15th January 2017

This is a post originally published nearly two years ago, on 28th January 2015.  What has changed?  The good news is that our Deputy Leader, Clare Bailey, is now Clare Bailey MLA, having made joyful history in South Belfast.

What else?  Yes, we have a woman Prime Minister in 10 Downing Street, following the breach of David Cameron’s promise to stay on whatever the referendum result.  And one of the dominant parties in Northern Ireland is, for the time being at least, led by a woman.  Sadly for the rest of us, in both of these cases,  their primary role model seems to be Margaret Thatcher, the archetypal drawbridge ‘feminist’.  Being a woman leader, for both Theresa May and Arlene Foster, apparently means trying to be more antagonistic, more arrogant and more intransigent than their male rivals.  That is desperately sad, for all of us.

Genuine feminist leadership looks different.  Genuine feminist leadership seeks respect, rather than fear, co-operation rather than naked power and empathy rather than prejudice.  Genuine feminist leadership looks to empower all, especially those who are ignored, denigrated and insulted by traditional authority; the poor, the homeless, the LGBTQ community, and women denied the simple right to be trusted about their own reproductive health.   It asks, and answers, the hard questions, and looks to the long term and the interests which we all share.

As we approach our own, seemingly now inevitable election, and the inauguration of America’s chillingly misogynist new president, I look to Clare, to Caroline Lucas, and to the strong Green women working across the world.  And, despite everything, I still have hope.

 

One of the striking points about the recent election debates debate was the gender of the party leaders. All four of the BBC’s original invitees were, as we know only too well, men: Dave, Ed, Nick ‘n’ Nigel. For the mess they got themselves in, see my 15th January post. The three parties who were, following strong public feeling, eventually included, the Green Party, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party, are all led by women. Finally, the traditional Northern Ireland parties who are now grumbling, and in some cases threatening legal action, without any notable public support, all have leaders who are … yes, you guessed it, men again.

 

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GPNI Deputy Leader Clare Bailey with Tanya

It’s not conclusive, but it is interesting. From a quick trot around the records (so please correct me if I’m wrong), it appears that, apart from two Margarets*, none of the mainstream parties in either England or Northern Ireland has ever had a woman leader. Meanwhile, the UK has never had a woman Chancellor of the Exchequer or Foreign Secretary. The place for women in the Cabinet, it appears, is firmly in the Home.

*Thatcher, who could at best be called a drawbridge feminist, pulling the portcullis down sharply behind her, and Ritchie, who led the SDLP for twenty-one months before being shown a cliff and invited to jump.

In the Green Party, we’re trying to change this. We recognise that limiting women’s ambitions and roles is damaging for us all; for the women who could be great leaders, for the men who would benefit from working alongside them, for the electorate who need genuine representatives and for the next generation; our daughters and grand-daughters who will build upon our legacy. There are many barriers to women’s involvement in politics: expectations, assumptions, judgements and many practical difficulties. But, working together and with our male colleagues, we are beginning to overcome them. The Green Party in Northern Ireland in November launched our Changing the Conversation equality strategy, and elected Clare Bailey, Westminster candidate for South Belfast, as our Deputy Leader. We’re serious about supporting the talented and dedicated women in our Party; women like Jenny Muir, our Chair, and Georgia Grainger, Chair of the Young Greens in Northern Ireland. And I know from personal experience how much that kind of encouragement (and it is, literally, that, the imparting of courage) means.

So, if you’re looking to use your vote to bring about a genuinely progressive, equal and creative society, cherchez les femmes. Not the isolated, token females, awkwardly crammed into the middle of a sea of suits, trying to sound more macho than the men, or the over-groomed fragrant ladies, wives and daughters of the male power-brokers, but the real women, the ones who come in all shapes and sizes, all ethnicities and sexualities, the ones who know about life, the ones who laugh with their friends, and sometimes cry as well. The ones a bit like you.

 

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5th April 2016

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Tonight I was delighted to attend the launch of the Women’s Manifesto in Fermanagh House in Enniskillen, and to take part in the panel discussion.  The panel, by the way, otherwise comprised Phil Flanagan and Sean Lynch from Sinn Fein and Richie McPhillips of SDLP.  Notice anything? (And I don’t mean that there weren’t any Unionists.)

