A private members’ bill on abortion is creating a stir south of the border while in Belfast a woman chains herself to Queen’s University, protesting female marginalisation. The storm clouds are gathering on the political intransigence that persists around women’s issues. I speak to Baroness May Blood, a founding member of the Women’s Coalition, on the challenges posed by Northern Ireland’s political peculiarities and how to rally women together to make the system work for them.
Baroness Blood stresses that she has always needed to be cajoled to step into the limelight. Linen mill trade unionism at fourteen, plunging into the dicey waters of Northern Irish politics in 1996 and even the peerage that followed three years later were all the fruit of gentle arm twisting. After mere moments in her presence it’s hard to imagine a time when May Blood wasn’t steadfast and daring. Her vocal opposition to the escalation of sectarian attitudes in her neighbourhood at the height of the Troubles in 1971 provoked an arson attack that would blow out the windows and take down the ceilings, forcing her from her family home. This would launch forty years of community service and see her as the first female peer from Northern Ireland in the House of Lords.
The Women’s Coalition addressed the absence of women at the 1996 Peace Talks table. Yet it was a duty of reluctance. Inquiring of the then Minister of Northern Ireland Michael Ancram if they could be part of the negotiation process, the women were intensely wary. “If you asked any of the six or eight of us at that time, we all hoped he’d say no because we really didn’t think we knew what we were talking about.”
Indeed, Blood – who makes the trip to London every week to spend three days on House of Lords business – opted out of standing as a candidate. “I wouldn’t stand as a candidate so they asked me to be the campaign chair – now what did I know about it? But I soon learned; you had to be in front of every television camera in the world because they were all here. We were unique – Protestant and Catholic, we were orange and green coming together.”
It was the trade unionist ethos that united the women at the helm of the Women’s Coalition and urged them to overcome the instinct to defer to the traditionally macho rhetoric of Northern Irish politics. “All my trade union teaching – and I have to say most of the people I was involved with in the Women’s Coalition were all Trade Unionists, so we all came from the same place in that respect: Monica McWilliams, Avila Kilmurray, Bronagh Hines – all that learning all those years earlier actually fed into it.”
When the dust of the Good Friday Agreement settled it soon became apparent that the hope of a normalised politics was still a long way off. The posturing and histrionics of the main parties saw almost ten years of stalemate and lapsed deadlines. The popularity that brought the Women’s Coalition two Assembly seats in 1998 dissipated in a failed Westminster campaign from Monica McWilliams in 2001. What impact does Baroness Blood think the group has had on today’s politics? “About four or five years ago, we had a wake and buried it. I was never interested in a woman’s party – I’m not a feminist in that sense. I think the Women’s Coalition was set up for two reasons. To get women into the front line of politics and secondly to get the other parties to see there was a women’s vote which was important. And both of these things were achieved. Today we have women ministers but that would have been unheard of fifteen years ago.”
When asked why only one in five Stormont MLAs are women, Blood makes the point that women themselves are at fault. “The system is not actually to blame because women won’t put themselves forward. There is a big move on now about quotas. I have to tell you personally, I don’t believe in quotas. I can see the merit of getting people there but if I was sitting on a committee simply because I had to fill a seat or tick a box I don’t think it would empower me very much. If I get there under my own steam then I’m more likely to stand up for myself. I don’t want it to be like I could send a photograph to sit on my seat.
“I was on a committee with twenty-three men and when I made some contribution it was as if someone had opened the window and let the air in, and they all went on with the conversation. One day I really lost my temper. I thumped the table and said “Watch my lips, I’m speaking!”. That became my nickname for a while; “Here’s Watch-My-Lips coming”. That’s the kind of women we need, we need women who are willing to take these men on.”
Baroness Blood argues equipping women with the tools necessary for public office will in turn give them the confidence to seek to be where decisions are made. “Bronagh Hines saw that women weren’t into public speaking. After the Good Friday Agreement, Bronagh raised money for a project called Democracy, asking parties to put forward a number of women and they were taught skills – negotiating, public speaking, how to face the camera if the media were about. It was because of that women came through.”
Baroness Blood’s work on the ground to reach out to working class women has taught her that there is plenty of psychological baggage at play. In 1988 she set up a Shankill Women’s Forum. In the inaugural meeting 150 women listened to Edwina Currie (incidentally, on the back of her egg controversy-instigated Cabinet resignation) on getting women involved in politics. Yet each subsequent meeting saw the numbers drop off substantially. “The women weren’t coming because you had a small core who came in with jackets, trousers, filo faxes and diaries. The majority of women didn’t go back saying “Oh, they’re professional”. Among women they didn’t even feel they belonged. They felt they’d look silly. It meant that the whole thing fell apart and we have no women’s forum now. There was a woman who came in to chair the meeting wearing a white blouse and all of a sudden she got up and put on her jacket and buttoned it up. This girl beside me said to me, “Oh, there’s nothing like showing your authority!” It wouldn’t strike me, sitting there. But it struck her.
