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Women in Agreement – Constitutional Conversations

Updated Wednesday, 19 April 2023

How have women featured in the conversations about the politics of Northern Ireland? 


The people who negotiated the Good Friday Agreement could not have imagined that by the time of the twenty-fifth anniversary barely a day would pass without calls for a referendum on Irish unity. A key reason for the surge in support for a unity referendum in the North was the experience of Brexit. The local majority vote to remain made no difference in the overall Brexit framework. The Protocol fiasco that followed exposed a reckless lack of government preparation for the referendum in 2016.  

People in N Ireland began to talk and organise after Brexit. The first large scale public event, Beyond Brexit, was organised by Ireland’s Future (IF) in the Waterfront Hall in January 2019. Fifteen hundred people attended. The event sent a signal across the island that a New Ireland was on the horizon and public conversations towards that goal were underway. 

In the years since then civic preparation for a referendum has gained momentum in the form of public events, opinion polls, research reports and media debates. Women are prominent in all these arenas. 


Shortly after the 2019 Waterfront Hall event, a lively, small-scale local meeting took place in a community venue in Belfast. A group of women from the Falls and Shankill met to try out some flashcards that were designed to facilitate grassroots constitutional conversations. 

The women used the cards with great gusto. Everyone had a say. Conflicting views, passionate beliefs, witty provocations, and uncertainties were laid out loud and clear. Everyone listened. Afterwards, the women suggested ways to improve the cards.  Everyone said they looked forward to continuing with the conversation. 

This enthusiasm was not based on everyone in the room agreeing as to the outcome of a referendum on unity or even agreeing on the desirability of holding one. Everyone in the room was well experienced in peace building community dialogue. They saw the conversation as another opportunity for women like themselves to play their part and have a say in where the constitutional conversation is heading. 


Women in the community conversation that day saw the prospect of a referendum as an opportunity for grassroots women’s groups to push for improvements in day-to-day life in the here and now. Some saw the prospect of a unity referendum as an opportunity to plan for a New Ireland that guarantees women’s equality and gender rights. Women supporting continued union within the UK viewed the conversation as a means of having their voices heard on constitutional futures. Whether they were for, against, or uncertain about Irish unity, everyone in the room wanted to know more about what a New Ireland might mean for their community.  

Since that early conversation women’s grassroots constitutional conversations have flourished across the island. Groups from Donegal, the border counties, Belfast, Dublin, Waterford and elsewhere have taken up the opportunity to use the Constitutional Conversation Flashcards that the Falls and Shankill women helped to design. They too remain involved in the all-island conversations. 

The opportunity for these all-island conversations came about when Professor Fidelma Ashe at Ulster University obtained funding for the project, Gendering Constitutional Conversations. Northern Ireland conversations were funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and conversations in the Republic were funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs. 

Funding has been crucial. It has enabled women from different parts of the island to have their say and listen to each other. Dr. Joanna McMinn, well-known community educator, and former Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland conducted the conversations. They included women in marginalized groups that are often characterised as ‘hard-to-reach’ including women in the Traveller community, the LGBTQI constituency, women in rural areas, and ‘new’ citizens (See Ashe, 2022). 

The launch of Fidelma’s report in Dublin was welcomed by women from the participating groups, north and south, plus women representatives from all the political parties in Leinster House. The idea of women from different parts of the island with certain and uncertain views on Irish unity getting together to have constitutional conversations caught the imaginations and hopes of everyone in the room in Boswell’s Hotel that day. 


Inclusion is a principle of the grassroots constitutional conversations. The opportunity to take part is important for anyone who feels excluded. It’s important for women who see gender neutral language as a form of exclusion. Those from working class districts who took part in the grassroots conversations, live in areas where too many children remain in poverty; too many women are not safe in their own homes and where the strains and stresses of inadequate housing, poor education and inaccessible health care are faced by under-resourced women’s groups. These experiences are shared by women in loyalist and republican districts. Some see constitutional conversations as an opportunity to press for intersectional gender justice.

A unity referendum is not a magic wand to fix these conditions. However, in the year of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the commitments made there to equality, rights and social justice are resurfacing in the form of a scrutiny of governance in each jurisdiction on the island. Women in grassroots constitutional conversations want to know how each jurisdiction compares: state benefits; health care; education; housing; employment; environment, and how in a New Ireland women’s equality, safety and rights will be enhanced and protected.


This year, the next stage in women’s constitutional conversations is underway. Researchers who have examined each jurisdiction will hold residential workshops with the participating women’s groups. In turn, the groups will be able to spread the word and take the constitutional conversation to another level within their own communities.   


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