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Volume 2 | Issue 2 | Mar 2011
Struggling for Peace: How Women in Northern Ireland Challenged the Status Quo
Renjie L. Butalid
There are roughly 2,000 murals, many of them political, in Northern Ireland. The murals pictured here are in Derry, and they depict “the Troubles,” the 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland that ended in 1998 with the Belfast Agreement.
Since the late 1990s women have been struggling for a place at the table in peace accords. The inclusion of women in such negotiations is not merely a question of gender equity but also contributes to an improved negotiating process and the creation of a more durable peace agreement. A new political party established in the midst of a macho conservative culture, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC) succeeded in getting elected to the multiparty talks that led to the Belfast Agreement in 1998 (also known as the Good Friday Agreement). The struggle to find solutions so that women’s concerns are not discarded, particularly following the implementation of a peace agreement, should resonate with those working with the UN resolutions on women and peace building. The NIWC’s legacy is its freshness of perspective and solutions-focused approach—much needed in countries coming out of conflict. The coalition’s achievements in creating workable outcomes for the long term should encourage people everywhere who seek solutions in peace negotiations so that they can rebuild their societies.
  • Women can play a strong role in conflict situations.
  • The establishment of credible networks can help women build influence in the peace process both at home and abroad.
  • Inclusive dialogue and risk taking are necessary to sustain relationships with excluded parties during periods of serious tension in the peace process.
  • Casual encounters can be essential in gathering insights from other parties and those working behind the scenes in negotiations.
  • Gender analysis can lead to a more comprehensive understanding of the realities of conflict and the meaning of security.

Eavan Boland, the Irish poet, wrote that, for women, engaging in political struggle was about daring to be at “the scene of the crime.”1 But, for the most part, it was the men and not the women who were remembered by history. Politics is the struggle for ideas and the power to put them into effect. For women in Northern Ireland, entering into politics countered the well-worn lament from established political parties that they could never find female members who were prepared to stand for political office. And when they came prepared, women made a positive contribution to the peace negotiations that resulted in the Good Friday, or Belfast, Agreement of 1998 (the dual nomenclature reflects Nationalist/Unionist preferences about what to call the agreement).2 The establishment of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC) in 1996 challenged the political norm.

At the time, Northern Ireland was emerging from 30 years of violent conflict—locally known as “the Troubles.” Communities had separated along single-identity lines; more than 3,600 people had been killed. There were an estimated 20,000 politically motivated prisoners and more than 40,000 people injured in a small population of 1.6 million. Getting women involved in the negotiations to end this conflict was not easy.

If the personal is political, as the women’s movement has long asserted, then the political can also be acutely personal. At the commencement of the peace talks, the NIWC was the only party with women delegates at the table. There were frequent insults and sexist comments, so it was necessary to develop a thick skin—and a strong sense of humor and a quick riposte. The current leader of the largest Unionist party may now regret that he once told the coalition that “women should leave politics and leadership alone.” (Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionist Party made this comment during the May 1996 elections to the peace talks. He is currently first minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and his party later adopted an equal-opportunities policy to address the underrepresentation of women.)

Similarly, the former deputy leader of the largest Nationalist party would probably like to take back his comment that the women’s coalition “must be a cult so they will grow into each other and disappear.” (So said Seamus Mallon, of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, also during the May 1996 elections. He became deputy first minister in the first Northern Ireland Assembly, and his party later adopted affirmative-action policies to attract more women to executive positions in the party.) When the media exposed this abuse, several leading newspapers ran favorable stories, such as the one headlined “Irish Talks: Men Posture, Women Progress.”3

The story of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition highlights the attempt to close the gap between aspiration and reality, an effort that required imagination, a solutions-focused perspective, and, at times, some sharp elbows. As such, Northern Ireland provides a good case study of peace building in practice, helping to support UN Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1889 to advance the role of women in resolving conflicts.

But although the Northern Ireland peace process has been extensively researched,4-6 the role of women and the gendered dimensions of the conflict have been neglected.7-10 Similarly, apart from one or two substantive publications, and research interest in the phenomenon of the NIWC as a women’s political party, there has been little critical reflection on the coalition’s contribution to the peace negotiations and the lessons learned in the process.11,12 In this article, we examine some of that learning in an attempt to encourage and support women in contributing to their own contested societies.

