Interview with Joanne Vance, Women into Politics, Belfast, April 19, 1999
JV: Im Joanne Vance and Im the coordinator for Women into Politics here in Belfast.
MT: And what is Women into Politics?
JV: Women into Politics is a political education project for women, particularly for women involved in community development. It takes a participatory approach to education, to allow women to come and question political issues of concern to them, right from constitutional issues to the closure of health services.
Theres a couple of things that we do. The first thing would be our dialogue and discussion element. And thats where we have set up workshops, called Lets Talk Politics, in local neighborhoods, whether they are Nationalist, Loyalist, Republican, Unionist, where women can come together -- very often for the first time -- to discuss political issues in a safe place. And then they move on to our Dialogue Across the City discussions where they come together to discuss those issues of importance. So that part of our work is very important to give women the space to feel like they can talk about these issues and also to allow an exchange of views, an exchange of dialogue. We often bring in some key speakers who maybe look at a subject a different way. For example, if were looking at say North/South bodies, we dont forget to look at the economic issues, we dont just look at the political issues. If theres going to be an economic focus, we look at: where are women going to figure in there as well? We try to broaden the focus out of politics in those discussions to include the issues that dont normally associate with women as well.
And then the other aspect of the work we call the skills-based work, Making the Leap, training which is practically-based skills like public speaking, dealing with the media, participating at meetings, campaigning and lobbying, where women come to build on the skills that they have learned through activism, be it in the community sector, trade unionism, or indeed within political parties. So they come together and they gen-up on their skills. And what we do there is very important because politics is seen as a male-dominated preserve and that theres a certain way to do politics -- when in fact Women Into Politics are coming from a value system that women have been politically active for many years. And we want to build on that activism and we want to bring the different ways of working and different ways that we do politics and make decisions into mainstream politics. Having more women involved in politics isnt just about numbers per se, but its also about the way in which society works, the way in which politics is done.
MT: Why Women into Politics? Why did it start? If you could just provide the context, the situation in Northern Ireland: are there women involved in politics here? I know Women into Politics has made transitions along the way.
JV: Well, when we started the idea it was in 1993, and a number of us involved at the Downtown Womens Center were very very concerned about the political stalemate at the time, the fact that there were increased numbers of killings, that things were really grinding to a halt. There was a general feeling in Downtown Womens Center that something had to be done, as we said in the brochure, to break the silence, to allow women to talk about what was going on around them and how it was affecting them, and how it was affecting their work, how it was affecting their lives. What would they like to see happen -- what would they like to see change? And we are aware that in Northern Ireland theres a culture of, Lets avoid the political issues if we can. If it makes it easier to have good relations and to work with people, its better to set it aside and get on to do what you can do cooperate.
So, we were aware that there may be some resistance to a project called Women Into Politics, and we had lots of discussions about: Well are we Women in Public Life? Are we Women in Decision Making? But we decided that this was one of the things that we had to overcome. We have a culture that was built up around politics that was very closed, very silenced. Some people participated but not others. Maybe in other western democracies to be involved in a political system is a privilege. Here people find other ways to get their kicks and to get their privileges and to do business. And politics seemed very far removed from your ordinary everyday person. And for women, particularly, because of the narrow focus of politics, because it was seen purely in constitutional terms, it was a real turnoff -- and yet women wanted to see change and that is political.
Thats how we started, and thats why the dialogue and discussion element of our program has been so important. Yes, we need more women in formal politics, but its also a recognition of where we were at in Northern Ireland as well in our politics. Its not the same as anywhere else. So there were a couple of things we had to do.
It would have been easy to lose focus but we decided that it was really initiating that dialogue and discussion that was key to us. And before we started trying to number crunch and work out how many women there were or not, it was better to get a sense or feeling of what womens attitudes were indeed to politics. And I have to say that when we first started, coming from a community development sector, the NGO sector, where women, even if they were members of political parties, this would be something that they didnt disclose very often. So, there was a feeling out there that there were no women in party politics. We didnt see them on the TV, we didnt see them on platforms, therefore, there are no women. And of course as soon as the project started and we made it our business to go out and uncover those women, we began to realize that politics was no different than other institutions in society. In the church you know, at least 50% if not more of the congregation will be women, but when you look at their leadership positions youre not going to see that . It was the same in the community development sector. Well over 65% of the volunteers are women and yet when you get into leadership positions again, thats where the men will be -- and women will be less either inclined to put themselves forward or for whatever reason when they do they havent been chosen. It wasnt really big news but we hadnt thought about it before, so it was no shock when we realized that most of the political parties we talked to would say 50% of their membership were women but when that came into office holding positions, or indeed elected office, those figures didnt come the whole way through leadership, which seemed to be the preserve of the men.