Here’s what I said in response to the manifesto:

” Thank you for inviting me this evening, thank you even more for coming to Enniskillen and thank you most of all for producing this fantastic manifesto.  Like my Green Party colleague Clare Bailey in South Belfast, I can endorse it fully.

Green politics is feminist politics.  It couldn’t be otherwise.  Every one of our principles: social justice, environmental sustainability, non-violence and grassroots democracy depends on the active and full participation of women.  If they don’t include women, they don’t work.

Green Party policies are the active outworking of those four principles.  Those policies make women’s lives better in all the areas that this manifesto covers: economic justice, social justice, culture and equality.  But they have to not only be for women, but also drawn up by women and implemented through women’s representation.

As your report says boldly, ‘the under-representation of women in politics in Northern Ireland is a serious issue which must be addressed as a matter of urgency’.  Even right now in this election, the proportion of women candidates in many parties and in many constituencies is absolutely woeful.  Drawbridge feminism, the Mrs Thatcher model, where you have one woman at the top and the portcullis comes down on all the rest, isn’t feminism at all.

0405In the Green Party we’ve acknowledged and addressed that issue.  We’ve worked hard to support women within the party, to address the many causes of under-representation, to listen and to learn.  I’ve been a beneficiary of and a participant in that process, and I’m delighted to be one of the nine women standing in this election for the Green Party, along with nine men beside us.  That fifty per cent means a great deal to us, we’re very proud of it, but we’re equally proud of how naturally it came about.  If you work seriously at making the conditions right, outstanding women candidates will arise, and will get elected.  Watch South Belfast.

But it’s not just about representation in party politics.  Since the Good Friday Agreement, the number of women in public life in general has gone down.  That’s a shocking fact.  UN Security Council Resolution 1325, passed in 2000, called for a gender perspective that would consider the special needs of women and girls both during conflict and in post-conflict resolution.  That’s something that needs to be implemented here.  We need to see expert women in our media, not just for what they can contribute, but to show our daughters, our granddaughters what they themselves could do.  You cannot be what you cannot see.

There’s so much great stuff in this manifesto.  For me one of the crucial issues is low pay, and especially the pernicious zero hours contracts.  There are huge numbers of people, particularly but not only women, who, though they’re doing skilled and difficult jobs, can’t expect anything but zero hours contracts and the minimum wage.  That’s no way to build a future.  If institutions, public and private, can afford to pay their executives six and seven figure salaries, they can afford to pay their real workers a living wage on a proper contract.

Another is reproductive rights.  We’ve heard a shocking example just yesterday of what Northern Ireland’s situation really means to vulnerable women.  It’s telling that even Donald Trump stepped back from saying that such women should be punished.  And we’re still waiting for legislation to bring us in line with basic human rights law.

Finally I’m really pleased to read here about the rights and needs of transgender women and of all those who live through double, even triple and more discrimination: for their gender and also for their disability, their sexual preference or their ethnic identity.  Real feminism isn’t a closed shop; it isn’t, whatever Germaine Greer may think, simply about which appendages you happened to be born with.  Like Green politics, it’s about respect, about justice, about participation and about using the resources we have now to build a better future.  A future that is better for women is better for everyone.  This manifesto is a blueprint for that future, and I welcome it with a full heart.”

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21st March 2016

0321Every aspect of life has, over the past few days, saddled itself on a medium-sized wildebeest and thundered towards me.  Fortunately I have transformed myself into one of those white flapping birds which hover over the herd of wildebeest and thus remain unscathed.

That’s an, admittedly overblown, explanation for why I didn’t post anything on my blog yesterday, and why today I’m going to pinch someone else’s material.  This is Steven’s piece in today’s Belfast Telegraph.   Needlness to say, I am extraordinarily delighted to be one of the Green Eighteen.

“It is obvious that, despite some progress in gender equality, women are still under-represented in our public and political structures.

While the debate continues as to whether quotas or targets are of value in creating better balance, the Green Party believes that improving equality and gender balance will only occur when proactive steps are taken.

