Women’s Rights as Human Rights: Local and Global Perspectives
Strategies and Analyses from the ICCL Working Conference on Women’s Rights as Human Rights (Dublin, March 1997)
Edited by Niamh Reilly

Cultural Rights and Social Inclusion
By Catriona Ruane

The passion with which native intellectuals defend the existence of their national culture may be a source of amazement; but those who condemn this exaggerated passion are strangely apt to forget that their own psyche and their own selves are conveniently sheltered behind a French or German (or "British" ) culture which has given full proof of its existence and which is uncontested.

In 1959 Franz Fanon addressed the Second Congress of Black Artists and Writers in Rome. I reread his speech before sitting down to write this talk, and so much he said has struck a chord in me. He could be writing about culture in Ireland today, or in Nicaragua, or South Africa or indeed his own Algeria. He understood perfectly the importance of culture and national consciousness and liberation. I think he would have liked the project I worked with for ten years, the Centre for Research and Documentation (CRD), and the project I am now working with Feile an Phobail (West Belfast Community Festival). I know that he would have been walking down the Falls Road on our St. Patrick’s Day Parade with us last Monday. James Connolly would probably have been there as well. He understood the importance of St. Patrick’s Day. Writing about our National Festival in the Worker’s Republic, on March 18, 1916, he said: The Claim of the 17th of March to be Ireland’s national festival, the claim of St. Patrick to be Ireland’s national saint, the claim of the shamrock to be Ireland’s national plant, …rests not on the musty pages of half-forgotten history but on the affections and will of the Irish people. Sentiment it may be. But the man or woman who scoffs at sentiment is a fool. We on this paper respect facts, and have a holy hatred of all movements and causes not built upon truth. But sentiment is often greater than facts, because it is an idealised expression of fact.

And wouldn’t I have been a proud woman walking alongside James and Franz down the Falls Road. The Countess might even have travelled up from Sligo to be with us and we would all have marched behind the banner "Women’s Rights are Human Rights – Release Roisin McAliskey". They might even have come to this conference and we could have asked James Connolly and Countess Markievicz to give a keynote speech.

I do not think that I would have had to explain too much to any of them about the political, historical or cultural changes in Ireland since they left us for other worlds. They would have understood it perfectly. They would not have been bought over by the community relations industry or even looked for the balance in the situation.

They would understand the complexities, analyse the relationships and sum up the problem quite neatly - British Colonialism. They would analyse that every party to the conflict – Irish and British, settler and native, coloniser and the colonised – has its identity forged at the Colonial Nexus and that the colonial legacy continues to structure British and Irish lives in a way that is just as profound as gender, race or class.

They would know that "the colonial regime owes its legitimacy to force and at no time tries to hide this aspect of things". The North of Ireland is one of the most militarised societies in the world. There are approximately 10, 000 British soldiers, 5,500 locally recruited Royal Irish Rangers, 1,200 Royal Air Force, 250 Royal Navy as well as an unknown number of MI5 agents. There are some 13,000 RUC officers. There are 250,000 weapons in the North of Ireland including 130,000 licensed guns in private, mainly Unionist, hands. There are also the weapons and explosives held by the IRA and the UVF/UFF. The hypocrisy of the British government is astounding. They insist on decommissioning in Ireland while issuing export licences for the sale of electronic torture chambers to the United Arab Emirates and three twelve-foot hanging frames to Abu Dhabi. They provide arms and training to 110 armies throughout the world. Ninety-nine countries attend military establishments in Britain. British Aerospace provided jet fighters and light tanks to the Indonesian government. Who do the British government think they are, taking the moral high ground after they have pillaged and colonised half the world? They provide the despots of the world with arms and wash their hands of the results of their sales. Alan Clarke ( former minister in the Thatcher government responsible for the sale of the latest batch of Hawk aircraft to Indonesia) gave a telling insight into the criteria used by the British government when deciding who to sell arms to when he said, "My responsibility is to my own people. I don’t really fill my mind with what one set of foreigners is doing to another".

