Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

No borders between sisters - Speech at Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission annual statement launch


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Thanks very much to Les Allamby for inviting me today and for his input and support of the work of our Joint Committee on Human Rights.

I’m delighted to be here to pay tribute to, and support, the work of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission

I well remember when the Commission was established in 1999 as part of the peace process. But there had been a movement for human rights and equality in Northern Ireland long before that.   And strong links with the human rights movement in the rest of the UK.  In the 1970s when I was legal officer at NCCL (now Liberty) there was an active Northern Ireland Committee examining, and challenging, everything to do with human rights from job discrimination to internment without trial.

Because of the divisions between the Catholic and the Protestant community (republican/loyalist) and the accompanying violence and intimidation, the context for your promotion of human rights was highly challenging but also hugely important.  You have had to defend rights in a very difficult context of and amidst controversy caused by issues such as those surrounding parades, protests and blasphemy 

So I start by acknowledging the brave work on human rights and equality that has been done within and between Northern Ireland’s different communities.

Your Commission has, over the years, dealt with all the issues that the EOC, CRE and now the EHRC does - of sex discrimination and racism.

You have, like other commissions, moved forward on issues which are newly commanding focus on the rights agenda such as age discrimination, disability discrimination, gay rights, Female Genital Mutilation and human trafficking.

Highlighting the NI women who’ve fought for their rights

I have admired, in particular, the work over the years of the Women’s Movement in Northern Ireland. 

As we campaigned for laws prohibiting sex discrimination and unequal pay and for their rigorous implementation - I knew of and admired the work of Inez McCormack, who along with many others, blazed a trail for women in Northern Ireland.

And though the context of the campaign for women’s equality in Northern Ireland was very different from our situation in the rest of the UK, many of the battles were the same. 

And the women’s movement had the same energising effect on all of us - all over England, Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland, and our arguments were the same.  We wanted nothing less than the transformation of women’s role - in the home, at work and in society.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s the summit of aspiration for a girl was to get a husband

And when you’d achieved that lofty ambition - to look after him, the home and the children.

Education was wasted on a girl - or worse, was dangerous as it might jeopardise her ability to snare the husband.  No man would want a wife who was too clever by half.  And certainly not cleverer than him.

Women worked - but didn’t have careers. Women who’d gone out to work when they left school “gave up to get married”. (Example of woman in Scotland).

But for the unfortunate few who had failed to achieve a husband - there was a whole language around these women.  Spinsters, left on the shelf, wallflowers.

My own mother - one of the very few who went to university, qualified as a barrister but she gave up the law when she got married.  Solicitors explained to her that clients thought they were getting second best and would lose their case with a woman barrister.  And anyway she had a more pressing role which was to make my father’s breakfast and dinner.  

So she gave up - and her wig and gown was consigned to our dressing up box.


The Women’s Movement - rejecting subordination to men

But I was part of a new generation of women who weren’t going to put up with this.

Not the man as “head of household”

Not take a vow to “obey”

Not his right to beat her

Not defined by what you look like

Not have to choose between family and work - but do both

And to do that we needed to break into men-only areas in every walk of life

Men only judiciary

Men only trade union movement and business leaders

Men making decisions in councils, in Parliament and governments


Demanding an equal say

We demanded this as a matter of principle

Because to exclude women was discrimination

But also because it would lead to better decisions

This was challenging the established order and was fiercely resisted.

It was even controversial to count the numbers.  (E.g. in FTSE 100 counting women on boards and the number of men only boards).

Women in councils

League tables

Women in Parliament

I got selected - and elected

But, because of terrible results for Labour in 1983 no other young feminists came in

Pressing for more women

Hard to make a difference if outnumbered.


When I was first elected in 1982 it was to a House of Commons of 97% men.

And of MPs from NI constituencies it was 100% men.

Women’s voices were simply not heard.

We thought it was not enough to get the vote so that we could vote for men - wanted to have our own voice.


Labour women struggled for women’s representation, in the party of women and equality.

All regions, women from trade unions and professional women.

Making the case - but no change.

Then, we tried one woman on every shortlist - but no change

Then, Shortlists 50% women - but no change

So, All Women Shortlists

1997 over 100 women Labour MPs (still none in Northern Ireland)


Slow - but steady - progress

So women had got into Parliament.  But still women lacked influence as they were the most junior

But, over time, women moving up in the civil service

Moving up as special advisors

Into the political commentariat

And as more women were elected, on all sides of the House of Commons, the momentum gathered for a steady march of progress. 

*a national childcare strategy

*doubling maternity pay and leave and introducing paternity leave

*new laws on domestic violence

In the 30 years since I became an MP...what we have now is a transformed political agenda but the practical reality is we still need much more to change.

  • There’s an acknowledgement that domestic violence is a terrible thing - but still pervasive.  Still 2 women a week are killed by a current or former husband or partner and every day refuges are being forced to turn women away.
  • There’s an acknowledgement that women are entitled to equal pay - but they still don’t get it.  Once they’ve had their first child, let alone their second, their pay and prospects suffer and never recover.
  • There’s an acknowledgement that women need time off when they have a baby - but maternity pay is so low that still most women can’t afford to take all their maternity leave and woefully small take up of paternity leave.  And, as yet, there is no maternity or paternity leave for MPs or councillors. We’re hoping to change that now and Sylvia Hermon and Emma Little-Pengelly are both supporting us with that.
  • There’s a recognition that childcare is essential but there are still women tearing their hair out to trying to find, or afford, good quality, flexible childcare…or unable to work.

So in the decades ahead we must, having won the arguments, win the practical change.  Next year as we celebrate the centenary of the first women winning the right to vote we must step up our ambition not just to “get into the room” but to insist on change.  Less persuasion and more insistence.  Less requests, more demands. Less suggesting, more asserting.


