Unionist concerns and fears of a united Ireland: where are the women?

Another day, another report into a united Ireland. This time Senator Mark Daly has published his findings on, ‘Unionist Concerns and fears of a United Ireland.’ The report is based on a recommendation given to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

Daly’s research contains writings and submissions from unionist political figures such as Mike Nesbitt, Kyle Paisley and Trevor Ringland. Dr James Wilson, at the request of Senator Daly, also conducted focus groups with the Independent Orange Order, a Loyalist Flute Band, UDR/Irish Regiment Veterans and the East Belfast Mission. These groups were chosen because they were identified as being part of a section of unionism that is most resistant to a united Ireland.

The report, for the most part, says nothing we haven’t heard before. While the media have focused on participant fears that there would be “land grabs” post unity the research shows, on the contrary, that unionists are mostly concerned with cultural, social and economic issues. They worry that their culture will be eroded in a united Ireland and that British emblems and symbols will be removed.  Legacy is a huge concern along with healthcare and the welfare state.

As Marie Coleman explains, fears that unionist culture and identity will be eroded post unity may be grounded in historical precedent. Fears of a”land grab” seem to be keenly felt by unionists in border communities. That fear is irrational, but I think it’s better to allay those concerns rather than mock them.

Given the title of Daly’s report, and the fact that it’s 2019, you’d expect unionist women to feature heavily. This research is coming at the behest of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. There is a clause in the Agreement where the parties commit themselves to human rights and mutual respect. The Women’s Coalition is solely responsible for the inclusion of “the right of women to full and equal participation in politics” in that section.

Incredibly, even though the author contacted, “many stakeholders in the Protestant/unionist/loyalist community, from church leaders and unionist politicians to former loyalist paramilitaries,” the report contains very few submissions or interviews with unionist women. Two women are briefly mentioned as being members of the flute band and that’s about it. Arlene Foster and Sylvia Hermon are quoted but only in relation to past media interviews.

When journalist Amanda Ferguson questioned Senator Daly about the omission, he responded by saying that he did meet with unionist women while compiling his findings. Apparently, the women he contacted didn’t want to make their submissions public.

I find it hard to believe that the Senator couldn’t find a prominent unionist woman willing to go on the record. Even Eileen Paisley has an opinion on it. Daly’s contention that his report is “the beginning of a conversation” isn’t good enough. Women shouldn’t be an afterthought.

The community sector is dominated by women. There are women’s groups operating across Northern Ireland in unionist/loyalist areas. They are the definition of stakeholders and many are the backbone of their communities. Compared to some of the people included in the Senator’s report, these women are best placed to discuss social, political and cultural fears of a united Ireland. Their views matter.

Sadly, the exclusion of unionist women from the discussion around a united Ireland isn’t surprising. Women across Northern Ireland, unionist, nationalist, republican and other, often have to raise their voices to be heard. The Women’s Coalition knew this when they formed to represent women in the peace talks that eventually lead to the Good Friday Agreement. Twenty years after the Agreement, things are getting better but women are still erased from important discussions. As Claire Pierson puts it, “Women continue to be left at the margins of processes to discuss and resolve ongoing contentious and conflict-related issues. Such silencing of gendered experience leaves out integral issues and perspectives on both the future of Northern Ireland and legacies of the past.”

It’s frustrating that identity issues are addressed in the Senator’s research but only along the usual orange and green lines. Unionist women, LGBT and BME unionists have unique concerns that are specific to their lived experiences. Their concerns and fears are just as valid as others.

Senator Daly’s report, despite its many shortcomings, is important. A lot has been said about listening to unionists and addressing their concerns in the event of a united Ireland. Few have taken on the job of doing just that. Perhaps my fellow unionists could, given their legitimate fears and concerns, reflect on history and work towards a more inclusive society in Northern Ireland.