MT: Do you think overall that the project has been successful?
JV: I suppose it all depends on how we define success. If we had started off by saying by the year 2000, we will have 50/50 representation of women in politics, we wouldnt be a success. But luckily we didnt do that -- because we realized that the problem was more complex. The problem of womens representation was also very much tied into the political situation here and what had gone before. And it was also very tied into the fact that women think differently. And of course there was always an element of underconfidence, or I dont want to put myself in that position first, let somebody else go first. I mean there is always that, but there was also a significant thing going on where women were saying, Im not wasting my time. I can put my energy into something else and see results. And thats what we are always trying to do: to get the balance between trying to fix things on the ground and also to try and act strategically to change policy and to change the situation.
So, I think what Women Into Politics has been very successful in doing is to become widely participative. We have over 800 women who have come through the Lets Talk Politics courses or the Making the Leap courses. They, on the whole, would be women who wouldnt necessarily get the opportunity to talk politics. There would be a view about that Why would you want to encourage unemployed women or women in low paid jobs to get actively involved in politics its not those type of people that are going to succeed in politics. But it was looking at where politics was failing us. And if politics was turning people off, it was about people reclaiming politics again because politics doesnt work without them. It doesnt work without an informed electorate. It doesnt work without people understanding issues and new policy changes. So, from that point of view, weve been successful.
The other area where I think weve been very successful was that there was a real gap between those in the informal NGO community sector and those in political parties. It was such a gap, you know, you could say that it was a hostile gap -- or you could say that it was just a lack of knowledge. Neither side knew really what it was like to be in the other persons shoes. And I think we have been very successful through our Dialogue Across the City in bridging that gap first of all -- because first the women came from the political parties and addressed our participants and told them what it was like to be in a party, to be an elected representative, to try and push issues of concern to them through the party apparatus. And likewise those in the community sector were able to talk about issues and problems and how to solve those problems. So a really good dynamic between the two sectors started to emerge, and I think weve been very successful in bridging that gap.
Were taking the hostility out and were looking from the perspective that if were going to build a peace process, if were going to build a future, all elements of society need to be involved. Weve also had men from the political parties, big leadership positions, come and address our audiences as well, and its been an education on both sides, very much so. They get a lot out of it, they feel a little bit challenged by a room full of women, just as a woman would feel challenged in a room full of men, but they are impressed with the work that is going on on the ground and impressed with the types of questions and solutions that the women are coming up with as well. And likewise the women have been very interested to find a human face in some of the leaders that they see on television. And that, I think, is good for politics.
MT: I did an interview with Goretti Horgan and she was saying the emphasis on the peace process was really to the detriment of womens issues. Could you comment on that?
J: Thats a very difficult one, isnt it? Because all eyes have been on the peace process. Its been the main issue. And I know that the main view of both the large Unionist party and the SDLP was Well get this peace process sorted out. The British and Irish governments have been operating in a similar way: Well get the peace sorted out and then well deal with the issues. And as you can see, read the newspapers today or any time last week, the peace process is going to take a long long time. And there is the real sense that if something doesnt happen soon, it will be the other issues that will unravel the peace process. Theres always the threat of violence out there but theres also the sense that we may lose the ground that we made up. We have an amazing 72% of the population saying yes to agreement and saying yes, go down this road, we know its not all over, we want you to go down this road because the other issues need sorting out. So I think the public were very aware that, whether their issues are womens issues or community issues, whatever those issues were, they realized that they had been putting them on hold until they got this agreement. But sometimes, and this is what we would argue, the solution isnt in fixing in on one particular issue. Like the issue of equality for a long time in Northern Ireland, the issue of religious and political discrimination, has been the key issue, and of course has been a very important issue, but if you look at the other types of social exclusion and the other types of inequality, sometimes that can help you find a solution to dealing with religious and political equality. Whilst at the same time solving a few more problems out there, too, be it gender equality or disability, ethnicity, whatever the discrimination is. So, yes, I think that the peace process has not focused on women to any complex level -- there have been a few concessions in that women are mentioned in the agreement. Were used to having to take something as small as that and working with it.
