community relations problems. Equality since the 1970s has meant primarily redressing imbalances and discrimination between the two communities rather than between women and men or ethnic minorities or people with disabilities. Until some form of constitutional framework is evolved that provides stable structures for accommodations between unionists and nationalists and Catholics and Protestants, the government continues to treat gender as a peripheral question and it will inevitably have low priority in policy development.
The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland exhibit many similarities in relation to the role of women arising from closely related and highly conservative social structures. At the same time, their very different recent political histories mean that these issues have been addressed in quite different ways. In the Republic, governments have concerned themselves directly with women's issues, establishing formal departments and committees; in Northern Ireland, in contrast, although there was a ministerial post that included responsibility for women's affairs during the Conservative administration, it represented little real commitment even during the period when a senior figure in the party, Angela Rumbold, held the post. Indeed, the antagonism of recent British governments to a consideration of women's affairs within the governmental framework has meant that in Northern Ireland quasigovernmental organisations such as the EOCNI and initiatives originating within the civil service have had particular significance. In both jurisdictions, however, women activists have expressed concern about the slow pace of official action and the timidity of government. This may reflect a reality throughout Ireland in which social change is accelerating but its impact remains uneven and, to some influential groups, unacceptable. The role of women in economic, social, cultural, and even political life is changing, but giving official recognition and support to such shifts is particularly difficult in a context where the constitutional and political uncertainty generated by the conflict in Northern Ireland often invests social positions and values with a special significance and makes change a betrayal of identity.
Bruegel Irene, "'Women's Employment, Legislation and the Labour-Market,'", in Jane Lewis (ed.), Women's Welfare, Women's Rights, London: Croom Helm, 1983.
Central Statistics Office, Women in the Workforce, Dublin: Central Statistics Office, 1997.