We only need to look to the Republic of Ireland to see the positive effect of gender quotas, which were introduced in 2012. A record number of women were returned to the Dail in the recent election, which is to be welcomed.

The Green Party has worked from the membership upwards to create conditions in which everyone has the confidence to engage in politics. This has been borne out in the breadth of candidates standing for the Green Party.

I am delighted that, of the 18 candidates, there is a 50/50 gender balance. We also have LGBTQ representatives, including Northern Ireland’s first transgender candidate, and a range of ages.

Make no mistake, these candidates have been selected due to the contribution they will make, but the fact that many under-represented groups are represented by the Green Party makes me proud.

It is no surprise that marginalised communities flock to the Green Party as the Executive has wasted every opportunity to improve their lives.

Green Party deputy leader Clare Bailey has been instrumental in bringing about these fundamental changes. As the co-founder of Alternative Ms Ulster, Clare has created an opportunity for women from all walks of life to describe exactly what needs to happen for Northern Ireland to become a better place to live.

Stormont itself was the venue to highlight the gender imbalance that women face in their daily lives, as 20 women spoke out about chronic illness, domestic violence, breastfeeding, the need to trust women, transgender issues and more.

I have listened and will do everything I can to bring about equality in our society.

It’s time my political colleagues listened.”

19th March 2016

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(stolen from Clare)

A great day – Rory stayed with us, then I travelled back to Belfast with him, and met Aidan for some great Nepalese food at the Kathmandu Kitchen.  He’d been busy canvassing for Clare Bailey in South Belfast so was hungry.  (I’m usually hungry, canvassing or not.)  Then A and I went to the brilliant Rainbow Project Does Strictly event, at which Clare and Ellen Murray were both dancing.  It was an utterly wonderful evening, a little glimpse of what Northern Ireland could be like if the few miseries could just lose their fear of diversity and difference.  My camera wasn’t set to cope with low light, and I hadn’t time to fiddle with it, so I shall have to wait to steal someone else’s photos.

 

6th March 2016

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Just back home after attending the wonderful Alternative Ms Ulster event at Stormont last night.  It was organised by Clare Bailey, and sponsored by Steven Agnew, and lots of us Greens were there, including the inspiring Ellen Murray who is featured in today’s Guardian.  Ellen is standing next to me in the photo above, along with Steven, Clare and other Green Party candidates in the upcoming election.

0306b2I spoke briefly at the Assembly lecturn (getting into practice) under the watchful eye of Mr Carson.  Unlike the statue, the drumkit, I regret to say, isn’t a permanent fixture.  This is what I said:

I’ve been thinking about numbers;
About twos and about fours.

Twos are the ones that keep us in our place:
Too old.
Too fat.
Too English.
Too Catholic, yet too protesting.
Too educated, yet too ignorant.

I’m in two minds…
No – I’ll give it a miss this time.
It was very kind of you to ask.

But two and two make four.
If we won’t do it for ourselves,
Let’s do it for each other.

 

Too grey, too grizzled?
Do it for your mother;
For your granny, who never got the chance;
For your daughters, who need to see you blaze.

Too stout, too scrawny?
Do it for your sisters, twisted, muzzled
By what they think the mirror shows.

Too foreign, too misfitting?
There are more oddballs
Rolling around this land
Than you’d ever hope to count.
Do it for us.

Two, four, six, eight.
Who can we appreciate?

The answer might be – you?

 

21st January 2016

My legs are tired, but my heart is light after another afternoon’s canvassing in Enniskillen.  It’s great to see the smile passing over people’s faces, as they hear the words ‘Green Party’ and to listen to their hopes for a better future.  One woman told me how impressed she was with the common sense attitudes of our MLA Steven Agnew and how much we need more voices like his in Stormont.

If you agree, and you’d like to help Steven to get re-elected, take part in Ross and Clare’s big Belfast campaigns, or support us here in Fermanagh, please email info@greenpartyni.org to find out more.  Whatever your skills and experience (or lack of it) you’ll be made very welcome, have a great time and enjoy the warm glow of knowing that you’ve really made a difference.  This year is going to be a turning-point for the Greens in Northern Ireland – don’t miss out on being a part of it!

