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Equality rights in Northern Ireland


Dr. Katherine Side is researching the implementation of equality rights in Northern Ireland

By Janet Harron

Women’s Studies department head Katherine Side is just back from three weeks in Belfast. Thanks to a SSHRC standard research grant, she has been spending time with those responsible for implementing equality rights in Northern Ireland.

Dr. Side’s project, “Gender, equality and governance in Northern Ireland” examines the emergence of social and gender equality rights as Northern Ireland transitions out of a history of civil conflict. “The potential for comparative analysis is great. The emergence from civil conflict in Northern Ireland is relatively recent and therefore has significant implications for other societies who are attempting to move away from conflict,” says Dr. Side. These other societies might include the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and the Darfur region of Sudan.

Equality is being defined very broadly in Northern Ireland and extends beyond just divisions into national/republican and unionist/loyalist communities. “As the interests of both communities and those beyond them are taken into account, the preoccupation with past conflict is deflated,” explains Dr. Side.

As part of this research project she is also interested in questions about which specific equality rights are emerging, and how various levels of representation in governance are best able to recognize and advance these rights. This also includes what local community groups think about equality.

Working alongside local community groups in County Antrim as her focus, Dr. Side will consider the roles that local communities continue to play as a part of the peace process. Among the questions, Dr. Side are concerned with include how the role of local activists are integrated on national and international scales, and whether involvement from local activists creates different kinds of participative democracy, or whether local activism is regarded as a kind of adjunct to representation governments.

To date this research includes speaking to key policy makers to determine how gender and social equality and other emerging equality rights are understood, produced and reproduced. This process is always ongoing explains Dr. Side.
“Northern Ireland is a pretty complex place – there are lots of stories and lots of different versions that have to be taken into consideration … I am only starting to unravel some of the more complex strands of the assumptions and backroom discussions behind equality policies.”

Later the project will incorporate a photovoice research approach in which community members will document their ideas about and experiences with equality through photographs and assess them through facilitated group discussion. The $53,656 SSHRC grant also offers masters fellowships for all three years and several research opportunities in post-conflict issues.
As a contribution to peace and reconciliation literature, Dr. Side’s project undertakes to recognize that the process of establishing peace is more complex than merely putting a stop to violence.
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