And make no mistake about it, we are those foreigners, we are ‘gooks’, ‘paddies’, and ‘niggers’ and now ‘scum’, according to the latest outburst by yet another British minister, Mr. David McLean. His colleague, Mr. Evans, does not however, just chastise the Irish, he made headlines last week by referring to a "black bastard rapist", and referred to the labour candidate in his constituency’s ‘three bastard children’. He also declared that most of London’s beggars were Scots who slept rough from choice. The most worrying thing about all this is that John Major and Michael Howard continue to support them and they are still in office, making policy on Irish men and women. Some of the Irish prisoners in England have not had a visit from their children in three years. Roisin McAliskey is due to give birth in the next few weeks and they have now told us that she will not be handcuffed and that she will be allowed to keep her baby and we are supposed to be grateful to them for that. They have built and sustained a culture of militarism on this island. The way they are treating Roisin and other Irish prisoners in England is not just a message to Bernadette and others who dared to defy them, it is much more that that – it is a message to the next generation, "croppy lie down and if you don’t, this is what will happen to you and your children".

Well I have news for the British establishment – we are not scum, we are Irish people proud of our culture, our language, our history and our country. And I have more news for them; Feile an Phobail, CRD, Falls Women Centre, Tar Anall, Tullymore and Beechmount and Roden Street Community Centres, the Economic Forum, the Upper Springfield Resource Centre in West Belfast are dynamic, community-based organisations which celebrate our culture. We are building a culture of resistance to the racist ideology of the Tory Party and any other party which discriminates against Irish, Scots, English, Nicaraguan, South African, anywhere in the world. Feile an Phobail, along with other organisations in and outside West Belfast, will never accept the second class citizen role that they have mapped out for us. We will never accept a state that discriminates against us, we will not accept a police force that violates our human rights, we will not accept that our children cannot be educated in our language. We will not accept triumphalist marches through our areas.

Feile an Phobail is celebrating its tenth anniversary and our new Teach na Feile is opening on Tuesday 25 of this month. We will celebrate the growth of Irish Language Naiscoileanna, Bunscoileanna and Mean Scoileanna. We will celebrate the growth of women’s groups, of prisoners rights groups, of anti racist alliances. We will celebrate and organise festivals, community drama and art. We will organise carnival parades and we will be on the picket lines and visiting the jails. We will open up dialogue with any and every community and deal with the hard issues instead of ignoring them and pretending everything is all right. Everything is not all right. We have a serious ongoing conflict with real issues that divide us. Communities are crying out for a negotiated settlement to the conflict, everyone should sit down and talk. The Tory party and the secretive anti-Catholic, anti-nationalist Orange order are redundant. The new government across the water must be made to hear our voices loud and clear. We want peace, we want negotiations, do not play politics with our lives, with our children’s lives.

My final message is for the men who are struggling alongside us. We welcome you, we want to work with you, to march alongside you, but your words about freedom and justice ring hollow if you are not marching alongside us in the fight against violence against women and children. They are hollow words if you are not working with us in our homes minding your children, cleaning the toilets, and doing the cooking. They are hollow and useless if you do not actively join us in the struggle against sexism and patriarchy. I say to you go and read James Connolly’s essay ‘Woman.’ We have been the ‘slaves of slaves for far too long’ and we are going to change that.

The Quilt is here today, Women’s Rights are Human Rights was created by women from all sectors of Irish Society, North and South, East and West. It crossed class, ethnic and religious boundaries without diluting the message of any of the participants. We marched through the streets of China with it and we were visible, creative and loud. Each of us took home a little bit of vision from the forum and are trying to recreate it in towns, villages, women’s centres, schools and jails throughout Ireland. In Belfast the women’s groups, especially in working class areas, loyalist and republican, are leading the way slowly, painfully, talking to each other, looking at all the issues and accepting that different groups have different agendas and that there is a gulf between us. That is the beginning – dealing with the issues not pretending they do not exist. We are going to help build a new Ireland, an Island that makes space for eveyone regardless of their colour, religion, sexual orientation, gender or ethnic background. And it will be a confident, assertive and creative Ireland, like our musicians, poets, writers, film makers and our president, Mary Robinson.

I will give the last word to my friend Franz Fanon. He says:

I will say again that no speechmaking and no proclamation concerning culture will turn us from our fundamental tasks: the liberation of the national territory; a continual struggle against colonialism in its new forms; and an obstinate refusal to enter the charmed circle of mutual admiration at the summit.
Catríona Ruane is director of the West Belfast Féile an Phobail.
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