In the name of peace: situating resistance to abortion access in Northern Ireland as anti-gender attacks

While anti-gender movements are considered relatively recent phenomena, feminist research has increasingly considered anti-gender manifestations across a range of sites, from education to the United Nations. However, there is still little known about the relationship between peace and anti-gender movements, particularly the potential exploitation of peace agreements by anti-gender actors. With 2023 being the 25th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), I briefly consider the use of the GFA as a tool by anti-gender actors to curtail gender equality in Northern Ireland. To do so, I ask what if we considered the resistance and pushback to abortion rights in a post-GFA Northern Ireland as motivated by anti-gender logics?

Due to its fragile circumstances, Northern Ireland was seen as having its “own conservative, deeply religious culture and values”[1] which meant abortion was framed as a ‘moral issue’ for local resolution. This has permeated Northern Irish politics throughout the past 25 years, where women’s reproductive rights have been repeatedly secondary to the ‘fragile talks’ to restore the Northern Irish Executive. Consequently, the issue of abortion has been situated as a trigger for breakdown in relations in the peace process. This rhetoric of abortion undermining peace has resurfaced in recent years after demands for abortion access were significantly renewed post the 2018 abortion referendum in the Republic of Ireland. Although Sinn Féin has shifted its stance to supporting abortion rights, the DUP, and Protestant and Catholic churches, remain ‘vigorously opposed’ to abortion rights. In 2019, when the British government undertook legalising abortion in NI, the DUP persisted that abortion access was a threat to political stability and to the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive. This resistance to abortion legislation by political and religious actors is a veiled attempt to hold abortion rights hostage in the name of ‘protecting’ peace and the GFA. Consequently, the mobilisation of these conflicting actors around abortion, an issue often mobilised against by anti-gender actors, is indicative of ongoing anti-gender manifestation in NI.

Such resistance to reproductive health and rights is often seen across anti-gender mobilisations and is emblematic of anti-‘gender ideology’ logics. Anti-gender manifestations are more than just ad hoc occurrences, increasingly they are being recorded as transnational political movements. ‘Gender ideology’ has become an ‘empty signifier’ that unites disparate actors who use dissonant logics to attack their object of protest. These shared logics traverse movements to underpin contextual occurrences such as LGBTQ Free Zones in Poland or the withdrawal of gender studies in Hungary. In terms of Northern Ireland, the amalgamation of disparate actors uniting to counter abortion access ‘in the name of peace’ can be situated as anti-gender manifestations. However, contrary to these claims that legalising abortion would undermine peaceful relations, it is the lack of abortion access that prevents peace being realised. Thomson and Pierson (2018) have situated reproductive health access and rights as fundamental to security, health, and human rights. Thus, by refusing to comprehensively engage with reproductive health, the Northern Irish Executive and British government have legitimised anti-gender actors’ positioning of abortion as a threat to peace.

As a result, such anti-gender actors continue to undermine a gendered peace and firmly position reproductive rights on the periphery of peace in Northern Ireland.  Peace processes that lack gendered perspectives leave both women and other marginalised actors, such as the LGBTQ community, worse off socioeconomically post-conflict. Even where peace processes included a gendered lens, a continuum of violence remains when post-conflict societies maintain patriarchal structures. For example, in Northern Ireland, despite a gendered lens underpinning the GFA, there has been a rise in gender-based violence. Thus, this illustrates that not only are gendered perspectives vital during peace processes, but they must be upheld and nurtured post-conflict to ensure a holistic and transformative gendered peace. It could be argued that the continued side-lining of reproductive rights in Northern Ireland maintains a continuum of structural violence and upholds a patriarchal society in the post-GFA era. Thus, addressing the persistent lack of abortion access in a post-GFA Northern Ireland would allow for women to be rights-bearing individuals and continued participants in a gendered peace. To allow the continued use of the GFA to prevent abortion rights by anti-gender actors would be to prevent such a transformative and gendered post-conflict society.

Consequently, while the GFA provided a foundational platform for the insertion of gendered perspectives in Northern Irish peace, the remaining political instability and patriarchal power has not only side-lined reproductive health, but has opened the door to anti-gender expressions. Anti-gender movements, although materialising contextually, are underpinned by shared objects, logics and actors. Subsequently, if peace in Northern Ireland is conditioned on a continued lack of abortion access, this opens the door for further use of the GFA by anti-gender actors to attack other objects of protest, namely LGBTQ rights. Similarly to their opposition to abortion rights, the DUP, and the Protestant and Catholic churches remain doggedly resistant to LGBTQ rights. As such the possibility remains of anti-gender actors holding LGBTQ rights hostage in the name of ‘protecting’ the GFA and Northern Irish peace. Twenty-five years on, we must ensure that the GFA is not used to further advance a cis-heteronormative patriarchal peace; one that excludes diverse perspectives and side-lines those already marginalised in peace processes and politics such as women and LGBTQ+ persons.

[1] Sheldon, S., O’Neill, J., Parker, C., & Davis, G. (2020). ‘Too Much, too Indigestible, too Fast’? The Decades of Struggle for Abortion Law Reform in Northern Ireland. Modern Law Review, 83(4), p.767

Oonagh Wallace is a graduate of the MSc Gender, Peace and Security programme at the London School for Economics and Political Science. She is particularly interested in the intersections of anti-gender movements and peace processes. Her dissertation explored how peace agreements are at risk of exploitation by anti-gender actors as sites of both resistance and production. Oonagh currently works in policy and campaigns at PES Women where she focuses on policy regarding gender equality in the EU.


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