Thursday 19 September 2019

Joining the EU, not 1916, was the real revolution for Irish women

Constance Markievicz was the first woman to be appointed to Cabinet, in 1919
Constance Markievicz was the first woman to be appointed to Cabinet, in 1919

Emily O'Reilly

Many this year have mused about how things might have been had the seven signatories of the 1916 Proclamation survived. Perhaps we should ask instead how things might have been, and especially for women, had others not.

I am an Irishwoman with equal rights to those of Irishmen. I am a representative of those children of the nation for whom the Rising was - at its most benign, an important historical event in their lives; at its most venal, the raising of the flag for a period during which the humanity of every Irish woman was not just denied but actively legislated against.

That period ended not in 1919 or 1921 or 1926 or 1937 or 1948, but rather in 1973 when we entered what is now the European Union and our Government was forced not just to remember, reflect and re-imagine the equality they had denied, but actually to give it binding legal expression in line with the Treaty of Rome. Subsequent treaties, and 13 equality directives arising out of those treaties, finally gave to Irishwomen that which their own independent state had not.

That date in 1973 is when the Irish revolution finally happened for the women of this country. We had been to the 1916 party - worn the uniforms, fired the guns, sat in the jails, nursed the sick, waked the dead; the party ended and so, essentially, did we, did any possibility of playing a full and equal role in the subsequent development of this state. Constance Markievicz became a minister in 1919. In 1979, 60 years later, a second woman was appointed to Cabinet.

It took the international world, it took foreigners and strangers, it took outsiders, to bring us back into the light, back into the dancing of the public sphere.

As a student teacher at Trinity in the late 1970s, I wrote my HDip thesis on Pearse and St Enda's, inspired by his writings on the Murder Machine, incredulous that his outline and practice of the mode and matter of a child's education was so at odds with what had been served up in the decades since his death, even if the imposed English system was what Pearse had been decrying.

As many have pointed out, we cannot know what might have been had Pearse and others not died, neither can we know how they would have viewed our progress since 1916. All we can know is what actually happened and not what we imagine might have happened. All we can know is what those who dodged the bullet and those who came after them, actually did do.

In their 2008 work, Una Crowley and Rob Kitchin from the University of Maynooth identified more than 20 separate Government acts and reports between 1923 and 1937 that essentially saw the State join with the Catholic Church in the control of individual sexuality, a control which naturally impacted significantly more on women than on their remembered, imagined or actual sexual partners.

Women were reduced to living, breathing occasions-of-sin, such occasions to be limited as much as possible by narrowing their sphere of operation to the domestic by severely restricting their capacity to act independently through the systematic removal of their financial independence and even of their right to bodily integrity.

It would be 1990 before a man's raping of his wife became a criminal offence.

But what's interesting for us in this year is the gap between the words of the Proclamation - the guarantee of equal rights and equal opportunities for all - and what followed immediately afterwards, even if that guarantee was as revolutionary and novel in its day as the fight for independence itself.

In many ways we are this year celebrating a mirage, imagining, reinventing, re-imagining, whatever, something that if it ever was real was real for women only for that time between Pearse's march to surrender and the peals of rifles that stilled his voice forever one week later.

Perhaps it was the Proclamation itself that was actually shot to ribbons in those days and weeks.

Our entry to the EEC did bring about change, that combined with the efforts of women who essentially challenged the post-revolutionary cultural DNA.

It would be foolish to think that the motivation, at least as regards equal pay, was just some enlightened feminism on the part of the EU.

It was, more prosaically, a desire by the French - who had actually taken the equality piece of their revolutionary mantra seriously - not to be competitively undermined by the absence of equal-pay laws in a new member state.

Nonetheless, a good deal of kicking and screaming had to take place before the Irish were refused a derogation from the 1975 equal pay directive which was finally realised in 1976. Subsequent directives broadened equality and other rights in areas including social protection and maternity leave, measures that slowly enabled women to begin to explore the world outside the domestic.

Since my election as European Ombudsman in 2013, I have often said that the EU liberated my generation of Irishwomen. I tend to follow that up, however, by saying that current generations of young men and young women also need to feel that uplift in their lives and the possibilities of those lives if the Union is to gain the trust and confidence it needs to sustain itself.

When these celebrations end, let's re-imagine this island as a place where equality of possibility matters, and figure out what that actually means in practice - and not just for women, but for every child that draws breath on this island. Pearse and his colleagues died before they could do that, before we could know even if they meant it, if they willed it, if it was for them - unlike for their colleagues who survived and thrived, an integral part of the independence, of the Republic that they craved, killed, and died for.

Emily O'Reilly is the European ­Ombudsman. This is an edited extract from her address at the opening of the 2016 Parnell ­Summer School

Irish Independent

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