Madeline Collin, a 24-year-old activist with Gaucher disease, worries that patients like her will suffer deeply if Britain leaves the European Union (EU), as scheduled, at the end of this month. Collin is an expert on the subject. For her University of Bathdissertation, she analyzed Brexit’s long-term impact on the 3.5 million people in England,…
the peace agreement,
like two flags and people’s lives
flapping in the wind
Antonia Sara Zenkevitch
Below is an account of my engagement, as a witness, in a ‘From the Rockface’ discussion in Northern Ireland. What I saw and heard makes it clear to me the very real threat Brexit poses to peace and security for people living across the Island of Ireland and all parts of the United Kingdom. This would especially be the case in a No Deal scenario.
This talk mainly included loyalists stories and so provides only partial context …
It has never felt more inappropriate to stand and walk from a room. A silence was being fractured and the question was being asked, again and again, “Who would want to hear us?” “Who would want to listen?” Do our voices count in the eyes of the world?” These questions are interspersed with my phone delivering other silent, urgent messages. The texts from a friend asking if I am ready to leave. I am going to miss my plane. I am in a room full of hope and anger, Loyalists trying to discover how to rekindle loyalty with each other, sitting two seats from the main speaker and a room away from the door. When, in this brave and open exchange acknowledging, amongst other things, a feeling of betrayal by mainland Britain, will the only English woman at the table, stand up and head for the door?
Words are overflowing, time over-running, after decades of communities ruled by a culture of silence; ruled by fear and the sense of betrayal.
These men, whose skin is painted deep with their identity; an inky testament to the stories etched upon them that words could not speak but only bodily destruction could erase.
“We have hurt each other,” they say, honesty ricocheting around the room to meet open, determined faces; paramilitary, prisoners, peace-builders, political leaders interspersed with lawyers, academics alert and armed with pens and inquisition. The untold stories unravel before me. The fierce organisation of the Nationalists and the Loyalist trust, initially, in the UK government and military to protect them. The growing confusion and betrayal, the disillusionment that they were protected, the disorganization birthing community to community violence, the killing of all budding leaders who could unify the Loyalists or speak of peaceful ways forward. The silencing. The reprisals and counter-reprisals and fears of reprisal. The loss. The help that was not helpful. The impossibility of decommissioning weapons in 60 days given the fact they were not united, that trans-community conflict meant communications took time and distrust of political will to protect their communities in any other way. The sense that for some politicians the Northern Ireland peace process was being used as a platform for career furtherment over and above the will to end the conflict. The politicians who would call for paramilitary disbandment but come to them for their services. The sense of being in shock, the fear of being perceived as an underclass, even of becoming one.
The vocal ex-prisoner and combatant that now virtually lived in the Transitional Justice Institute with the same fighting determination, arms heavy with tattoo and muscle, eyes seeking something more. The sense of needing now to speak; to tell the stories untold, first to the world and, ultimately to one another. One woman’s voice discussing gender issues in the conflict. Many ears. I begin to make eyes wildly at the Chairman. Eventually, when the other voices in the room slow to draw breath in slightly bewildered air, the Chair states that as we are going far beyond time, anyone who needs to leave can. Only I stand, the English woman leaving. The main speaker apologizes for talking too long and I stop, ignoring the panicked text of the friend who will give me a lift to the airport and the determinedly ticking clock. I say something I repeat now in writing. I say thank-you for his words, I say to them all, thank-you for what they have said. I tell them I want to hear. I tell them sorry… and then I tell them I have to catch a plane.
I have written a number of poems about Theresa May and her policies over the years. This included when I was a women’s worker heavily involved in grassroots and party politics myself and she was Home Secretary. I have grappled with myself many times over my feelings towards her. I analyze and judge myself because she is a visible representation of women in power, still such a rarity in the UK. Two British Prime Ministers have been assigned the same sex at birth as I have, and I’ve not been a fan of either. But, do I, as a longterm equalist and feminist pull her down? My answer, as someone who has been involved in politics and been a women’s worker, is complex.
