Irish women targeted in new EU reform treaty campaign | Europe | News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 15.09.2009

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Irish women targeted in new EU reform treaty campaign

Ireland goes to the polls on Oct. 2 to vote again on the EU's reform treaty, after rejecting it last year. As women were one of the largest groups opposed to the Lisbon Treaty, a campaign aims to address their concerns.

Women voting No in the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty last year

Women were among the biggest groups of "no" voters

In last year's referendum, 56 percent of women voted "no" to the Lisbon Treaty, a worrying statistic for those campaigning for a "yes" vote this time around.

Why were female voters so anxious about the treaty? The Feminist Open Forum recently invited a number of female politicians on both sides of the divide to debate the matter and ask whether the Lisbon Treaty was good for women.

Ailbhe Smyth, spokesperson for the Feminist Open Forum says there are two main issues for women voters - conscription and abortion.

"The government tended to interpret the 'no' as women being very nervous about the possibility of conscription into military units within the EU, or concerned that abortion would be legitimated by our membership in the EU, both or which are completely inaccurate scenarios," Smyth said. "It can't have been only about that. We think the women who were voting 'no' did so because of fears about anticipated cuts to public service and the privatization and de-regulation of public services like health and education."

Since Ireland joined what was then known as the European Economic Community in 1973, Europe has been a driving force for gender equality in the Irish workplace. Women now have better maternity rights, more flexible working arrangements, and they get better pay - although research shows men still get paid more, particularly at management level.

But the question is, does the Lisbon Treaty have direct implications for women? Green Party Senator and former European parliamentarian Deirdre de Burca believes it does: she says it's a positive thing for women right across Europe and the developing world.

A woman casting her vote in the 2008 referendum

Female voters are said to be concerned about issues such as cuts to public services, conscription and abortion

"The Charter of Fundamental Rights is a very important part of the treaty," she said. "It promotes equality for women, and it protects them from discrimination and human trafficking. Trafficking is a serious problem, and most victims seem to be women and children. [The charter] is going to enhance the EU's ability to act at a transnational level to address the problem of trafficking of women for sexual exploitation."

De Burca added that women in developing countries also stand to benefit from the Lisbon Treaty because it includes "very strong development cooperation and humanitarian aid policies, which are going to be central."

An isolationist Ireland?

Irish Labour Party parliamentarian Joan Burton is concerned about Ireland's reputation, which she says would be badly damaged by another negative vote.

"A 'no' to Lisbon at this point would send out a very negative signal about an Ireland that is not just mired in economic difficulty, but would also send a message that we are retreating from our involvement in Europe," Burton said. "Now is not the time for Ireland to become isolationist."

But not all of Ireland's female politicians agree. Former European parliamentarian and vice president of Sinn Fein Mary Lou MacDonald, is campaigning for another "no" vote. She says the majority of women rejected the treaty last time because, like her, they believed it was a bad deal for Ireland and the EU. MacDonald says Ireland's position of neutrality could be diluted if the treaty is passed.

A cyclist passes by a 'YES' for Lisbon Treaty bus and a 'NO' for Lisbon truck in Dublin, Ireland, 10 June 2008.

Lisbon supporters are hoping this time, more women will say "yes"

"Each of the member states has their own particular history and foreign policy and they differ very greatly from a country like Ireland," she said. What I have a problem with is the EU going on a solo run, developing an incredible military capacity, saying we can intervene in a wide range of issues, so that it leaves things wide open."

Employment issues a main concern

Patricia McKenna, a former European parliamentarian and chairperson of the anti-Lisbon group the People's Movement, is also campaigning against the treaty. She says women will not be specifically affected by the Lisbon Treaty, but that the rights of both male and female workers will suffer if it is passed.

"There are serious implications because of the recent judgments making it possible for employers to take in people from other countries at much lower salaries than we have here," McKenna said. "Women in the lower paid sectors of employment will, I think, be forced into a situation whereby if they want the job, they will have to accept the lower salaries. I'm not against people from other countries getting work, but I think it will be difficult for some women."

Author: Anne-Marie McNerney, Dublin (dc)
Editor: Rob Turner

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