Women Divided: Gender, Religion, and Politics in Northern Ireland

Women Divided: Gender, Religion, and Politics in Northern Ireland

Women Divided: Gender, Religion, and Politics in Northern Ireland

Women Divided: Gender, Religion, and Politics in Northern Ireland


The ongoing Irish peace process has renewed interest in the current social and political problems of Northern Ireland. In bringing together the issues of gender and inequality, Women Divided offers new perspectives on women's rights and contemporary political issues.

Women Divided argues that religious and political sectarianism in Northern Ireland has subordinated women. A historical review is followed by an analysis of the contemporary scene -- state, market, family and church -- and the role of women's movements. The book concludes with an in-depth critique of the peace process and its implications for women's rights in Northern Ireland, arguing that women's rights must be a central element in any agenda for reconciliation.

-- Integrates two highly topical issues in Northern Ireland -- gender and sectarianism


Northern Ireland is often portrayed, especially to British audiences, as a backward place left behind by the tide of history, in which warring tribes are engaged in an atavistic religious feud which the modern world has outgrown. The conflict is represented as violent, criminal, and above all, irrational. In Northern Ireland itself, not surprisingly, things are seen very differently. Few people regard the conflict as primarily religious. The perceived causes of the Troubles arise ‘less from the peculiarities of the local cultures than from perceived, and rationally perceived, constitutional and political insecurity in both communities’ (McGarry and O’Leary 1995:244).

Religion is the boundary marker for these political divisions, which have become the central divide in Northern Ireland society. While there are a minority of Catholic Unionists and Protestant Republicans, Catholics can overwhelmingly be identified with some form of nationalist politics, and Protestants with unionist politics. These broad groupings include a range of opinions, from left to right; constitutional to militant and paramilitary; feminist to socially conservative; as well as ‘Catholic atheists’ and ‘Protestant atheists’. Catholic and Protestant feminists may appear to have more in common with each other than with many of their coreligionists, but in what is defined as ‘politics’ in Northern Ireland they are divided. It is unlikely that they would vote for the same political party or support a common political solution.

The first part of this chapter discusses the major explanations for the conflict. I have grouped these into three broad positions. Firstly, Unionists, whose political priority is the maintenance of the Union, and who blame nationalist refusal to accept the status of Northern Ireland for ‘the Troubles’. A second group—which includes both liberals and some left-wing opinion—urges reforming Northern Ireland through legislative change and economic regeneration. The third, nationalist, group claims that Northern Ireland within its present borders is inherently undemocratic and unreformable. Encompassing views from conservative nationalism to Marxist anti-imperialism, this group sees the long-term solution to the conflict in a united Ireland.

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