I think the other main bonus is that we have the equality legislation in the Northern Ireland Act and well certainly be pushing on that. Well be doing our best to bring that into the mainstream debates about the peace process, because we firmly believe that equality is key to the success of the peace process anyway.
MT: At the WERRC seminar you gave, one of the first things you said the project did was ask women: What does politics mean to you? And I was wondering what kinds of responses you got?
JV: We actually found the flip charts there when we were reorganizing the office and it was interesting. That was in 1995 when we first asked that question. We ask it every time we go to a new group because we like to know where we are starting from. And that first time we had such negative, really apathetic responses, you know a few explicatives and things like that. People didnt have a good view of what politics was, a very negative view, in fact. And you had those that said Well, I know what it should be, but thats not what it is. So, that was the starting point, and as we move on with different groups, and I think its an indication that things are changing, the negatives are now being balanced with a few positives. Rather than saying they knew what it should be, theyre now saying: Politics is... So I think that is a little bit encouraging.
MT: You mentioned that politics had been failing people for a long time in Northern Ireland -- and that when you were living in the Republic you felt like you could affect change. Can you talk about that, bearing in mind that the audience for this project might not know anything about Northern Ireland, for example, that Stormont is just an empty building and how there really isnt the same government in Northern Ireland as somewhere else... Is that a confusing question?
JV: No, but I think youve just answered the question! Thats the right answer. Correct. I agree with that. Its exactly the point that growing up here in Northern Ireland, you know, politics was closed. There were a few people discussing it and there were a few people involved in it, and there was no direct place to go to if you had a problem. And even to this day the last hustings I think was the general election -- a group of traders got together to ask the local reps or would-be reps to come and talk a little bit about what they stood for. And there was a confusion amongst people who would be quite well-off people and have an interest and stake in society about what were the roles and responsibilities of, say, local government, as opposed to Westminster government. So, because the seat of power is not here and weve had direct rule for all these number of years, weve had a situation where people do not know how to affect change. Theyre confused and they maybe dont see their politicians in the same way as you would.
So, Melissa, growing up here there was no sense of: your parliament is in such and such a place, politicians do this, this is how legislation is passed. You had no real sense of that. And, as I say, Stormont was a building three miles outside the city center where no-one ever went. Local government was a joke really because it had no power either, and for good reason. But it had no power, so there was a sense that you werent really engaging with anything, and a lot of the negotiations and the lobbying that went on probably happened behind closed doors. Even a protest movement as such was demonized as being too nationalist or whatever. So we wouldnt get protests around civic issues.
For a young woman growing up in East Belfast getting involved in protests was really -- it wasnt an option. Because protests were politically demarcated, segregated, it was a difficult thing to do. So going to the south to study and seeing people literally demonstrate at the drop of a hat I mean it could be over education, it could be over traffic, it could be over cows, it could be over anything, and, of course, the whole X case and abortion information. That was all happening when I was there. And it was absolutely liberating to march on the seat of government, you know, and demand -- even though its a couple of TDs coming out saying, Im with you or Please go away, youre making a spectacle of yourself -- there was this feeling that people had more engagement with politics.
And I know that I was in a privileged position when I was viewing all of that because I was a student with a lot of time on my hands. Someone from a working class area, 12 kilometers away from Dublin city center, on the dole, probably doesnt share that experience, and probably has a similar experience to what I had growing up. It gave me a sense of: Yeah, you can make changes, and you should make changes. If you see something wrong, you should shout about it.
M: What was your experience being in the Republic? Did people have weird views about Protestants from the North?