I have done and will criticize her policies and question her moral compass, often passionately. I have queried her actions and even at times her basic ethics. I get angry when her womanhood is attacked but I wonder if I do it too. I’ve been involved in helping make harassment of women recognized as a hate crime in my county but I wonder where the line is when criticizing someone whose ethos as well as their actions often seem abhorrent to me. Is it different because I am a woman and a feminist? Is it unbiased because my poems question the acts, ethics, and judgments of other politicians across genders, including the leader of the opposition? Or, does the volume and nature of my criticism veil a different or concurrent story? In all the poems I have written there is one controversial line from 2014 I still now wrestle with, but I will come to that.
Poems like Shoes? and The Poisoned Cup and A gender very clearly and firmly explore my anger at criticisms of her as a woman rather than a politician, whilst still raging against her policies and political acts. Too many talk about female politicians’ appearance, which is irrelevant to their politics. This is a kind of bating and belittling no heterosexual man in politics has to contend with. It morphs into analogies of sticking high heels in and other suggestions that certain behaviour is ‘unwomanly’, whatever that is, or because we have no children, or because we do. I’ve lived this toxic bias myself. Told as the only woman on a panel that I was talking too much, asked if I have children or what my husband thinks. Told I should not be standing because I have a man in my life. I was stalked and verbally abused. All this rubbish no politician from any party should have to contend with but they do, and they have to deal with far worse too. A diabetic heavily pregnant woman having to postpone a cesarian to vote in one of the most important parliament ballots in a century. Another pregnant woman receiving death threats for being Jewish. A serving MP stabbed to death. Straight white abled males that make up most of our parliament don’t experience this type of abuse.
I left my own political party citing discrimination, having been involved to some extent at local, regional and national level voluntarily in the years I was a member. No, I didn’t receive death threats or anything so horrific, but I left shaken, unwell and soul-weary, treated as a pariah despite having got some of the party’s best results in the 2015 elections. I was not alone in leaving. The party concerned is not remotely unique in this, but I had ploughed in everything I had and expected fairness for myself and others. All parties have discrimination in their ranks, politics and human society generally is full of it, but it’s what they do about it that counts. I’m not convinced either of the main political parties or many if not all of the smaller ones have yet developed enough self-awareness to tackle the different forms of racism, ableism and, for the main part gender bias within their membership and leaders. Do I have the self-awareness to recognize bias in myself? Perhaps. Hopefully.
I have written a lot of poems about Theresa May; more than any other single politician except perhaps Tony Blair many years ago. I’ve asked myself why and I do sense a bias in me; I think I expect higher morals from her because we have so few visible female leaders and those who would chain us in homogenous misogyny blame her womanhood and so in a way all women for her failures. In this, I have internalized the sexism and must be careful of that. Will it stop me being angry and speaking out against burning injustices. No. Very, very no.
Dear Ministers, Lies in Old Westminster, What the Dickens? and The Big Riot (a political satire) are all pretty scathing about a number of politicians from across the house. There are many others. Yet I am often provoked by my emotions to writing about Theresa May. A large part of this is because she is Prime Minister during a time of steeply rising inequity, homelessness, hunger, and insecurity where acts of terror and racist policies hold hands. She is the Brexit PM and I have strong feelings about Brexit and the lies that warped the referendum and what came after. In The Poisoned Cup I talk about her inheriting an unanswerable problem, but I think she helped create that problem too, long before the rise of calls for Brexit.
I’ve become aware that for me it is personal. When I was an interfaith women’s worker active in politics in squeezed spare time, I saw for myself some of the affects of her Home Office policies. Just one example of this was a wonderful Malawian nurse who had been in this country and active in her community for 14 years snatched off the streets and taken to Yarlswood, where all the guards are white and all those detained are black or minority ethnicity. It was an oppressive place to even visit and they took visitors fingerprints. She was not given vital medicine and was in hospital when we finally managed to get her out. Getting her legal help – even getting clean underwear to her, felt like a battle. This is one of many stories I know, including of a woman, who when 14, having lived in this country since infancy, had to fight to stay. I was and am angry at this.
