- 11 Feb 22
Orla O’Connor, director of the National Women’s Council, discusses the importance of ending violence against women; why Ashling Murphy’s murder should be a “wake-up call”; standing up for trans rights; and some of the key issues facing women in Ireland in 2022.
In the wake of the murder of Ashling Murphy in January, gender-based violence and women’s safety have been elevated to the forefront of national conversations – dominating headlines, dinner table discourses and social media threads. As shock waves continue to resonate across the country, women have shared their own stories of abuse and harassment, while many men have expressed solidarity, and spoken out about their own responsibility to call out misogyny in society.
Others, however, have interpreted the national conversation as a personal attack, sharing the problematic hashtag #NotAllMen to such a degree that it was trending on Twitter. Some, including the far-right, took the xenophobic route, choosing to frame the tragedy as an immigration problem. But as the attacks that have happened in the weeks since – as well as the tragic deaths of Jastine Valdez, Urantsetseg Tserendorj and many others in recent years – demonstrate, the crime of violence against women cannot be placed solely at the door of any one nationality or ethnic group.
Among the most prominent and authoritative voices in the weeks since Ashling’s death has been that of the National Women’s Council (NWCI), the leading national representative organisation for women and women’s groups in Ireland. They organised one of the first major vigils outside Dáil Éireann in memory of the young teacher, on Friday, January 14.
The NWCI’s director, Orla O’Connor – who was recognised as one of the 100 Most Influential People by TIME magazine in 2019, for her role in Together For Yes – has been vocal about what must be done to ensure women are safe in their homes and communities, and has called for the creation of a new Government department “with responsibility for ending gender-based violence.”
Speaking to Hot Press, she discusses the biggest issues facing women in Ireland in the aftermath of Ashling Murphy’s death, as well as the role of the feminist movement in 2022.
What inspired your own interest in feminism?
The thing that really inspired me in the beginning, was when I was in secondary school, and I saw the Dunnes Stores strikers. It got me really interested in politics, human rights and equality. So it started from there. In my family too, there was that sense of the importance of justice. When I went to college, I was involved a bit more in politics, and in campaigns around the minimum wage. I studied social science, and I went on to work in Finglas, doing community development work for a long time.
Would you have described yourself as a feminist, from a young age?
Probably from my late teens or early 20s. That’s when I got much more involved in women’s rights, and I began to see a lot of the issues, and women out campaigning. Particularly from the time when I worked in the unemployed centre in Finglas – I saw how women were the drivers in trying to bring about change in the community. They were also the ones that really experienced the brunt of deep unemployment and poverty. That’s what made me much more of a feminist, and much more interested in women’s rights.
What do you think the key issues are for women in Ireland in 2022?
Unfortunately, I think the issues are still very similar to what they were 20 or 30 years ago. But violence against women goes to the heart of women’s rights, and the heart of women’s equality. It has such an enormous impact on women’s lives, on families’ lives, and on communities. Unless we can end violence against women, and the threat and fear of violence, it limits so much of the decisions that women can make in their lives.
You’re also concerned about the issue of care work.
That’s the second key issue – the unequal distribution of care and care work between women and men. It’s a fundamental piece that really hasn’t shifted in Irish society. While lots of positive changes have happened, it’s still women who really have all the responsibilities around care work and housework – and that impacts on every other decision they make, in terms of how they participate at leadership level, how they want to move on in their jobs, building up independent income, and having proper pensions. It affects everything.
Is the gender pay gap still a fundamental issue?
Absolutely. The pay gap is what happens when you have that unequal distribution of care – and when you do not have the public services. Women need public childcare, a proper public health service, and public housing. The pay gap is also being driven by the fact that so many women are in low-paid jobs. Part of that, again, is because a lot of the decisions that women make are influenced by things like care. So decisions about part-time work, for example – which tends to be lower paid and precarious – are often made to facilitate school times.
What kind of difference does having women in leadership make?
In countries that have much more women in politics, you get better services around childcare, and you get better attention to violence against women. We’ve a really significant problem in Ireland, in terms of women in senior leadership – whether that’s in politics, in employment, or any sector, right across the board. That needs to change. The fact is, we’re over 50% of the population – therefore, we should be at 50% in leadership positions.
