Ulster’s Red Hand
The politics of Northern Ireland are unambiguously gendered, yet gender has remained a largely ignored variable in explaining the ongoing conflict between the province’s “two communities.” Some recent scholarship in Northern Ireland has highlighted women’s historical exclusion from the formal political structures of the state and women’s marginalized yet significant informal political participation in grassroots/community organizations.2 This research demonstrates that Northern Ireland’s political system is very conservative, patriarchal, and essentially closed to women, despite a limited but vibrant women’s movement. Some feminists have gone as far as to characterize Northern Ireland as an “armed patriarchy.”3 However, our interest here is not so much the role of women in/outside of the formal and informal political structures in Northern Ireland or in the course of the Troubles. Rather, we shall examine the gender construc-tions found in sectarian identities and symbols. While no single variable can possibly explain the complex layers of conflict in Northern Ireland, such an
examination can show how central gender politics is to the perpetuation of the “Troubles.” Such a gender analysis not only illustrates the circumscribed spaces for women in the conflict but also reveals the deeper nature of the political projects of the “two communities” in Northern Ireland. Both the Protestant/unionist/loyalist identity and the Catholic/nation-alist/ republican identity are constructed and highly gendered, albeit in different ways. The Protestant/unionist/loyalist identity draws heavily on masculine/ warrior symbols with virtually no room for feminine symbols, thus reflecting the staunchly patriarchal values of unionism, its preoccupation with allegiance to the British state, and its exclusion of women from political leadership. The Catholic/nationalist/republican identity draws on masculine symbols but also makes room for powerful feminine symbols, thus reflecting (creating?) more space for women to participate in the nationalist struggle. By considering the gender constructions used in the sectarian symbol systems and identities, it may be possible to locate and explain the political spaces available-or not available-to women. More importantly, such an analysis reveals the deeper nature of the conflict as a political one centering on state versus nation rather than about equally competing ethnic identities or nationalisms per se. Finally, it suggests that there are deeper obstacles to resolving the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland than those traditionally recognized.