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A View North: Oh, those lovely Unionist ladies

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

For just over two years, Northern Ireland was a Mo-Go area, but alas no longer, as Ms. Mowlam moves back to London, replaced by Peter Mandelson. The Ulster Unionists and their fundamentalist cousins in the Democratic Unionist Party are cock-a-hoop, of course. The reason they are relieved is not entirely to do with politics as such. But it has a lot to do with sexual politics.

Anyone who has ever attended a UUP party conference will know what I mean. There is little sign of women about the event, just a lot of paunchy, middle-class, middle-aged men in suits. That is, until around 11 a.m. Then the women appear bearing trays full of scones, buttered and covered in jam. Nothing wrong with that — the scones are delicious, Ulster being justly famous for its variety of bread. But the fact is the women have spent hours behind the scenes getting the repast ready. Compare that to the amount of time they have on the party platform. In 1998, a woman delegate did address the party faithful with a plaintive plea asking the men where would they be without women to iron their shirts.

In the Ireland of the Celtic Tiger, such a speech before any major Irish political party would be unthinkable — a sort of flashback to the 1950s when women knew their place. Women have ceased "knowing their place" a long time ago in the modern world, and the Unionist Party and the DUP have a hard time dealing with it. If anyone doubts this they should cast their minds back to the reception accorded the members of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition when they took their seats in the ill-fated Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in Belfast in 1995-96. The women were abused, vilified, insulted, told to go home "where they belonged," and condescended to in a manner that would not be acceptable anywhere else in Europe. The main perpetrators were members of the UUP and DUP, with Bob MacCartney joining in to lend a bit of educated gloss to the display of rampant misogyny.

Interestingly enough, the women got along well with the representatives of working-class unionism and with Sinn Féin. The problem was mainly with the lower-middle-class unionists who make up the ranks of the UUP and DUP. Historically, this has been always the most insecure segment of society, a breeding ground of prejudices and hatreds — small shopkeepers, small farmers, small businessmen, with minds to match.

The trouble for the UUP and DUP was that Mo Mowlam was a product of an entirely different world — modern Britain, multi-ethnic, tolerant of sexual differences, where class distinctions are increasingly blurred and types of behavior, particularly sexual behavior, once castigated or even outlawed are now accepted. Mo knew her place, and it was there, in the changing society that is Blair’s Britain. In many ways Britain, like the U.S., has been undergoing these changes since at least the 1960s. So has Northern Ireland. Just speak to any one in Belfast between the ages of 20 and 40, if there is any doubt about that assertion. The trouble is, Ulster Unionism for the most part has not caught up with that fact.

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The problem lies deep within the culture of Ulster unionism itself. It is very much a male-dominated world, characterized by a siege mentality where men man the barricades and the women stand behind them. It is a world of militaristic marches, controlled by fraternities quasi-secret in nature, like the Orange Order, the Apprentice Boys, the Black Preceptory and so forth.

The organizations which it spawns tend to reflect the culture’s insecurity and an almost frontier-like mentality, where men and women have definite, clear-cut roles. In other words, it is a culture which tends toward exclusion. The basis of that exclusion traditionally has been religious. If you are a Catholic you cannot join the Orange Order. But in that culture exclusion on the basis of sex has been just as prominent a feature. Women have their own Orange-linked societies. But their main role has been to make the tea. They have no more chance of becoming a fully fledged Orangeman, never mind grand master, than has a Catholic.

Both communities in the North are deeply conservative, often in similar ways. The Ancient Order of Hibernians exhibits many of the same features I have described above as being associated with the Orange Order and its related organizations. But unlike Orangism and its political wing, Unionism, the AOH plays almost no role in the contemporary life of Northern Ireland. It rarely has played any significant part in the events that have shaped the North in the 20th century. But its Protestant equivalent still thrives, and frequently determines the course of events.

A glance at the history of Northern Irish Unionism will also reinforce this analysis — it is completely devoid of examples of women taking any major role in its development. Their absence is also seen in the Protestant paramilitary organizations. A review of their history since 1969 turns up not one woman in any leadership position, in marked contrast to republican groups. There, women have always played an active role at almost every level. There have been changes, however, and women have played a more prominent part in the loyalist parties such as the Progressive Unionist Party, the political wing of the UVF.

This is not to say that with Mo gone sexual politics will no longer be a factor in Northern Ireland affairs. Her replacement, Peter Mandelson, is widely known to be gay, though it has never been made into a public issue in Britain. Now, if Ulster Unionists have a problem with women in power, it is small compared to their traditional hang-ups about homosexuality. The Rev. Ian Paisley, after all, ran a vigorous campaign to prevent the extension of the UK law on homosexuality, which decriminalized it, to Northern Ireland back in the late 1970s. He called it his "Save Ulster From Sodomy" campaign. The irony of it was, of course, that some of his early, most fanatical supporters were homosexuals, attracted to the evangelical, fundamentalist fringe, men such as John McKeague and Billy McGrath, both of whom went on to found their own paramilitary organizations.

Ulster cannot be saved from sodomy, no more than it can be saved from the prospect of women’s increasing clout in its political affairs, with or without Mo. It’s just that change happens, even there. So it’s best to be aware of it.

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