions, like the armed struggle itself, be firmly associated with past tactics. The new catch-all ‘Equality Department’ meant that what was once a radical tool for republican feminism was replaced with the gender-neutral terminology of ‘citizenship’, ‘equality’ and ‘rights’, therefore removing the gender specifics of women’s struggle. What emerged in its place, the Equality Department, bore little or no resemblance to the radical politics and feminist struggles that went before in the Women’s Department.

Unquestionably, women’s struggle was marginalised in the mid to late 1990s, yet that is but a partial telling of the story. In particular, there is no suggestion that Sinn Féin was excluding women. On the contrary, the party has maintained an impressive record of female representation across all ranks and roles in the party. What I argue here is that it was feminism, not women, which was now supplementary to post-war requirements. Therefore, it is important to link the Provisional’s shift towards institutional methods with the diminishing feminist politics associated with the Women’s Department. The Equality Department, the body which replaced the Women’s Department actively trained women in areas of ‘leadership’ in order that they progress through the ranks of the party, yielding many benefits for the party’s increase in female candidates. While unquestionably a noble endeavour, the adoption of relatively mainstream and liberal feminist mechanisms such as quotas and the utilisation of a discourse of citizenship and rights in order to pursue gender equality illustrate the perilous downfalls for women’s radical political organising within institutional-orientated political movements.

It is important to unequivocally state that my research reveals full support among republican women for Sinn Féin’s current endeavours and approaches to gender equality. However, there was also a unanimous belief that the demise of the Women’s Department represented a significant loss for republican women and the broader Sinn Féin party. While the story of the rise, achievements and ambiguous decline of the Sinn Féin Women’s Department provides important insights into the fluctuating political and ideological outlook of Provisional republicanism, it also speaks to wider debates regarding the pursuit of women’s rights and equality. The reconstitution of the Women’s Department during the peace process and the sense of loss that engendered among republican women reaffirms that while the institutional staples such as rhetorical affirmations, positive discrimination, gender quotas and legislative guarantees regarding women’s equality are positives, they are clearly insufficient to meet the specific demands and needs of working-class republican women. The ambiguous ending of the Women’s Department, I suggest, is indicative of the limitations of pursuing a feminist struggle solely within formal party politics. Given the inextricable and correlating links between the dilution of feminist politics and the institutionalisation of Provisional republicanism, it brings into question those who consistently call for the ‘adding’ of women to formal political parties and institutions as the most nascent avenue in the pursuit of feminism and women’s rights.


One thought on “Feminism, nationalism and the re-ordering of post-war political strategies: the case of the Sinn Féin Women’s Department

  1. Probably SF women don’t feel they need a distinct and radical feminist branch now that the people decide who leads their party rather than an army council.

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