Can you see that changing anytime soon?
Some changes are happening. The change in terms of reproductive rights and abortion was really significant, and that gives me hope. I also think, being a feminist, you have to be optimistic. You have to be hopeful for change, and believe in it – and I do. But change, across so many areas, often comes as a result of such significant harm and tragedy for women.
Can you give examples of what you mean?
In terms of abortion, it was Savita Halappanavar. It’s been the same in terms of violence against women – it’s been murders of women that have brought about the change. And in terms of the healthcare system as well, with people like Vicky Phelan. Dreadful things have to happen to women before society takes notice, and before there is a real drive for change. It shouldn’t have to be like that.
What was your own immediate reaction, when you heard the news about Ashling Murphy?
It was really shocking. Within hours, the National Women’s Council was getting phone calls. It was very clear how much people related to Ashling Murphy, for lots of reasons – young women, older women thinking of their daughters and granddaughters, and men as well. It was extraordinary to see the number of vigils, and the amount of people coming out. It was almost like a #MeToo moment where so many people were talking about their own experiences, and how much the fear and the threat of violence and harassment impacts on their lives. It was, and still is, a wake-up call both to Government and also to the whole of society: this is real, this is happening, it’s affecting our lives on a daily basis, and it’s not good enough anymore. There’s probably been a generation in which harassment was seen as part and parcel of growing up. But we’re in a time now where people are saying: ‘No, this is not acceptable.’
The conversation has definitely been sparked, but do you think the political will is there, to bring about the change that’s needed?
Minister Helen McEntee has made clear her commitment to really tackling violence against women. In all of the parties, and in all of the speeches in the aftermath of Ashling Murphy’s murder, it was clear to see people’s genuine concern, and desire to bring about change. I believe there is the will to do that now. It’s really important that we get it right, but also that it’s ambitious.
In what sense?
Because we have such a long way to come from. Services have been under-resourced, and domestic and sexual violence is still surrounded by a lot of stigma, and a lot of silence. So we really need to push the political will that’s there now, to deliver the change that’s needed. That’s the challenge – will the Government deliver on the scale that’s needed? Because we are talking about a lot of investment. We’re also talking about a huge cultural shift, and the Government have to be part of driving some of that cultural change.
You’ve spoken about the need for the creation of a Government department for ending gender-based violence, with a Minister sitting at the Cabinet table. Could you realistically see this current Government delivering that?
Yes, I could. They can clearly see the need for it, and they can see how survivors and victims have fallen between so many different services and departments – and it’s not good enough. We welcome the fact that Minister McEntee came out and said that this is going to be in the Department of Justice. Now, we still have to see what that’s going to look like, but I think that was an important statement.
I also think that some of the more recent legislation that’s come in is really important. The legislation on coercive control, for example, is a really critical piece because as well as it being an important piece of legislation in terms of potential convictions and future convictions, it was also saying strongly that we now understand domestic abuse, in all its forms. And a really significant piece by the current Minister is the whole series of recommendations that came from the Tom O’Malley Report, on how victims of rape are treated in the criminal court. Looking at what changes need to be made from the perspective of the victim is a big shift.
Is Minister McEntee carrying out that kind of work a testament to why we need more women in leadership in politics?
That’s part of it. She’s also the first Minister to have taken maternity leave. In the discussion in the Dail [following Ashling Murphy’s murder], it was predominantly women who were in the chamber speaking about it – making really powerful speeches across the parties. But in terms of what’s driving the change, the frontline services have been providing the services and campaigning at the same time, for such a long time. And doing that with really minimal resources.
In the aftermath of Ashling’s murder, the hashtag #NotAllMen began trending once again. What was your response to that?
It’s not hugely surprising. Whenever the issue of violence against women gets prominence, there’s always an element of that on social media. This is a moment, though, when men need to step up to the plate. They need to engage. They need to be supporting women’s organisations. But they also need to show leadership, in terms of standing up against violence against women. That’s what zero tolerance culture is about – men calling out sexism and misogyny as well as women. We haven’t reached that yet. It was really good to see men out at those vigils, but we need to go a step further. They need to be out there campaigning for these changes, and they need to be having these conversations – by challenging rape jokes and cat-calling, for example.
