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Report on Belfast IWD 2024 rally

13 March 2024

International Women’s Day, Belfast 2024

Last year’s International Women's Day (IWD) rally in Belfast was marred by controversy when one of the speakers was silenced after expressing a gender critical position.  Mabel Chah, a black migrant woman from Cameroon, was barracked by a section of the crowd and her address cut short by the compere. Afterwards the organisers issued a statement disowning Mabel and expressing regret that such views had got an airing.  While there was an effort to avoid controversy this year it was not entirely successful.  The tensions and conflicts within the women’s movement (and the broader left in the North) are still there and at times during the rally they came to the surface.  With the most urgent issue of the day being the genocide against the Palestinians the organisers were compelled to make some gesture towards this.  The theme of the rally was Peace and Courage.   It also included a pro-Palestine contingent.  Indeed, the Palestine solidarity activists were the biggest element and boosted the size on the march compared to previous years.

Around 1,500 people marched from Writers’ Square to Belfast City Hall where they were addressed by a number of speakers. The tenor of the platform was set by the compere - Emma Campbell of Alliance for Choice.  In her introduction she name checked the organisations who were taking part, a rollcall made up mostly of NGOs and trade unions.  She then went on to welcome the restoration of Stormont and listed a number of strategies, from anti-racism to anti-poverty, that the Executive ought to be working on. This really encapsulated the perspectives of liberal feminism - that women are represented by the NGO sector and that the best way to achieve progress is by lobbying the government.  Reclaim the Agenda, the umbrella group that organises the IWD rally in Belfast, epitomises this.  The problem is that Stormont has a very poor record on reform.  The various reports and strategies it has produced over the years have just gathered dust on the shelf. Any advances for women, particularly in terms of the reform of abortion laws, have completely bypassed Stormont.

It’s not just that state institutions are indifferent to women in general.  For some groups of women, they are outrightly hostile.  What else can we conclude from the decision of a speaker for a group representing refugee women to withdraw from the event late on.  This was announced from the platform but it wasn’t clear what the cause of this was other than a reference to a vague threat. A statement released by the Anaka Women’s Collective was more explicit.  It confirmed the decision to withdraw one of its members from the speakers’ platform was done with “great sadness and anger because of the oppressive immigration system”.   The group said: “The rhetoric from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, unchallenged by Keir Starmer and reinforced by media attitudes, has created a hostile environment for our members.  Members of our collective are no longer safe to speak here today because of the threats from our government.”

The eagerness of the organisers to integrate themselves with various levels of government was the inclusion of the Lord Mayor as the opening speaker.  Ryan Murphy, a representative of Sinn Fein, cited the recent unveiling of statues of Mary Ann McCracken and Winifred Carney as an example of how the city was recognising the contribution of women.  This is the type of tokenism that is presented as advances for women.  The very presence of Murphy, a representative of a party that was preparing to raise a glass to Joe Biden in the White House as the US sponsored slaughter in Gaza continues, was a grievous insult to the supposed theme of the rally. This was not lost on many of the Palestine solidarity activists who were present and heckled the Lord Mayor with shouts of “Boycott Biden”.  There was also a noticeable drift away from the rally at this point which was illustrative of tensions between the liberal feminist politics coming from the platform and the pro-Palestine sympathies of most of the crowd. These liberal feminist politics were articulated most clearly by the next speaker Avila Kilmurray, a former community activist and trade union official as well as a founder member of the NI Women's Coalition.  She argued that the Northern Ireland process was a model for the resolution of conflict elsewhere.  While she didn’t explicitly reference Gaza, the implication was clear.  She also made a reference to the association between war and sexual violence against women which could be interpreted as giving credence to claims over the breakout from Gaza on Oct 7.  On a broader political organisation, she called for the creation of a movement that would go under the cover of a broad “intersectional umbrella”.  She was followed by speeches from an Afghan refugee (Alina Gawhsry) and a disabled woman (Sarah Griffiths) who had personal stories of overcoming adversity but were not really political. After them was trans rights activist Alexa Moore of the Rainbow Project who led a chant of “same struggle, same fight, trans rights are women’s rights”.  The last speaker, and the only one who really spoke to the theme of the rally, was veteran peace campaigner Mairead Maguire.  She told the crowd: “We reject militarism, discrimination, hunger and poverty. These are all forms of violence and we reject politicians who demean us by insisting we prepare for war. We are being led by militarists, gun sellers and warmongers who say we must hate each other.”

An incident which illustrated the politics of the organisers of the event was the attempt to remove a Free Assange banner from the march. Supporters of the Wikileaks founder who had joined the pro-Palestine contingent were confronted by stewards who demanded that they fold up their banner and leave the march. After a lengthy period of remonstration, during which the anti-censorship campaigners were physically obstructed, the stewards partially relented, allowing the banner to be displayed at the very back of the march.

The response to an image of Julain Assange speaks both to the intolerance and inconsistency of the organisers. In their worldview the allegations of sexual misconduct made against Assange were enough to make him persona non grata.  All notions of justice and due process are dismissed; as is the fact that the case against Assange in relation to these claims was eventually dropped.  The role that Wikileaks has played in exposing the abuses that they would claim to be against is completely ignored.  Indeed, what we end up with is just another form of censorship, albeit in the guise of liberalism. The hostility towards Assange also contradicts the stated theme of ‘Peace and Courage’ and the prominence given to the cause of the Palestinians.  If the Israeli claim that mass rape took place on Oct 7 during the breakout from Gaza is accepted (in the same way that allegations against Assange are accepted) then Palestine solidarity activists would not have been welcomed at the rally and everyone with a Palestinian flag or banner would have been asked to leave.  Moreover, Mairead Maguire, a long-time supporter of both the Palestinians and Julian Assange, would not have been on the platform.  Such propositions are of course absurd but they only arise out of the absurdity of the position adopted by the organisers.  Identity politics trumps everything and any sense of martial reality, rationality or justice goes out the window.

This year’s IWD rally in Belfast, following on from the debacle of the previous year, illustrates the poor state of the feminist movement not only in the city but throughout the whole of Ireland.  It is no longer a grassroots campaigning movement but rather a collection of NGOs who see the lobbying of the government as their main focus.  Add to this the adoption of policies that are actually harmful to women, such as support for self-identification and sex work, it can be argued these organisations (which are officially recognised as speaking for women) are now undermining women’s rights rather than advancing them.


(1)  Report on the International Women’s Day rally in Belfast, Socialist Democracy, 9 March 2023

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