At the 'Teapot Level' All over Ireland, Women Bridge Political, Religious Rifts

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While the male politicians talk peace for Northern Ireland in the high reaches of various governments, the women of Ireland work for it at the grassroots, or teapot, level.

A selection of those women - Catholics and Protestants - will visit Boston University for a Nov. 10-13 conference, "Reaching Common Ground: A Conference of Irish and American Women." The conference was organized by Elizabeth Shannon, wife of a former U.S. ambassador to Ireland, the late William V. Shannon. She understands that women of the North have been - and continue to be - the crucial activists in the Irish peace process.

In Ireland a few months ago, I met with many women representative of those heading to America. In Belfast, there was Kathleen Feenan, swishing the leaves around in a brown pot, ready to pour tea for Anna McVicker from Shankill and Rita Wetherall from Bangor as they met to plan a Women's Information Day.

Feenan will join 60 women at the conference - 20 each from Belfast, Dublin and Boston - to ten their stories of coping with domestic and economic violence as they struggle to build local community. Shannon's hope is that these voices will sound a loud and clear call for women's rights in Ireland.

Women are gathering in more than 500 interdenominational groups in urban and rural areas of the North. They tell their stories over a cup of tea at Monthly Information Days, a forum for issues such as drug abuse, gambling, joy riding, education, teenage training programs, employment, health care, contraception and reproductive rights.

There is no imposed agenda. The women plan the day, choose a topic, invite a speaker with expertise, ask questions, then make their own decisions and act to improve their local situations. Their problem-solving has been praised by Ireland's President Mary Robinson, who said it differed from the style used "in the public centers of our society." Robinson, who evoked criticism in political circles when she visited West Belfast in 1993, said, "Women have fresh and imaginative skills of dialogue and are setting a more open, flexible and compassionate style of leadership."

Feenan began the Belfast Women's Information Group in 1980. She said women were fed up with being isolated at home. They came together just to talk. Feenan said few women in Northern Ireland had been spared violence - a son or husband killed or in jail, a child unable to get a job because she or he is Catholic.

Women are left to hold the family together.

Feenan said information was the key ingredient for a woman to gain confidence, to speak out and get a wee bit of power." Women reach across religious and political divides. One month they might meet in the mostly Protestant Shankill and the next time on the Falls Road in Catholic Belfast.

"I'm not denying there's fear," Feenan said, "but we won't let the divide keep us from meeting."

My next cup of tea was at the Lamp-lighter Community Restaurant, a "chip shop" at lower Ormeau, the Gasworks area in South Belfast where unemployment exceeds 58 percent. The shop was crowded with women enjoying a minimally priced meal during their lunch break.

The majority of them had found jobs by meeting with the woman who founded the restaurant - Joyce McCartan, a leading figure in the women's movement. …