J: Ive thought about this a lot cause its been ten years since I first studied in Dublin. I think they have an attitude and a certain perception of Northern people anyway, and with Northern Protestants, you get a range of stereotypes. And I think being in Trinity, there was probably a feeling that Northern Protestants who would go to Trinity were probably upper crust prods, with some kind of landed gentry thing, some kind of history with the college, something like that. Which is madness really. I mean, when youre eighteen all you really want is to go somewhere bigger than where you came from, and that was the reason for me going to Dublin. But, I got a little bit of a culture shock, for me and Im sure for the people I encountered.
M: So, I get the feeling that when you were younger, you didnt feel politically inclined, that it was something that you came to maybe in college.. how did you get involved in politics?
J: Different families in the North will have a different understanding of political activity and what politics is. And for me growing up in the North, politics was something that you discussed at home with the people that were close to you -- that you shouted in front of the TV and you had debates constantly. So, I had a political education at home, but there was a sense that you dont take this outside. And there were a few occasions when I was younger in school where I would have taken political debate outside of the home and wouldnt have been so pleased with the reaction I got. So you learn very quickly that even if youre coming from a household that is interested in politics, you learn quickly whats acceptable and whats not acceptable. And I think going to the South again, politics was talked in the pub, on the street corner, up in the Dáil, it was much more open. And I already had the interest-- it was a channel for that to come out again. So, it was always there. I was attracted to it anyway.
MT: And then how did you get to this point...
JV: When I went down South I got involved in student politics, and it was quite liberating because the good thing about student politics, although political parties were also involved in the students movement, there was a sense that, a bit like womens issues, it transcends party politics. And I find that quite liberating -- that you can have this broad based approach to issues, which I thought was very good and powerful. I remember that. So I got involved in that and I got very interested in the womens movement and in feminism.
I had a couple of choices I suppose, when I finished college, and one of them was to do some work on womens issues -- so I did, back up in East Belfast where I come from, my home town, my home part of the town. I didnt know anything about community development living here before -- and community development was slower to take off in Protestant areas anyway -- and I had this job to research womens needs in the East Belfast area. There were no womens groups or womens organizations at that time, except for the group that I was working with who had this idea that something needed to be done for women in that area. So it was a very interesting time for me.
We got some good work done, we identified womens needs, we talked to -- just wherever we could find women we spoke to them. We produced a report. We did some development work when we were out -- because if youre starting with a blank sheet you have to do some development work to interest people. So I spent some time doing research but most of the time finding something to research, and if that meant holding a few meetings myself and organizing a few workshops to get an interest going, I did that as well. So it was very much action research. If it had of been academic research in a strict sense you would have gone into East Belfast and said, There is no womens movement here, good-bye. End of report. So it was about -- a few women had recognized the need -- and it was trying to garner the interest and develop that.
M: What was the response of the women in the community? Did they see you as someone from that neighborhood? Or did they see you as someone who went down to Dublin and was an outsider?
J: In that particular area in East Belfast, I think its a common view, particularly of the older generation, that to go to University is a big deal, so if you come back from any type of university, whether its Scotland, Dublin, England, wherever, there is a sense that the girls done good. He/she will be given a certain amount of respect for that. So that wasnt so much a problem. There was a bit of confusion about -- What do historians know about medicine or law? Because they have a very traditional attitude about -- you become a scholar when you go to university and youll know a lot about law and youll know a lot about medicine. And the traditional kind of professions. So trying to explain that I spent the time studying Irish History and going on student demonstrations they were kinda like, Ah, we knew that our tax payers money was going down the drain! You know, so its quite a traditional community, a community not afraid of hard work, but of course it had fallen on hard times. There was high unemployment in the area, a lot of deprivation, high levels of loyalist paramilitarism. It was an area that was becoming less sure of itself, both in political and economic terms; things that they had been sure of were changing. It was a very male-dominated, traditional area with working mens clubs, social clubs, sports clubs. Women had a particular role in that community, as they saw it.
