Masculinity, Violence and the Irish Peace Process

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This paper examines the role of gender in the north of Ireland. This is not to imply that a study of gender relations on its own is adequate to explain recent political developments. Indeed, there is a need to challenge all one-dimensional and reductionist analyses such 05 those which concentrate solely on ethnicity and including Marxist approaches which are excessively economistic. Whilst giving special attention to gender issues, therefore, the paper will also recognise that these cannot be fully understood unless they are located within the context of social and economic change as well as the politics of ethnic and national identities.

Introduction: talking about men

The central focus of the paper is masculinity-how it has been implicated in almost 30 years of conflict and how it is likely to impact on Northern Irish society in the future. This is not to imply that the concept of masculinity is itself unproblematic. As MacInnes (1998a: 2) observes, 'masculinity does not exist as the property, character trait or aspect of identity of individuals'. Rather, it is 'an ideology produced by men as a result of the threat posed to the survival of the patriarchal sexual division of labour by the rise of modernity' (p.45). Nevertheless, there are constructions of masculinity which are more closely linked than others to the identities of real men and these shall be central to the discussion which follows. As Messner (1997: 2) submits, 'like it or not, men today must deal, on some level, with gender as a problematic construct rather than as a natural, taken-for-- granted reality'. At the same time, we must be sensitive to the fact that the reproduction of masculinities will take slightly different forms from one social setting to another. Thus we must be aware, as Messner (1997: 49) warns, of 'the particular experience of different masculinities of class, race, ethnicity, generation and sexual orientation'. For example, in Northern Ireland we can speak of hegemonic expressions of masculinity, the construction of which has owed a great deal to the activities and codes of behaviour of working-class males. In terms of political power, however, male hegemony remains rooted in economic and socio-cultural strength. Thus those men who are not marginalised by hegemonic forms of masculinity are nevertheless socially excluded by bourgeois male hegemony.

The paper will focus on certain key areas in Northern Irish civil society in which hegemonic masculinity (and ultimately male hegemony) have been constructed and continue to be reproduced. Having discussed the place of men and masculinity in Northern Ireland, there will follow some brief analysis of the attempt by the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition (NIWC) to formally bring gender politics to the forefront of political life in the north of Ireland for the first time and in so doing to seek to challenge patriarchal ideologies.

Throughout the period now commonly known as the peace process, there have been frequent references to the need to take the gun out of Irish politics. Less common, however, have been demands that the gun (and, indeed, the knife or even the fist) should be taken out of Irish society in general. Perhaps this simply reflects the fact that such a demand would be uncontentious and is, therefore, scarcely worth introducing into public debate. The fact is, however, that in 1998 nine women died in Northern Ireland as a direct result of domestic violence and 13,000 women contacted Women's Aid (Jennings, 1999a).That such statistics have not been deemed worthy of extensive political discussion is indicative of how little thought has gone into thinking beyond the purely constitutional. It is as if it is still regarded as acceptable to view domestic violence as a 'private' matter despite the existence of a wealth of testimony that, as regards violence and much else besides, there is a close relationship between 'public' and 'private' (Hoyle, 1998; Schneider, 1994). …