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7th January 2016

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Clare with our son Rory, a member of the rapidly expanding South Belfast Green Party.

There’s a great article by Bradley Allsop on the Bright Green website about my friend and colleague Clare Bailey, Deputy Leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland and our Assembly candidate for South Belfast.

She did brilliantly in the Westminster elections in 2015, and only just missed out on a council seat in 2014, so, as Bradley writes, “Clare is very hopeful, believing that she has a real shot at joining party leader Steven Agnew at Stormont.” That optimism is shared across the South Belfast community and throughout the Green Party, which has seen particularly vigorous membership growth and volunteer enthusiasm in the constituency.

She certainly deserves to be in the Assembly, and the Assembly certainly needs her.  Even back in 2014, research showed a strong majority in favour of abortion law reform, across all ages, genders and backgrounds in Northern Ireland.  Following the recent legal ruling by Mr Justice Horner, the moral imperative for reform, for the alleviation of women’s suffering in the most heartbreaking circumstances, can only be more compelling and urgent.

And yet the Northern Ireland Executive continues to sit on its hands, and the Assembly, dominated by conservative men, shies away from the subject like a blushing virgin.  And any hope that a female First Minister would make women’s wellbeing a priority has been comprehensively quashed by Arlene Foster’s interview in yesterday’s Guardian.

And how telling that it takes an English-based publication even to ask the question.  Before Christmas I was interviewed by a brave young reporter for one of our local newspapers on the subject of Judge Horner’s ruling and the possibility of abortion law reform.  Three issues later, the article still hasn’t appeared.  Editorial cold feet or, more likely, the discomfort of the other political parties at having to talk about That Subject?  Much safer to mumble about ‘consultation’ and push it a few more years down the line.

But meanwhile women are suffering.  And when women suffer, so do children, and so do men.  The position is clear: reform is legally essential, to halt the denial of our basic human rights, and is, moreover, supported by a clear public mandate.  To speak for reform isn’t to say that abortion is necessarily right, in these or any circumstances. But who is best placed to make the decision in these incredibly painful situations?  The women in whose very bodies the experience is unfolding, or the serried ranks of suited MLAs, glancing over their shoulders at their ecclesiastical and corporate backers?

‘Trust women’, says Clare.  I’m looking forward to the day when we can say it together, from the growing Green corner of the Assembly chamber.

30th November 2015

Today’s important news here was that Mr Justice Horner, sitting in the High Court in Belfast, held that the abortion legislation in Northern Ireland breached Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.  There were two specific breaches found:

i. failing to provide an exception to the prohibition on abortion in cases of: a fatal foetal abnormality (at any time during the pregnancy); and

ii. failing to provide such an exception where the pregnancy is the result of sexual crime (up to the date when the foetus is capable of existing independently of the mother).

As Clare Bailey, Deputy Leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland, has said:

“This is a momentous moment for women in Northern Ireland. I welcome that the High Court has recognised that Northern Ireland’s archaic abortion laws breach human rights. Mr Justice Horner has recognised that women who have suffered sexual crime or in cases of fatal foetal abnormality should be afforded choice over their decisions. No woman takes the decision to have a termination lightly and they should be given every support necessary, not forced into a decision because there are no alternatives.”

It is important to recognise what this decision does not say, as well as what it does, and so I do recommend that everyone, whatever their opinions on the issue, reads the official Summary of Judgement rather than relying on media reporting of its contents.  I’m planning to read the full judgement too, but that won’t be today.  Meanwhile here are a few key parts of the summary (titles and text in square brackets my own).

What the case was about:

“Mr Justice Horner noted at the outset of his judgment that this was not a case about the right to abortion:

“There is no right to abortion in Northern Ireland except in certain carefully defined and limited circumstances.  The Commission has made it clear that it does not seek to establish such a general right.  This application is about whether the failure to provide certain limited exceptions to the ban on abortion in Northern Ireland, namely in cases where there is an SMF [serious malformation of the foetus], including an FFA [fatal foetal abnormality], or where the pregnancy is a consequence of sexual crime is in compliance with the rights enjoyed by all citizens of Northern Ireland under the European Convention on Human Rights.”

