Learning from Northern Ireland? Making gains for gender equality at the UN Security...

As Ireland prepares to begin its tenure of the UN Security Council in January 2021, Dr Catherine O’Rourke and Dr Aisling Swaine examine the lessons of inclusive peacebuilding from Northern Ireland and how these might inform the UN Security Council’s work on gender equality.

It is twenty years since the UN Security Council first formally recognised that women’s rights are of relevance to its mandate in maintaining international peace and security. Considered ground-breaking at the time, its adoption of Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security on October 31st 2000, signalled a broadening of the Security Council’s central concerns. For the first time, a resolution of the Security Council recognised the need to address the exclusion of women from peacebuilding and to tackle the violence that women experience as a result of armed conflict.

Emerging in a global context which had seen, in the preceding decade, the targeted sexual violation of women in the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and the exclusion of key women’s rights concerns from peacebuilding processes happening globally, the resolution was timely and particularly relevant to events in Ireland at the time.

The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, signed two years earlier in 1998, was exemplary in its inclusion of commitments to women’s rights – ‘the right of women to full and equal political participation’ – and in addressing human rights and equality concerns more broadly. The Agreement included provision for a Human Rights Commission for Northern Ireland and envisaged both a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland and an All-Island Charter of Rights, as well as a public sector ‘equality duty’ that requires all public bodies in Northern Ireland to consider the equality implications of its policies.

Speaking at an event organised by Ireland’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations marking the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of Resolution 1325, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney remarked: ‘To us, WPS is personal.’ He went on to comment that ‘we firmly believe that women’s full, equal and meaningful participation isn’t just desirable, it is essential’ and acknowledged the difference that women’s participation made to the peace process in Northern Ireland, four years before the adoption of Resolution 1325.

Ireland formally begins its tenure of the Security Council in January 2021. Its seat focuses on three principles – Building peace, Strengthening prevention, Ensuring accountability – all of which draw from Ireland’s areas of experience and strength, among which most notably is its experience of the Northern Ireland peace process.

The Northern Ireland peace process has, by international standards, been successful, in particular in reducing the number of conflict-related killings. It has been exemplary in its inclusion of provisions to advance women’s rights and gender equality.  Nevertheless, Northern Ireland remains a deeply-divided society with several constituencies that have not enjoyed the full benefit of the peace process, most notably in terms of their overall sense of security. Beyond the good news headlines of the success of the Northern Ireland peace process, is a complex story of gender exclusions that, as we outline here, reveal several areas of learning from which global approaches to peacebuilding through the UN Security Council, should pay attention to in the ‘long grass’ of peace agreements for women.

Violence against women, an issue that has gained particular prominence in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, is slowly gaining more recognition as an aspect of women’s experiences of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Northern Ireland’s experience speaks volumes to current Security Council approaches to this issue: research by one of the authors has shown that that women will experience violence related to the conflict in their own homes, as well as at the hands of state and non-state actors, and that, importantly, the end of a conflict does not bring about the end of  that violence in their lives. Recent consultations with women peacebuilders in Northern Ireland, supported by Ireland to mark the anniversary of Resolution 1325, found ongoing issues of coercive control by paramilitary organisations of women and their peacebuilding work. Research by Monica McWilliams and Jessica Doyle found broadly positive impacts of police reform in Northern Ireland on victims and survivors of domestic violence, but the ongoing need for tailored police responses to addressing the enduring influence of paramilitarism on domestic violence.

Official initiatives to deliver accountability for conflict killings have also been largely unaware of the specific impact on women bereaved by the conflict. The Stormont House Agreement (2014), in which the North’s main political parties and the British and Irish governments finally agreed to bespoke institutions to deliver truth, justice and accountability, made no express provision either for the inclusion of women or an awareness of gender. In response, a network of victims, civil society organisations and academics developed the Gender Principles for Dealing with the Legacy of the Past (with support from the Irish Government’s Reconciliation Fund). Despite these Principles being well received, there is little evidence of improved gender-sensitivity in further proposals for accountability.