Solidarity between women in the cause of progress

One of the most fundamental tenets of the women’s movement of the women’s movement has always been solidarity between women.

Back in the 1970s the notion of “sisterhood” was a new and surprising thing.  When I was growing up, other women were regarded as deadly rivals, mostly in completion to get the husband.  There was plentiful language to describe women’s rivalry - such as “scratching each other’s eyes out.”   My sister was applying for work as a lawyer in the 1970s.  This was before the Sex Discrimination Act banned overt discrimination against women.  So she applied to a firm where she knew they already had a woman.  Phoning them and asking to apply for the job she was told that they wouldn’t consider her - because she was a woman.  But, she said, you do employ women, you’ve got one.  That’s precisely why, they said.  We’ve already got one and if we had another you’d only fight.  There was no sense that women could support each other. 

But the determination that we would stand together in solidarity, working together in common cause was one of the transformative elements of the women’s movement.  The women’s movement changed how we saw ourselves, how we saw our relationships with men and how we related to each other.

We were going to insist on pressing forward in every aspect of life - in factories in offices, in the law and universities, in councils and in parliament – and in our homes. And the way we were going to do this was by working together as women.  Women not as rivals but as allies in the difficult and often painful quest for change. 

And that solidarity was to all women - not just those near at hand but those from other walks of life, women in different countries and from other parts of the country.    So we looked over to our sisters in Northern Ireland.  And they looked over to us.  So many things about our lives were different.  But so much of our ambition was the same.  And instinctively we were, and are, in solidarity with women’s quest for change here. 


New solidarity between women in Parliament with women in NI

Relations between the government in Westminster and decision-making in Northern Ireland was and remains, extraordinarily sensitive and complex, deeply entwined with the peace process.  Which we all wanted to see succeed.  Often when women in Northern Ireland reached out to us for support we were warned by our colleagues in parliament, “that’s got to be decided in Northern Ireland - if you interfere you’ll jeopardise the peace settlement.”  Of course it is fundamental to us that we support devolution and decision-making by Northern Ireland’s own representatives.  But there’s a new dimension to the sense of solidarity between women in Westminster with our sisters in Northern Ireland which I think marks a turning point.   The preparedness of Parliament to engage in the issue of abortion for Northern Irish women is testament to that.  In a PLP which is now 45% women and where there are young women on all sides of the House who are what I describe as “daughters of the women’s movement”, there is now a refusal to accept being told to stay out of it,  just accept what male-dominated Northern Irish politics dictates and don’t intrude.  


Women should decide their own destiny

And another tenet of the women’s movement was that we should decide for ourselves, as women.  And that men should not tell us what to do.

The slogan on the banners that we marched under in the 1960s in support of the Abortion Act was “not the church, not the state, women must decide their fate.”  We could have added - if it rhymed, when it comes to women’s lives, women - not men - should decide.   In those days there was a natural expectation that men made decisions and women abided by them.  In the early 1980s as a new MP I did a survey of the expert committees which advised government.   It was men in government being advised by male advisory committees.  Men, it seemed were the experts on everything - the mines, the motorways, the money supply.  It was the last straw when I discovered that even on the maternity services advisory committee it was all men!  But it seems that they were the experts on giving birth too and had the say so on abortion.

When I look back at all the progress we made I can see that there are some lessons I’ve learnt.

Solidarity “despite” devolution

One of them is that you’re always told that there’s an overriding reason that you shouldn’t “interfere” in support of other women.  There’s always a political imperative advanced that though it might be right in principle, it’s not right at this particular point to act in support of that quest for equality.   Heeding those voices is applauded as “realistic” as “teamly”.  But the reality is that lack of solidarity weakens equality movements and postpones the day when people achieve the rights that they seek.

So, we were warned that putting gay marriage in the Equality Act would anger the Catholic Church in Scotland and thereby unsettle the Labour vote.   We were warned that using our votes to support the demand of women in Northern Ireland for abortion would destabilise the finely balanced, all important political equilibrium within Northern Ireland and between Britain and Northern Ireland.  And jeopardise the peace process.  So we mustn’t get involved.

We have always deferred on questions of devolution.  That was the reason we didn’t, for example, extend the Equality Act to Northern Ireland.  But the question we’re asking now is, where does that leave you?  If it leaves you failing to extend equality to gay couples how can that be right? If it leaves women in Northern Ireland without our support for abortion rights, rights that we in the rest of the UK have had since 1967, how can that be right?   If it leaves women in Northern Ireland held back by male dominated politics, how can that be right?

There’s a new sense amongst women in Westminster that we will not step aside when our sisters in Northern Ireland call for our support.  I don’t know whether that is because there are now more women MPs on all sides and that brings with it a new assertiveness, or whether it’s because the new generation of women are that much more distant from the violence of the division in Northern Ireland.  But, whatever the reason, I think it promises significant and welcome change.  And the manifestation of this came with the change on abortion in England for Northern Irish women.  The government had to accede to the demands, ably led by Stella Creasy MP, for women from Northern Ireland to get NHS abortions in England because if they didn’t we would vote on it, we had the numbers and they would lose.   

Those who oppose change can, in my view, no longer rely on the assumption that Westminster will step back from supporting demands for rights in Northern Ireland because of our support for devolution.   Women’s rights, gay rights are human rights, human rights are universal and we must champion them in every part of the UK as well as every part of the world.  We will call on your solidarity as we struggle to take things forward.  And I can say with confidence that you can call on our support.  So let’s work together closely.  And I’m sure we can identify opportunities to turn that solidarity into action.


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