 

When a legal human life begins:

Mr Justice Horner commented that the European Court of Human Rights has shied away from determining when human life begins and has concluded that it is a matter for each Member State to determine within that State’s margin of appreciation. The Supreme Court of the Republic of Ireland has interpreted the right to life as commencing at the moment of conception whereas in England and Wales the common law position is that a foetus is not a legal person until it is born and has a separate existence from its mother.  Mr Justice Horner held that there are no grounds for concluding that the common law in Northern Ireland is any different to that in England and Wales.

 

What the European Convention on Human Rights does:

“The Convention does not require anyone to give up his or her deeply held beliefs on certain moral or religious matters.  It just means that in respect of certain rights protected by the Convention one section of the community, whether in the majority or not, is no longer able to deny to others whether by the imposition of criminal sanctions or otherwise, the ability to enjoy those protected Convention rights.”

 

Why serious malformations of the foetus were not included in the situations which, according to this judgement, breached Convention rights:

“He noted that there does not appear to be any international obligation to provide abortions in respect of SMFs nor any drive internationally to ensure that SMFs should be made an exception to the present abortion regime in Northern Ireland:

 “There is also surely an illogicality in calling for no discrimination against those children who are born suffering from disabilities such as Down’s Syndrome or spina bifida on the basis that they should be entitled to enjoy a full life but then permitting selective abortion so as to prevent those children with such disabilities being born in the first place.  This smacks of eugenics.  It is always difficult to draw the line and it comes as no surprise that the phrase “serious malformation of the foetus” remains undefined.  It can mean different things to different people.”

 

Why the fact that women can travel to other parts of the UK for abortions does not make the current situation acceptable:

“If it is morally wrong to abort a foetus in Northern Ireland, it is just as wrong morally to abort the same foetus in England.  It does not protect morals to export the problem to another jurisdiction and then turn a blind eye;

  • If the aim is to prevent abortion, then it is surely no answer to say that abortion is freely available elsewhere and that necessary services can be easily accessed in an adjacent jurisdiction.  There is no evidence before this Court, and the Court has in no way attempted to restrict the evidence adduced by any party, that the law in Northern Ireland has resulted in any reduction in the number of abortions obtained by Northern Irish women.  Undoubtedly, it will have placed these women who had to have their abortions in England under greater stress, both financial and emotional, by forcing them to have the termination carried out away from home;
  • There can be no doubt that the law has made it much more difficult for those with limited means to travel to England.  They are the ones who are more likely to be greatly affected in their ability to terminate their pregnancy if they cannot obtain charitable assistance.  The protection of morals should not contemplate a restriction that bites on the impoverished but not the wealthy.  That smacks of one law for the rich and one law for the poor.”

 

Why the current legal situation does not prevent abortions in these circumstances:

He said that while there was evidence that forcing young women to travel to Great Britain can have the consequence of imposing an intolerable financial and mental burden on those least able to bear it, there was “not one iota of evidence” that the imposition of criminal sanctions on these women in these exceptional cases  has resulted in the saving of any pre-natal life.

 

The particular issues relating to a woman or girl who becomes pregnant as a result of rape or incest:

“She has to face all the dangers and problems, emotional or otherwise, of carrying a foetus for which she bears no moral responsibility and is merely a receptacle to carry the child of a rapist and/or a person who has committed incest, or both.  In doing so, the law is enforcing the prohibition of abortion against an innocent victim of a crime in a way which completely ignores the personal circumstances of the victim.  Weighed in the balance is the foetus, incapable of an independent existence.  The law makes no attempt to balance the rights of the women that are involved.  Instead, by imposing a blanket ban on abortion, reinforced with criminal sanctions, it prevents any consideration of the interests of the women whose personal autonomy has been so vilely and heinously invaded.  A law so framed can never be said to be proportionate.” 