Some of the conversations and responses on social media got very heated. Do you think the likes of Twitter are the right places to be discussing these kinds of issues?
Social media has a role, in terms of spreading a message. And it certainly has a role in engaging people. But there are such significant problems with it, in terms of it being part and parcel of how online abuse is conducted. In the National Women’s Council, we think there needs to be much stronger legislation on social media companies, in terms of how they manage that. It’s one of the things that’s said to us continually, from women of all ages – they don’t want to go forward for leadership positions, because they’re concerned about the online abuse that they will receive.
What about the way Mary Lou McDonald has been depicted in the media and on social media – do you think that comes down to sexism?
Very much so. The way in which a lot of female politicians are criticised is extremely sexist and Mary Lou McDonald would definitely be one of those. We know it’s one of the things that’s really preventing women going forward, because they don’t want to be getting that kind of abuse. And also, they’re concerned about the impact it might have on their families.
Do you think it’s possible that aggressive behaviour – usually by men – can be removed from human nature?
We have to try. We really need to look at how we’re educating boys and girls. We certainly believe there needs to be significant changes in the curriculum, so that there are programmes at primary, secondary and into third level that challenge our view of what being a man means in Irish society today. We need to challenge the stereotypes around masculinity, and that needs to happen in schools. So I do think it’s possible but it’s going to take change on a number of different levels. The type of programmes that are going on in schools at the moment are ad hoc. They’re very much down to the decision of each individual school and that’s just not good enough.
The existence of single sex schools has been debated in recent weeks too. What’s your stance on that?
My own view on that is that mixed schools are a much better environment for boys and girls. We can see the implications of single sex schools, when boys and girls are leaving school, and they haven’t had conversations together, about some of the issues we’re talking about – whether that’s violence against women, or relationships. In other countries, where there is more of a continuous mixed environment, the evidence is showing that it certainly supports the breaking down of stereotypes. That’s going to be one of the important changes we make over the next number of years – to move forward with a model that’s all about mixed schools.
Do you believe that toxic masculinity is an issue in Irish society?
Absolutely, I do. Some of the things that we’ve seen in recent weeks, the way some meetings have been targeted, is an example of that. We need to target toxic masculinity within those programmes in school, but we’re also looking at campaigns that can be done in other sectors of society where men are – in sporting organisations, for example.
Does more work have to be done in separating toxic masculinity from aspects of masculinity that should be allowed to be celebrated?
There are some examples that are looking at what it means to be a boy, or to be a man, now. Programmes that the Men’s Development Network and Richie Sadlier are doing, for example, which are looking at it in a positive way. There needs to be much more done on that. A number of years ago there was a programme around positive masculinity, and unfortunately the funding was withdrawn from it. It’s about looking at it in a positive way, but it’s also about challenging that really negative behaviour. It’s also about having a better understanding of patriarchy, and what that means.
Education in Ireland also remains dominated by religion. Do you think it’s possible to be both a practising Catholic and a feminist?
I haven’t thought about that one because I’m not a practising Catholic!
Would you agree that most dominant religions remain based on a patriarchal structure?
A lot of religions are. We have such a damaging legacy in Ireland, in terms of the involvement of the Catholic Church in our health services, our education services, and right across society. It’s had such enormous implications for women. We’re dealing with those implications now from the legacies of Mother & Baby Homes, to right now, where ten out of 19 of our maternity hospitals are providing abortions. Even though they’re publicly funded hospitals, they’re religiously influenced. Our schools are religiously influenced, and that’s why we do not have proper sex education in schools. It’s certainly my view that we need to remove religious influence from our public services.
What’s your take on the National Maternity Hospital debacle?
That’s a really good example – to be building a National Maternity Hospital that’s going to provide for the women of our country, it absolutely has to be owned and controlled by the State. The Government have really made a big mistake on this one. It’s not going to deliver the health needs of women. We don’t trust the fact that the Church are not handing this over. At this point, the Government either need to do the compulsory purchase order, or we need to look to a new site.
Obviously you’ve been very involved in the fight for women’s reproductive rights. Does it frighten you, to look at what’s happening in the US right now, with the curtailing of abortion access in many states?
