Michelle Gildernew speaks at Sinn Féin's manifesto launch. Photo:Getty
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Sinn Féin manifesto: both more and less important than you think

Sinn Féin won't take their seats at Westminster. So what is their manifesto for? Mainly, it's a dry run for the contests that really matter to the party in 2016.

Sinn Féin's manifesto, launched on Monday, may claim to be about the 2015 election but in reality the policies are aimed at drumming up support for the Irish general election and bolstering support in the Northern Ireland Executive election, both taking place in 2016. Realistically, as Sinn Féin continues to abstain from taking their seats in Westminster, they can have little influence on the incoming government. It will be those elected as MLAs in Northern Ireland and TDs in Ireland that may be able to enact many of the policies mentioned in the manifesto. This is all but admitted in the manifesto which refers to ‘the island economy’ and references the support of people ‘across Ireland’, this support is hardly pertinent to the Westminster election where only a section of the island is represented and the majority is a separate jurisdiction.

One of the major themes of the manifesto is anti-austerity. Again, abstention means that they can't logically hope to influence any votes in the House, and therefore, can’t end austerity. However, anti-austerity is a platform that Sinn Féin have used extensively in Ireland and to good effect, such as utilising the anti-water charge protests to gain support. The latest figures show they are polling 24 per cent in the Irish polls suggesting that they have the chance to shape the next government. Interestingly, they also continually mention working on a stronger ‘island economy’. While naturally the Irish and Northern Ireland economies have many links and there is overlap in some areas, for example the two jurisdictions share a tourism board, it isn’t possible for the Westminster government or its MPs to control the economy of an independent country. However Sinn Féin are likely to retain their position in the Northern Ireland executive in 2016 and if they were to form the next Irish government, most likely as part of a coalition, it would make co-ordinating the two economies as easy as they can ever hope it to be without reunification.  

The manifesto also announces that Sinn Féin will call for a referendum on a united Ireland in the next parliament. To have a referendum on reunification would require the consent from both the UK and Irish governments. Simultaneous referendums on reunification are a key part of what Sinn Féin stands for generally, and it is likely that an Irish government if they agreed to reunification would do so subject to a referendum. It would also require the consent of the Northern Ireland executive unless they intend to have the Good Friday agreement collapse. They argue that this is a part of the Good Friday Agreement which has yet to be brought to fruition, however this is not strictly true. The Good Friday Agreement states that a referendum on reunifying Ireland should be held in a situation where it would seem a majority want reunification. Despite this being a vital and important part of the agreement, there has been no suggestion of increased support for reunification, therefore it is not an outstanding issue for the next British government. As such, while this is something that could be put in place if they had enough influence in Westminster, it would be a complicated situation and one the next government is highly unlikely to want to risk in the current climate. Although Northern Ireland is currently fairly stable, there have been some stalemates between the DUP and Sinn Féin such as the current welfare reform bill standoff. Attempting to introduce a referendum on a united Ireland at the moment, even if it were to be accepted by the Irish government, could cause lasting damage to the Good Friday Agreement and the Executive.

Finally, one of the few major pledges in the Sinn Féin manifesto that actually would concern MPs is the promise to obtain a further £1.5 billion in funding for Northern Ireland. Realistically, there have been massive cuts across the UK and whoever forms the next government will have to balance the budget carefully. Abstaining means that Sinn Féin has no negotiating power when it comes to voting in the House. With no sitting MPs, they will also be unable to strike a deal similar to the Gregory deal in Ireland in 1982, struck by an independent TD who negotiated extra funding for his under privileged constituency in return for his support to form a government. This was possible as the main parties were so close together in terms of vote share, he held the balance of power. Many small UK parties may well find themselves in a similar situation in the days after the election. Secondly, Sinn Féin claim they will demand a separate referendum on EU membership for Northern Ireland. This is entirely impossible, Northern Ireland is not a member of the EU as an individual jurisdiction but as part of the UK. As was clarified in the run up to the Scottish independence referendum, should any part of the UK want to be a member of the EU in their own right they would need to reapply.

This manifesto is not particularly important in terms of the 2015 Westminster election. Realistically abstention makes the majority of their promises impossible as they have no bargaining power and their supporters are aware of this. However, it does have a purpose as dry run for Sinn Féin’s campaign in the 2016 Irish and Northern Ireland elections. They can test their policies in an electoral contest without major repercussions; losses in Westminster won’t be a dent in Sinn Féin’s influence. Defeats in Stormont or Dublin would leave a bigger mark.   

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.