Now, because it was an industrial working-class community, they also had an understanding of women as workers so that was an easier issue to talk about, because it wasnt so strange. You know, mothers and workers, they werent two separate things, you could be both many of their mothers were both. And I suppose that that was one of the main focuses of the work because that was something they were used to and a lot of the women wanted to talk about those issues as well. They had made the connection that before having a family they had been, if you like, earning better money in better jobs and then when they had their family and went back to work, they were going into the low-paying jobs, caring jobs, cleaning jobs, that type of thing. So work was a big focus for that community, employment, work, types of jobs. And they just got used to me, I think. I got used to them again.
MT: Is that the job when you had some kind of death threat?
JV: Thats right. As we were thinking about the Women in Politics idea in Downtown, I was working in East Belfast, and we community workers were very aware of the climate that we were all working in. I mean, we were literally risking our lives doing the work we were doing. East Belfast would be a predominantly Protestant area but the project, and this was the foresight of the women from that community, the project was for all the women in East Belfast. There was a small area in East Belfast called Short Strand. And the women from the Dee Street area worked with the women from the Short Strand to do the report. So that was something, you know. They were choosing not to go down the normal line of, you know, Thats a demarcated area, thats a different area. They said, No, theres women in that area, were women in this area. We know we have common issues of concern and if were going to do this, were going to do it for everyone. And there were good relations built up because they were working on the common issues. But there was a genuine belief that this was the right thing to do. The road they shopped on was the same, but yet the residential areas were demarcated into red, white, and blue; green, white, and gold. And if you were a Catholic woman doing your shopping in a red, white, and blue area, its not so comfortable. And also these were women who were old enough to remember the days when the Short Strand was an area where everybody went. Everyone would have gone to the pubs there, people would have friends there, there was a street in that area that was a mixed street, mixed housing, and they remembered that maybe segregation isnt the best way and said, Were making a lie out of ourselves if we try and separate when we know that before it wasnt like that.
So, while you had the very very tough political situation you also had a coming together of minds on trying to make things better on common issues and concerns. It was quite an exciting time, and I think that amongst some of the smaller political parties on the East side, they were picking up on the positive things that were happening. It was a great time of change. And I have tried to work out why the death threat happened because it could be for so many reasons. It could be that we were working with Catholic women and that was seen as a threat. It could be that we were working with women and that was a threat. Because, if you like, sectarianism has been a very handy label to stop anything progressive, you know. You get frightened if you get a death threat. Normal sane people would stop work if they got a death threat. But we made a few inquiries, we brought in our funders, we brought in the Belfast City Council. We had formal conversations with different groups in the area, and really, it was a turning point. It was a turning point for the community, because on the one hand key people in the area didnt want to see the work stopped. And on the other, they wanted to make sure that the center would still be safe for their kids to go to. So people worked hard to sort the issue out and it was sorted, thankfully.
M: A happy ending, thats good. Listen its ten past four. Can I ask you three or four more questions?
JV: Go ahead, Ill try to cut -- Im not very good at the sound byte.
MT: Thats OK, I dont really seek out people who are good at the sound byte. Sound bytes are pretty boring! You said you studied Irish History at Trinity. Ive been trying to figure out whether people in the North identify as Irish or Northern Irish. Do you identify as Irish, Northern Irish, Unionist, Protestant, or do you just ignore everything and say Im a human being?
JV: I think, again, youve answered the question! I dont believe that identity is something thats fixed. In the South, I probably say that I am Northern Irish because I am making the distinction that I come from this part of the world. And I have absolutely no problems in the North saying that I am Irish. And if I go away to a foreign country, I have no problem saying that I am Irish as well. And its quite conscious because I come from a family that uses the term Irish, and its not a judgmental term. They use it geographically speaking or whatever, they feel Irish. Members of my family feel Irish and British. And you can have many different identities you know youre a woman one day, youre a socialist the next, youre a Protestant one day, the next day youre a human being, and thats the way you kind of like it. And there are some days you wonder. So, I think, if people think about it, what I would say is those who have a problem with Irish identity and come from a Protestant background will not use it -- and will see it as giving something away from their other identities, their political identities. But I think people are happier with the term Northern Irish, and Im happy with that too, because I think when youve lived in the situation -- Ive lived in it for thirty years -- new identities emerge. Northern Irish is a very popular kind of compromise.
MT: A couple of questions about your background: there are so few role models for women, no matter what country you come from. What role models were available to you when you were growing up?