Mr Justice Horner said that sexual crime is the grossest intrusion on a woman’s autonomy in the vilest of circumstances.  Any resulting pregnancy is not a voluntary act but one which was forced upon the woman.  He noted that in Northern Ireland a woman who becomes pregnant as a result of a sexual crime is obliged to carry a child to full term or risk criminal prosecution unless she obtains an abortion for the purpose of preserving the mother’s life or if continuation would make her “a physical or mental wreck The judge noted that the foetus does not have any Article 2 rights and there is no evidence that any life has been saved by the impugned provisions or the abortion regime presently operating in Northern Ireland insofar as they affect women pregnant as a result of sexual crime.  He added that there was also no evidence that the people of Northern Ireland require a woman impregnated as the result of a sexual crime to carry the foetus to full term because of their profound and moral views. 

 

The particular issues relating to fatal foetal abnormality:

“[T]he judge said that there can be no doubt that the mother’s inability to access an abortion in the circumstances where the doctor can be certain that the foetus will be unable to live independently outside the womb constitutes a gross interference with her personal autonomy.  “In the case of an FFA there is no life to protect.  When the foetus leaves the womb, it cannot survive independently.  It is doomed.  There is nothing to weigh in the balance.  There is no human life to protect.  Furthermore, no evidence has been put before the Court that a substantial section of Northern Ireland’s community, never mind a majority, requires a mother to carry such a foetus to full term.  Therefore even on a light touch review, it can be said to a considerable degree of confidence that it is not proportionate to refuse to provide an exception to the criminal sanctions imposed by the impugned provisions.”

 

This seems to me to be a moderate and sensible judgement, upon which, with goodwill, we could find much common ground between those who might traditionally think of themselves as ‘pro-choice’ or ‘pro-life’.  Mr Justice Horner has emphasised that this case is not about a right to abortion, only to exceptions in the case of these two specific and traumatic sets of circumstances.  There is no suggestion that women in these cases ought to seek abortions, only that the decision should be their own.  Very importantly, he points out that the current situation does not prevent these abortions, only outsourcing the procedure across the sea, at great emotional, personal and financial expense to the women concerned.  If we genuinely want to reduce the real number of abortions carried out upon women in Northern Ireland, we must go about it in quite a different way, as I have written before on this blog.

Meanwhile, as Clare says;

“I can only hope that Northern Ireland’s politicians are listening and take steps to amend legislation as a matter of urgency.”

Amen to that, for all our sakes.

7th October

Clare Bailey and Tanya Jones
Clare and I at a recent Green Party meeting

The Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Mitchel McLaughlin, has written to the political parties asking them to detail what actions they are taking to ensure diversity amongst the candidates they will put forward for the forthcoming Assembly election. To what extent this is the Speaker’s business, I don’t know, but the Green Party are certainly happy to reply.  As our Deputy Leader, Clare Bailey has said:

“As a socially progressive party, the Green Party in Northern Ireland takes the issue of ensuring balanced representation seriously.It is clear that women are under-represented in political decision making and this has to change.A minimum of one third of the Green Party Assembly candidates for the upcoming election will be female.

“However the issue goes deeper than simply the number of male vs female candidates. From grass roots activism through to standing for election, our research has shown us that a range of issues impede women, such as exclusion from informal networks and a lack of mentoring and role models.Structural barriers to equal representation cannot be overcome without pro-active action.

“Active steps have been taken by the Green Party in Northern Ireland to address the imbalance of representation. For example, targets have been set to ensure women are represented in constituency groups and on the Executive Committee.In an ideal world targets would not be necessary but the evidence shows that quotas are needed to make a step change in female representation and that of other minorities.

“While these steps will assist us in empowering women in all areas of decision making roles, Northern Ireland is increasingly using gender as an acronym for women. This is wrong. Gender equality and representation is about all identities, including LGBTQ, and the Queer Greens group is working to improve representation from an LGBTQ perspective.As a Party committed to grassroots democracy, the Green Party will support these disenfranchised communities in having a greater say in decisions that affect their lives.”

5th September

0906Across Europe, Green Party members and representatives are working hard to help refugees, both in terms of practical immediate action, and by explaining our immigration policies, based on justice, compassion and shared humanity.  It’s good that others are coming to realise that we have been right; terrible that it has taken such visible suffering to wake up our media and mainstream politicians.

Pictured above are Clare Bailey of the South Belfast Green Party, and Green Party Councillor John Barry of Holywood, taking part in refugee solidarity collections.