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Noreen Byrne: Time for a Coalition of the Belligerent to usher in the values of the 1916 Proclamation

Published: Sunday, June 05, 2016

100 years after 1916, what do we have to celebrate? This is one of a number of blogs exploring what independence meant for the women of Ireland.

NWCI’s 1916 Feminist Reflections Blogs are part of the State’s official programme to commemorate the events of 1916 – the Ireland 2016 Centenary Programme

The 1916 Proclamation was often quoted by my father. He pointed out that the values expressed in it was the reason our Grandfather Joseph Byrne, made the decision to desert the British Army, join the Irish Transport & General Workers Union and the Irish Citizen Army and participate in the 1916 Rising.

Opening with the words ‘Irishmen and Irishwomen’ – the Proclamation goes on to say that ‘The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts’. It was indeed a revolutionary document; obviously influenced by the presence of strong women in Cumann na Mban and the Irish Citizen Army, some of whom were feminists. The starting point for feminism is always the lived experience of people. In 1916 it was starvation wages, horrendous housing conditions, maternal and infant mortality, appalling health services, no universal suffrage amongst other things; and of course occupation.

One hundred years later, many seem to believe that because we get to vote for a new government every five years we are living in a modern democracy whose raison d’etre is to take care of all citizens within the constraints of scare resources.

As an active feminist in her third age, I think Ireland needs a serious reality check. While the two main political parties engage in a political dance of the seven veils, the lived experience of growing numbers of citizens is zero hour work contracts, precarious work, thousands of people without a roof over their heads, children being raised in one room in hotels, women rearing children on their own forced out to work without proper childcare, fathers getting off scot free when they stop paying child support unless their former wives or partners bring them to court, growing levels of all kinds of violence against women - within personal relationships, trafficking, enforced prostitution, the proliferation of pornography and the criminalisation and inhumane treatment of women in relation to their bodily integrity and despite financial incentives and quotas, the main political parties are far away from getting a critical mass of women into the Oireachtas.

We don’t live in a society where the needs of its citizens come first. We live in a capitalist economy where the pursuit of private profit is King. The ideology of this system expects us to believe, for example, that the motivation of multinational corporations in coming to Ireland is to create jobs and not to make profit.

In a neo liberal economy citizens are mere economic units; the only acceptable role for them is to work for lower and lower wages and create more profit. If you are not producing profit you are a drain on the economy. This ideology has a particular impact on the lives of women working outside the home and balancing their parenting role. In addition, public services are an add on; if there is any money left after tax cuts for the most wealthy - well and good - if not we know only too well what that looks like – understaffed hospitals, huge numbers of sick people, many of them elderly, lying on trolleys for days, long waiting times for treatment etc.

In this environment women’s organisations continue to deliver services with diminishing financial support from the State that are crucial to the lives of hundreds and thousands of women and children. As a result of the conditional nature of funding, women’s organisations can feel if they criticise state policies they may lose funding. Women’s groups need to stop being afraid to speak out and to remind the State that the safety and security of its citizens is its primary responsibility. Another aspect of the ideology of neo liberalism is its aggressive promotion of individualism which disrupts the human instinct for solidarity and leads to some individuals revelling in expressions of contempt, for example, for people who go on strike and making heartless comments about poor or homeless people.

Is this the picture of a real Republic? I don’t think so.

Looking to the women of 1916 for inspiration, I discovered many of them expressed opinions that seem to be as modern as women today. As we know, they came from all walks of life, from all parts of the country for what was a transformative project for self determination and independence.

The women who became active in the 1970s also wanted to transform Ireland into place where women would not be legally prevented from working outside the home, where they wouldn’t be locked up for becoming pregnant outside marriage and their babies adopted without proper informed consent, where they wouldn’t impoverished by relationship breakdown and so on. This experience has echoes in the activities of some of the women of 1916, particularly in the aftermath of the Rising when they set up organisations to raise funds to support the families of those executed and those imprisoned by the British, providing medical care for women and children, being active in trade unions etc

I like to think we carry on in their tradition.

In 2016 women’s organisations are often forced to defend our feminist analysis, our work and indeed ourselves as individuals. We need to come closer the core of feminism which for Bell Hooks is for everybody, she defines feminism as a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression. Who could be against such a broad and inclusive politics? Perhaps only those who actually benefit from patriarchal power !

We desperately need a new republic based on the values expressed in the 1916 Proclamation - political and economic sovereignty, the principles of the common good and the welfare of all citizens. We need a new vision for Ireland; Feminists and Feminism has a fundamental part to play in fighting for this new republic.

When Dr Kathleen Lynn was arrested after the Rising she described herself as “a Red Cross doctor and a belligerent’. All of us who want change must become belligerent. We need a strong coalition of the belligerent to build a New Real Republic – piecemeal change won’t get us to where we need to be.

Can the National Women’s Council of Ireland make the call for a Coalition of the Belligerent to build a new republic with its vision based on the values of the 1916 Proclamation?  The first initiative for such a coalition would be to campaign for a new Constitution that reflects changes in social attitudes and demographics which have occurred in Ireland over the past forty years or so, that for example, people have a right to water and to housing. The Constitution should be inclusive of everyone whether a citizen or not.  Let’s get going, the time is NOW !

The views expressed in NWCI's blog are not necessarily the views of NWCI