Sinéad Walsh on Gender, Truth and Violence – Best Dissertation in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation

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Sinéad Walsh is the winner of this year’s (2010-2011) James Haire Memorial Prize for the best M.Phil. dissertation in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation at Trinity College Dublin at Belfast (the Irish School of Ecumenics). Walsh’s dissertation is titled, ‘Gender, Truth and Violence: The Sexual Politics of Post-Conflict Transition, Case Study – Northern Ireland.’

Walsh’s work was supervised by Dr David Tombs, and she also served during the year as an intern with Platform for Change. Walsh was recognised along with classmate Barbara Hart at an informal ceremony in Belfast earlier this month. Hart won the Prize for the best essays on the MPhil in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation.

Both Walsh and Hart have begun doctoral studies at the Irish School of Ecumenics this autumn, with Walsh supervised by Dr Gillian Wylie and Hart by Dr Tombs. As the coordinator of the MPhil in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, I’m proud of Sinéad and Barbara’s achievements and gratified that they have chosen to pursue further research with us.

Walsh’s dissertation was written to an exceptionally high standard, and can be accessed in the library at the Irish School of Ecumenics, 683 Antrim Road, Belfast. To give you a flavour of its content, I’ve reproduced her summary of the work below:

Summary: Gender, Truth and Violence by Sinéad Walsh

Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, Northern Ireland has moved from a state of war to one of uneasy peace, combining the realpolitik of power-sharingwith a fraught discourse of reconciliation. However, the enduring salience of categories such as Catholic/nationalist and Protestant/unionist in the public mindset tends to obscure the ways in which gender has influenced the production of violence and the (re-)structuring of social and political life in the region.

The marginalisation of gender issues within academic discourse is mirrored by the de facto exclusion of feminist or woman-oriented politics from constitutional debating grounds, creating barriers to female participation in civic and political life in practical as well as discursive terms. This study looks critically at the relationship between gender, conflict and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, and argues that a reconfiguration of gender consciousness is necessary for cultural transformation and positive peace. It contains three substantive chapters, as well as an introduction and conclusion.

Chapter I notes that feminist mobilisation at the time of the peace process was strong, but failed to translate into sustainable progress. The demise of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition has forced a distinction between feminine principles relating to the structures governing gender and sexuality and the impact of these on women’s material and psychological well-being. The media portrayal of women in public life, which rests on heteronormative assumptions about gender, perpetuates the binary between masculine and feminine spheres.

This contributes to the institutionalised sexism outlined in Chapter II. This chapter explores how the “power” in power-sharing has been constituted within the Northern Ireland Executive (State) in a way that works against women’s interests. Beginning with a feminist perspective on the St Andrews Agreement (2006), it goes on to trace vital aspects of women’s exclusion through the Legislative Assembly, Criminal Justice System, and Northern Ireland Prison Service. The female body, which is ultimately the subject of this violent process of exclusion, is considered to mark the boundary between the public and private sphere.

This is discussed in more detail in Chapter III, which focuses on women’s civil society activism. While the heteronormative assumptions of women’s work in the community are questioned, the chapter also reveals new strands of feminist agency in Northern Ireland. A new feminist collective (the Belfast Feminist Network) is analysed for its radical approach to female sexuality. Feminist engagement with the truth recovery process is also shown to have a radical edge that may reveal the hidden agency of (female) bodies and their capacities for resistance.

(Image: Barbara Hart, left, and Sinead Walsh)

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