JV: Certainly when I was growing up it would have been family members; it would have been the female members of my family. My mom was pretty amazing. I cant think of anybody else. I suppose Im the TV generation, so you get all the sitcoms, all your soaps, different programs, and youre really aware of international role models as well. I remember characters as opposed to real people because thats the TV thing.
You never really knew about Northern Irish women role models, people who now in my adult life Ive come to know and work with, like Inez McCormack. When I was working and living in Dublin I got to know people like Mary Cullen, and she would be a role model for me, and of course Mary Robinson. I can think of all the big ones, but that all comes later in life when you look at people and you see their achievements and what theyve done for other people, that makes them special. Just like in the family, you know your mothers achievements and what she does for other people -- when she takes a stand, when she shows you whats right and whats wrong, when she does something, tells you, Thats fair, thats not fair. Its those things that have kind of stuck with me.
MT: Because Im linking everyone in the project by their first name Im asking every woman about their name. Do you know how your parents choose your name?
JV: Its very embarrassing. Apparently, there was a song in the sixties and thats why Im named Joanne. Ive never heard the song.
MT: Thats not so bad.
JV: I think it is really embarrassing. I mean, they could have picked a famous woman out of history. They should have known that would have been an interest of mine. They shouldnt have stuck with a pop tune. No, Im only joking.
MT: Do you like your name?
JV: Im, very happy with my name, yeah.
MT: One last thing. We were talking earlier about Women into Politics -- do you think that under whatever new system is going to come out of the peace process, will women be more involved on a formal level?
JV: I think that theres going to be a lot of transition. At the moment were seeing the political parties take this issue with some degree of seriousness. Where it is on their agenda is debatable, but there is a sense that the demand for gender equality in politics is not going to go away. Different political parties will be working at different rates and in different ways to ensure that theyre not going to be the party that has the bad record on women. I can think of only one party that wouldnt even care, but the rest of the parties will be thinking: This is not the one that we want to brought down on, if were going to be hanged it will not be on that issue. So I can see there is an awareness within the political parties at central level which is very good. And I think women are more aware of their roles and their responsibilities, and what they will have to do if this is to work.
There are two issues: first, womens ability to push for their understanding of peace and democracy building that includes fairness and equality and participation of the most excluded. And second, getting womens issues prioritized in the social and economic framework to achieve a better quality of life.
My biggest worry is that in setting up the new assembly there are going to be many different issues that will need to be dealt with, and the perspective, the policy perspectives, will not be on women or indeed on social issues. They will take a high economic line, I would imagine, and make economics the priority. And if they do that they wont necessarily think of women as economic players, so it will be our job to widen up that argument about What does economics mean? If thats going to be the priority of the new assembly, its going to have to be our priority, what that means to women.
What I am really fearful of, and I think that I said it you when we met before, in the WERRC building, is that the community sector will have a different role, and its also going to undergo some transition, metamorphosis, whatever. The community sector have been used to dealing in a certain way. Some of us are preparing ourselves to deal in a different way, but of course funding and our ability to maintain resources so that we can impact on policy, that we can make our voices heard, that we can encourage other people to make their voices heard, thats all highly dependent on whether the assembly sees it as a priority. And whats gonna happen, I think, is that itll get worse before it gets better, that there will be a shutting down of a lot of our activity. And the challenge for us will be to keep the work going, regardless. Because in two to three years time, there will be a realization that, just as you must mix your social and your economic issues together, you must mix the issues of justice and equality with other political issues. This is essential if you are going to make Northern Ireland work in any shape or form. So I think weve got a struggle ahead of us, and I dont mean to be too depressing...but its a struggle.
Because it could all disappear. There has been token recognition of what the role women and the community have played in the peace process. I mean I do believe that the peace process, you can see it on many different levels, theres been a lot of push from many different quarters to get us to where we are today. And theres been other movements in history -- theres that kind of, Well take over now, thank you very much, and dont you be worrying about it cause its in safe hands. I think that would be a big mistake. I think those, whether theyre in the formal unit or in the nongovernmental arena, who have any sense of history at all, will realize this and will try to avoid it -- because its only by taking a partnership approach that the new political framework will work.
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