I feel this, together with David Cameron’s capitulation to other pressures, put in place the foundations for many present ills. The farcical process of Brexit spurred on by, amongst other things, spreading lies about immigration as a smokescreen for the real reasons too many are struggling. The racist policy of exiling citizens of the Windrush generations. The attacks on the wellbeing and security of those whose ill health or disability prevents them from being able to work. The undermining of women’s rights through the disproportionate effects of austerity. The failure to act as pledged in their 2017 election manifesto to handle the burning injustices of our time, including those linked to seriously tackling domestic violence and the exploitation of tenants and workers.
My experiences as a witness in 2014 of Theresa May as Home Secretary has placed her as one of the main authors of our current climate of insecurity. Furthermore, watching her undemocratically limiting parliamentary debating the shape of Brexit for nearly three years while the flames of burning injustices rise across the nation has not gentled my ire. Brexit, to my mind, was always going to be a vicious beast, but her actions are among those that have potentially sharpened its teeth – if it happens. May’s bad deal, created after years of negotiations with the EU but near none with Westminster until the eleventh hour, has put us at greater risk of a disastrous no deal Brexit.
My thoughts on her approach to governance can be found in poems such as Democracy, Goatskin, Alternative Arrangements, Contempt and in the 2014-2015 poems Dear Theresa and Securing A Bitter Future. Of all of them, it is only the last and Madame Dictator in which I question whether I have projected internalized misogynistic undertones. In my heart of hearts, I am ultimately unhappy with only one line in which I suggest she should be hushed up. It is in the context of her pushing a piece of legislation in 2014 that effectively hushed up everyone who had widely different opinions to her own. Legislation that potentially left millions voiceless, including myself and the women in the organizations I was working with. The idea of hushing an outspoken woman up is deeply problematic. Mary Beard, in ‘Women and Power’ draws our attention to the fact that silencing of women in public life has been normalized in art and politics from the times the Classics were written. In this, I am a bad feminist.
Yet, where does my moral compass point when I am talking about someone who was with the non-violent extremism act hushing up others? It is a difficult one. Writing it I was thinking only of her as a politician not as a woman. Yet we live in a gendered society where that will be misused and / or misinterpreted by others. In that particular phrase and that particular poem I used gender-neutral phrasing to help distant it from gender rhetoric but I’m not sure, when the person is such a prominent figure, that this unpicks millennia of ‘hush hate’.
Never-the-less, I counter myself in this internal debate, the mirrored context of the others she was hushing up raged in my mind, with the knowledge I was not about to expect less from her as a politician or not say things, just because of her – and my assigned gender. I think it is telling that I would not choose to reuse the phrase, ever.
I feel Theresa May does actually believe she is doing the best for Britain. I feel more strongly than I have felt most things in my entire life that she is very dangerously wrong and misguided by prejudice, her own or other people’s . I do not believe this is because she was assigned female sex at birth, or because of her clothing choice as a woman. Most certainly May will have had a much tougher journey getting where she is now than her male colleagues and contemporaries. I do recognise that this places pressure on a person but it is no excuse for policies and processes that alienate, disenfranchise and impoverish millions while curbing parliamentary debate until there is no other option. I will not let any person or administration singe democracy for fear of being impartial but I must choose the words I use wisely. Perhaps at times, I think unfairly she should be more astute because so few women have gained her level of influence as well as because the stakes are so high in the present political, social and environmental climate.
My fear and experience of being arbitrarily judged as a woman against a person I feel little affinity with does tint my own assessment of their actions. One woman’s social crimes become, in the eyes of many, the crimes of all women, and so we are taught to judge fellow females more harshly than males. Yes, I’ve written critically about male MPs, No Discrimination, Making Progress? and Johnson & Drones being prime examples. However, I think I’ve ingested some of the shame poured on myself and others assigned the same sex at birth, regardless of how they identify. It is the mechanisms of misogyny, not Theresa May I should be furious at for that. Even when I take this into account, there is plenty to be angry at Theresa May about, but I should be equally angry at others. I am.
Now, to turn that anger into fuel for justice and the only way I can do that is to link it back to the love I have for those people, including myself, that I feel have been put at risk. I must choose my words with both care and fire.