Absolutely. We know very well the harm it does, when you restrict abortion access. It’s traumatic and it’s harmful. We believe that abortion is a basic part of healthcare for women. What’s happening in the States and in Eastern European at the moment is about abortion, but it’s also about a systemic undermining of women’s rights, and that’s extremely worrying. We’re also seeing an attempt by the far-fight to mobilise in Ireland. The National Women’s Council are part of Le Chéile, which is a coalition against the far-right, and we’re also trying to do as much as we can in terms of solidarity with other women’s organisations and reproductive rights organisations. It really is important that we come together to fight this.
There’s been controversy within the feminist movement in recent years, in relation to trans rights. What’s your response been to that?
The National Women’s Council have a very clear trans inclusive approach – we are a trans inclusive feminist organisation. When we’re talking about women, that includes trans women. It’s really important, as a feminist organisation, to be out there fighting for trans women, and trans women’s rights. In the UK and in other countries, we are seeing a complete polarisation. So in Ireland, it’s important that the National Women’s Council is working closely with trans organisations, and we work together in combating some of the narrative and some of the discourse that’s coming in, which is all about polarising people.
In what way?
I’m certainly concerned about what I can see happening, with the anti-trans movement trying to target women’s organisations, and attempting to bring them into that space. So it’s very important that I, as the director, and the National Women’s Council, are taking a stand against that, and having conversations with our members to ensure that doesn’t happen in the Irish context.
Where do you think that trans-exclusionary talk comes from?
It comes from different places. I know there’s been some work done – there’s been a new coalition formed by TENI [Transgender Equality Network Ireland], BeLonG To and LGBT Ireland, for example. Some of it is coming from those far-right movements, and then some of it is coming, unfortunately, from feminist spaces as well. Part of it is coming from a place of ignorance. But it’s very important that organisations like TENI are supported, in terms of getting their message out.
There has been a global perception of feminism as a white middle-class movement in the past. Is there more work to be done in tackling that?
In some places it wasn’t just a perception. But in Ireland now, it has to be about intersectionality. That’s what the feminism of the National Women’s Council is about. It’s a fair criticism of feminism – it moved at different moments, with second wave feminism and third wave feminism. But we are now into an intersectional wave of feminism, which recognises that we’re not a homogeneous group.
The National Women’s Council’s new strategic plan is called No Woman Left Behind, and it means our focus over the next four or five years is about bringing to the fore women who are experiencing racism, or disabled women, or trans women. It’s about looking at every policy, and asking how the most marginalised women will participate in that campaign, and how she can benefit from that.
The NWCI’s position has been that the sex industry should be eliminated. Do you think you’ll have to move away from that, to a position that’s a bit more open, down the line?
The thing about all our positions in the National Women’s Council is that it comes from our members – and our members firmly believe that the sex trade is a form of violence against women, that it’s harmful for women, that there’s enormous profits being made out of the sex trade – and our role should be about supporting women who want to be able to move out. It’s also about a wider statement, in terms of the harm that it is for all women, through the commodification of women and the objectifying of women. In the same way as No Woman Left Behind looks at the most marginalised women, that’s what we’re doing when it comes to the issue of prostitution.
So no – I don’t see it changing. In fact, from our new campaign, Beyond Exploitation, there’s more support amongst the members, in terms of the position. More work needs to be done in terms of supporting women’s voices – women who are in or who have left prostitution. But also we need much better strategies in Ireland, in terms of women who want to move out of prostitution. Because right now, they’re faced with serious housing problems, income problems, and often health problems and there’s no wrap-around support. And from the most recent piece of research, which was done in UCD, over 90% of women in the sex trade in Ireland are migrant women. So there’s also serious issues in terms of how you support women out of prostitution, and things like their immigration status, for example.
Do you think we could reach a day when the job of the National Women’s Council is effectively done – having accomplished what it needs to?
Yeah, I’d like to think that! I can’t see it in the very near future… But I can certainly see huge progress for example, with Repeal The Eighth. We are going to bring about real change, in terms of violence against women but in terms of eradicating it, we’re a long way down the road, because of what’s needed. It comes down to what I said earlier – being a feminist, you have to be optimistic!