A Transient Transition: The Cultural and Institutional Obstacles Impeding the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition (NIWC) in Its Progression from Informal to Formal Politics

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Abstract

Women have traditionally occupied a perilous position in Northern Irish politics, ultimately constrained from participating on their own terms by its dominant discourses of nationalism, conflict and realism. Alienated from the formal political structures which enshrine these discourses, many women have alternatively embraced the informal political sphere through extra-institutional grassroots and community networks which constitute the women's movement. Though this movement has largely conformed to the segmented structure of society, space has continually been harnessed for women of both national communities to converge on various issues and work across differences while remaining rooted within their own distinct national identities and communities. To the extent that it has emerged episodically, this style of transversal politics has been confined to collectives in the informal arena of politics. However, with the dawn of devolution and a new constitution for Northern Ireland, women recognized an opportunity to enter the formal political sphere and partake in the shaping of a new system. The Northern Ireland Women's Coalition (NIWC) effected this transition into the 'parallel universe' of constitutional politics. However, just as the opening-up of the political structure underlies the seizure of this political space, political obstacles can account for its loss. The combined factors of inimical discourses, their institutionalization within the consociational system and the adverse political climate of polarization effectively denied the NIWC the space it required to progress and endure within formal politics, rendering its transition a transient phenomenon.

Keywords: Transversal politics; consociation; Northern Ireland

Introduction

Democracy in Northern Ireland is a contested concept. The possibility of an integrated polity, with which democracy is normally associated, appears to be precluded by the national divisions riving society. In the context of relatively intractable conflict engendered by competing nationalisms, debates about democracy have tended to turn on the issues of peace and conflict resolution, involving the proposal of solutions that are focused exclusively on the factors which are most central to the conflict: the national divide and the region's constitutional future. The democratic model adopted after devolution in Northern Ireland--consociation--arises from this perspective of conflict management via formal politics. Rather than attempting to transcend divisions, generate homogeneity or exclude extremes, consociation operates from a realistic recognition of society's fragmentation and an appreciation of its dominant discourses of nationalism, conflict and realism. Through comprehensive inclusion, proportionate accordance of governing power to each community, and the introduction of safeguards to protect group rights and interests, it seeks to secure negative peace and group accommodation via elite persuasion.

However, within the informal sphere of Northern Irish politics, democracy warrants far broader consideration--a consideration that diverges from a singular focus on competing national factions and constitutional disputes. In particular, the women's movement has often taken an alternative approach to the pursuit of peace and democracy. While most facets of the movement conform to society's sectarian structure, certain factions have demonstrated the capacity to overcome national divisions and mobilize across differences in order to advance common objectives. Such collectives embody the principles of transversal politics, an alternative political ethos characteristic of heterogeneous coalitions which prizes openness, dialogue and unity of purpose amongst diverse identities. It thus models a form of democracy distinct from that conventionally espoused within formal politics in Northern Ireland. This paper refers to this component of the movement as 'the transversal women's movement'. …

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