Women in Northern Ireland and the Border Region are Shaping New Political Discussions

On October 13th, 2019, people across Northern Ireland came together to mark a deflating milestone.

It had been 1000 days since the power-sharing government at Stormont had collapsed, following a major disagreement between Northern Ireland’s two largest political parties, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Bronagh McAtasney helped organise a rally in her hometown of Newry that day. The rally was run by a grassroots group called ‘We Deserve Better’.

“This was a community group. We wanted to do something to mark 1000 days of no Stormont”, McAtasney tells me.

It was her involvement with movements such as ‘We Deserve Better’ that led her to The Next Chapter.

The Next Chapter was an initiative established to improve “the representation of women in public and political life”, and build a “more gender-sensitive society” in Northern Ireland, as well as in regions that straddle the border with the Republic of Ireland.

Through the PEACE IV Operational Programme, an initiative dedicated to promoting “peace and reconciliation” in Northern Ireland, the EU invested over €1.2 million in The Next Chapter.

An offshoot of McAtasney’s interest in local politics was her aversion to sectarian divides that have plagued Northern Ireland for decades. After attending meetings of The Next Chapter in Newry, she found that there were other women in her area that felt the same way as she did.

One of these women was Tracey McAvoy. Before joining the initiative, McAvoy said she often found it difficult to engage with those around her on political issues: “Most people say they don’t vote because [they say] ‘I don’t vote green or orange’.”

Voting green or orange — colloquial shorthand for nationalist and unionist parties –dominates Northern Ireland politics. McAtasney contends that for places like Newry, this political landscape perpetuates fractious communities.

“I was really interested in… being part of giving people a voice other than the politicians and the sectarian or paramilitary forces that have ruled here for so long.”

In many ways, the ethos of The Next Chapter was built around exactly that: giving a voice to those who have been drowned out by years of petty point-scoring between parties in Stormont.

While McAtasney and McAvoy both met through their involvement in The Next Chapter in Newry, the initiative wasn’t confined to one area. In total, the programme held ‘chapter’ meetings in 10 locations on both sides of the border.

Lori Gatsi-Barnett joined the Belfast division of The Next Chapter in September 2018.

Originally from Zimbabwe, Gatsi-Barnett moved to Belfast 13 years previous. She says that it was partly down to her “outsider’s perspective” that led her to attend an open evening hosted by The Next Chapter in Belfast.

“Just kind of looking at it from, ‘This is my new home and how can I participate, and how can I add my voice to the construct of tomorrow’”, she explains.

A key factor that shapes Batsi-Garnett’s worldview is her belief in the need to emphasise women’s issues in the corridors of power. Gatsi-Barnett felt that The Next Chapter’s mantra of ‘women driving change’ came at the crucial time.

“In any society, it’s the women who take a proactive responsibility and, in some shape or form, that contribute to systemic change.”

She’s correct. According to studies carried out in the past decade, higher female representation in national legislatures leads to a greater chance of durable peace in post-conflict regions.

Despite this, women are still underrepresented in politics. Just 30% of politicians elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in Stormont in 2017 were women. In the most recent general election held in the Republic, just 36 female TDs were elected to the Dáil Éireann. There are 160 seats in the Dáil.

All three women that I speak to agree that The Next Chapter offered a platform for women to challenge this stark underrepresentation.

“It was really important for me to find a way to be a part of getting women’s voices out, particularly because they’re still underrepresented in politics here”, McAtasney says.

Through education and encouragement, The Next Chapter gave many who attended local and regional meetings the confidence to ask the question they may not have asked before: why not?

The end of the initiative was met with tangible results. At the time of the programme’s conclusion, 11 women had entered formal politics for the first time, while 14 women were appointed to local boards.

Although one of the main objectives of The Next Chapter was to encourage women to enter the political sphere, this was not the only outcome of the project. McAtasney didn’t pursue a career in politics after the initiative, but she does regard her experience at The Next Chapter as “life-changing”.

“Funny enough, it took me down the path that I did not anticipate I would go down”, she says. “I quit my job — I was just working in admin — I’m currently finishing a masters at Queen’s [University Belfast]. I just went off and changed everything.”

Although The Next Chapter project formally ended earlier this year, chapters dotted across the island of Ireland are still active. All three women emphasize the importance of maintaining the connections forged across communities and borders — especially in the context of impending challenges such as Brexit and the coronavirus.

“With Brexit coming, we’re going to need to find different ways to keep those connections coming, in terms of politics and in terms of community and in terms of helping those women to continue to speak up”, McAtasney says.

From speaking with Gatsi-Barnett, McAvoy and McAtasney, I get the impression that these women believe in a refocused political persuasion, with women’s issues front and centre.

“There is no place without its faults. It’s how a society can come together in spite of those faults, to make it the stronger, more robust, effective one that everybody anywhere becomes challenged and motivated to want to lend a hand, to be part of the new narrative”, Gatsi-Barnett says.

The Next Chapter project has ensured that the women of a shared Ireland will play a part in writing that “new narrative”, and a vision of tomorrow.

Freelance journalist.

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