Whilst the uneven outcomes for women of the peace process have at least acquired some public understanding, the experience of the North’s LGBTQ community of peacebuilding has been largely invisible in public debate. Research by Fidelma Ashe and colleagues found, rather than experiencing the peace process as a transition from insecurity to peace and security, LGBTQ participants instead reported enduring feelings of insecurity through peacebuilding. Participants reported ongoing violence and intimidation in public spaces, hostile political attitudes, and the often unhelpful role of churches in sustaining such attitudes. ‘Let Us Eat Cake’ was a recent photography exhibition and play designed to build public awareness of these marginalised experiences. These enduring feelings of insecurity, isolation and marginalisation pose important challenges to claims around Northern Ireland as a peacebuilding ‘success story’ or model for emulation elsewhere.

Finally, any discussion of women and peacebuilding in Northern Ireland needs to reflect also on men and the important role of men and masculinities in sustaining violence. The persistence of paramilitarism in the North is well-known and well-documented and widely-reported by women’s organisations in affected communities. Efforts to challenge ongoing paramilitarism need, however, to better understand and address the often extreme insecurity and vulnerability of young men targeted for recruitment to paramilitary groups. Research by Brandon Hamber and colleagues in the most deprived communities in Northern Ireland identified how differently-situated young men were targeted for recruitment for different reasons and in different ways. Young people linked to families known for past paramilitary involvement were targeted due to ‘pedigree’. Other young men were targeted for recruitment due to their ‘kudos’ amongst other young people; whilst a third group, ‘followers’, were drawn into low-level violence, but less central to planning or ideology.

Collectively, these insights from Northern Ireland’s uneven gender equality outcomes tell us that, first, hard work, determination and long-term commitment are required for inclusive peacebuilding. Second, that whilst peace agreements are essential frameworks for inclusive peacebuilding, the threats of exclusion, marginalisation and violence persist long into the future. Third, the potential for violence against women to change form, though not necessarily prevalence, in the postconflict setting is considerable. Fourth, that peacebuilding needs to include women in their diversity, including women bereaved by the conflict, civil society actors and, critically, sexual and gender minorities. And finally, Northern Ireland tells us that gender-inclusive peacebuilding requires us also to examine men – as men – to understand their gendered relationships with the men around them, and to ensure that these are relationships marshalled towards peace.

The UN Security Council is often – legitimately – criticised for its failure to deliver on any of the lessons above: it is designed to make short-term responses to crisis, rather than build long-term projects for peace even though, as noted, this is exactly what it should be paying attention to. It has typically relied on very narrow stereotypes of women, either as peacemakers or victims of sexual violence, in ways that obscure the sorts of complex gender inequalities outlined above; and it is also often a site of militarised masculinities, exemplified by countries like Russia and the US squaring-off against each other. If Ireland is to deliver on its promise to bring the lessons of inclusive peacebuidling from Northern Ireland to the UN Security Council, it has an important opportunity to encourage the Security Council to look inwards to its own procedures and practices, and to engage with the deeper complexities of peace outlined here, in order to truly deliver on the promise made 20 years ago by Resolution 1325.

Further Reading

Women’s Rights in Armed Conflict under International Law (Cambridge University Press, 2020) by Catherine O’Rourke

Women’s Rights in Armed Conflict under International Law identifies key aspects of how different regimes regulate women’s rights in conflict, and how they interact. Using country case studies to reveal the practical implications of the fragmented protection of women’s rights in conflict, this book offers a dynamic account of how regimes and institutions interact, the extent to which they reinforce each other, and the tensions and gaps in regulation that emerge. A policy brief drawn from the book is also available.

Conflict-Related Violence Against Women: Transforming Transition by Aisling Swaine

By comparatively assessing three conflict-affected jurisdictions (Liberia, Northern Ireland and Timor-Leste), Conflict-Related Violence against Women empirically and theoretically expands current understanding of the form and nature of conflict-time harms impacting women. The ‘violences’ that occur in conflict beyond strategic rape are first identified. Employing both a disaggregated and an aggregated approach, relations between forms of violence within and across each context’s pre-, mid- and post-conflict phase are then assessed, identifying connections and distinctions in violence. Swaine highlights a wider spectrum of conflict-related violence against women than is currently acknowledged. She identifies a range of forces that simultaneously push open and close down spaces for addressing violence against women through post-conflict transitional justice. The book proposes that in the aftermath of conflict, a transformation rather than a transition is required if justice is to play a role in preventing gendered violence before conflict and its appearance during and after conflict.

About the Authors

Dr. Catherine O’Rourke is Director Transitional Justice Institute, Senior Lecturer in Human Rights and International Law, Ulster University.

Dr. Aisling Swaine is Professor of Gender Studies, School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice, University College Dublin.