“We’ve got to get to the stage where women get real with themselves. Going to the House of Lords I’ve seen women who are some of the strongest I’ve ever known – you wouldn’t cross them. No shrinking violets, I’ll tell you that. Here in Northern Ireland, if we’re ever going to equalise the situation we have to get rid of the shrinking violets and put a couple of roses up instead.”
Baroness Blood’s passion for activism is clear to see, though never more so than when she remembers recently meeting a woman in her early twenties along the peaceline. I’m convinced her zeal would rouse the most cynical-minded. “She came up to me and said, “You’re the reason I got into politics. You came to our school to talk about the trade unions and women in politics” – and she’s a Sinn Fein councillor in the City Hall now. The party she joined is irrelevant; that young women took the message and the like of her will change the whole thing around. If you really want to change the system the only way to do it is from the inside.” When women like Mary Robinson and Mo Mowlam are visible, others dare to be ambitious. “All of a sudden women say “Hold on a second, it’s possible to have the top jobs.”
The struggle to protect the quality of daily life of the neighbourhood in the face of the raging ideologies of the Troubles left community workers in a privileged space between the two factions. Curiosity impelled them to seek out their counterparts on the other side of the religious divide. They were eager to learn from their shared experiences. Immediately Baroness Blood was struck by the feeling they had been pawns in a power play of the age-old strategy of “divide and rule”. “To our absolute amazement we had the same problems – teenage pregnancy, male suicide, mental health, poor housing, under-achievement in education – exactly the same on both sides. We began to say “Hang on here, we’ve been sold a pup”.
How does she explain the attacks on community workers that continue today? “While we have moved on apace, we have never really dealt with sectarianism. I personally feel – strange as it may seem, twelve years on from the Good Friday Agreement – we have a more divided society than we ever had. I don’t believe integrated education is the answer, but I believe it’s part of the answer. We have to mix people up at an earlier age. This part of the Shankill, you’re working among young people who have never even met a Catholic and they only know about a Catholic what they’ve been told – now how do we crack that?”
For Baroness Blood, women hold the key. She has said on numerous occasions that when history of Northern Ireland is written it will have to be about women. “Someone asked me once – how’d you get to be such a good public speaker? Somebody made me angry. You show me a room full of angry women and you’ll have all the best speakers you’d ever want. I learned that in the mill- there were some very eloquent women when they took it into their heads.
“It’s time women stood up – I don’t know any job that a man could do but a woman couldn’t – I don’t know any.” Yet her thoughts on “feminism” remain problematic. “By the same token, I don’t know how you explain a “women’s issue”. I don’t really know what a “women’s issue” is. To my mind there’s a male interest in all of them. What are they talking about? Is it what is deep in a woman herself – the fact she won’t put herself forward – is that the issue? Children, poverty – across the board men and women are both involved.” It is arresting to see someone wrangle with feminism with such vigour and honesty. Instinctively wary of ideology, she grapples instead with its nuts and bolts in the context of everyday life.
In spite of this resistance to the label, her advocacy of abortion provision in Northern Ireland would be considered feminist in spirit. Recent Westminster cheerleading for reproductive rights in developing countries got under Baroness Blood’s skin. “That’s one of the things that annoyed me in parliament. These people were all nodding “yeah” and I was really fuming. I think it’s so blasé for people in a parliament that denies women in Northern Ireland the right of choice to say “Right, we’re going to give it to Somalian women or Afghan women.” That really annoys me, and when I raise that issue people say (feigns horror) “Don’t raise that for fear of damaging the peace process!” I say, “Well if the peace process is that fragile, it deserves to be damaged.” I have a very deep Christian faith that teaches me that abortion is wrong but I’ve never been in a position where I’ve had to make that choice.”
It’s simply a question of equality for Baroness Blood. “If I give women in Newcastle upon Tyne the right to have an abortion then I should give it to Newcastle in County Down. It’s her choice.” She is excoriating of her colleagues in parliament. “How disingenuous can you be when you don’t even give it to a part of the UK? Until we come forward on those issues we’ll always be treated as second class citizens by men.”
Abortion and integrated education are two hot button issues where Northern Irish political leadership recoils from reality. Local politicians refuse to address the inconvenient truth of an estimated 67,000 women since 1967 who have journeyed to England or Wales seeking abortion. Is this political system capable of satisfying the needs of a modern Northern Ireland?
“One of these (Stormont Assembly) ministers had the cheek to say ‘Well, there’s no demand for it’, and I said ‘What – do you think someone’s going to come up and knock on your door?’ When I talk to women in Sinn Fein they tell me that this is one of the most important issues they have – but they’re not pushing it. They don’t want to rock the boat, or be divisive in the party. Why not? We’ve got to get there. It’s the same with integrated education. Sinn Fein is the only party that doesn’t have it as part of their policy. Privately they absolutely support it, but it’s not party policy.”
Is it the electoral expediency of keeping the communities divided that prolongs this segregation? “Absolutely. That’s the fear. They don’t give a damn about working class kids, or where they’re educated. The problem is they could lose their power base. It’s the same with the Roman Catholic Church. They aren’t thinking about their people, they are thinking about themselves. If women are going to get serious about this and move into the twenty-first century in the way they should – then I think they have to take those issues head on.”