Athena on the Loose

While there was nothing overtly planned about the emergence of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, it did come about after extensive discussion about the virtual invisibility of women in politics. This was in sharp contrast to the large numbers of vibrant women activists at the local community level, a phenomenon undoubtedly familiar to women in other conflict societies. The establishment of a women’s political party largely grew out of the preexisting network of women’s activism built up from the civil rights movement in the early 1970s and the subsequent campaigns for women’s rights and civil liberties.13

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Renjie L. Butalid

Less than 12 months after the main paramilitary cease-fires in 1994, a conference about women in politics examined options ranging from the establishment of a cross-party women’s political association to the promotion of women within existing political parties, or indeed the formation of a new structure.14 Notwithstanding Cynthia Cockburn’s analysis of community-level women’s activity,15 there was little agreement at the conference about a preferred strategy, with many of the women involved holding tight to their preexisting political allegiances and identities. Eventually, it was frustration with the high handedness of the British government, which declared a list of established political parties that would compete for representation at the peace negotiations and in an established Forum for Dialogue and Understanding, that spurred the formation of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition and its successful contestation of those elections. The coalition was created only six weeks before it had to go to the polls, so its success was as much a surprise to its hastily assembled members as it was to the political establishment.16

A number of the early decisions about the nature of the coalition put the party in a good position as it entered the political waters. The first was to run its election campaign by breaking down the tasks and making them manageable. Coalition members drew up a “kitchen table” strategy in which 100 women were asked to get 100 votes, to hang up posters requesting people to “Wave Goodbye to Dinosaurs,” to hand out leaflets asking men as well as women to “Give Women Your Vote,” and to explain to voters the issues that women would bring to the peace table. The party list system, introduced for the first time by the British government for the purposes of this election, meant that the top 10 parties would select delegates to the peace talks. The coalition realized that with the preexisting networks of women’s groups in place, and with its candidates working for the party as a team, it could reach the threshold by election day.

The list system was preferable to the single constituency system, as it meant that the 70 women who agreed to go forward were standing together on one slate. They believed it would be less likely that their personal lives would be subjected to media scrutiny because the focus would be on the party rather than on each candidate running for her district. When political activists are seen to challenge the status quo, messages from the more macho elements of their community can be sent to them through various channels. This was what happened to Monica McWilliams when she ran again for the coalition under the single-constituency system. She was subjected to graffiti outside her office, instructing her to “get back to the kitchen,” as well as more misogynous, objectionable drawings, including penises painted on posters near her home. So election systems matter in a conflict society, where women candidates can be frightened for their own personal safety as well as that of their families.

The other important decision the coalition made was to concentrate on identifying core values and principles. Some of the NIWC women had attended the 1995 UN Women’s Conference in Beijing and decided “to bring the Beijing principles back home”—namely, the principles of inclusion, human rights, and equality.

The principle of equality was tested within weeks of the May 1996 elections when the British government announced that the elected Sinn Féin representatives would be excluded from the peace talks given their difficulty in signing on to the Mitchell Principles. These principles for the peace talks were set out by U.S. Senator George Mitchell and included renouncing the use of force and the total disarmament of all paramilitary organizations. The IRA cease-fire had broken down in January 1996, and Sinn Féin was not invited to take its seats, as the party had not met the entry conditions. The following year, the cease-fire was reinstated, and Sinn Féin became a party to the negotiations in September 1997. Throughout the party’s exclusion, and later when the Ulster Democratic Party was excluded for six weeks, the women’s coalition met regularly to brief the parties about the ongoing negotiations so as to compensate for their absence at the table. This early decision to keep talking to all of the delegates, whether in or out of the room, proved difficult at times, especially when the women’s coalition was reproached for “talking to terrorists” or labeled as “Sinn Féin in skirts.” Despite this hostile reaction, the coalition knew that its work had paid off when the parties rejoined the talks and eventually became signatories to the peace agreement.

Another important decision was to establish the NIWC as an actual coalition, with the understanding that women (and men who supported affirmative action for women’s political representation) could be members without forfeiting membership in other parties. The coalition sought to be inclusive in its own structuring and attracted several activists who continued to hold dual party membership. On top of that was the decision to model the deliberate cross-community nature of the coalition with a binary leadership drawn from both the Catholic/Nationalist/Republican and Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist communities. It was a model that both the existing political establishment and the media found particularly difficult to get their heads around.

This initial positioning was a deliberate attempt to communicate that the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition was not simply another political party in an already crowded arena; rather, it was seeking to chart a new form of politics beyond the zero-sum approach to power. But what the coalition also knew was that, in a contested society, options put forward by women were, and still are, in danger of being branded diversionary or collaborationist. Getting a broad platform of women together, encompassing family feminists and radical feminists as well as a range of women in between, was a tough task. Women from disparate traditions made enormous personal journeys to become part of the coalition. It required the type of “transversal politics” that Nira Yuval-Davis has conceptualized, a shift that does not require individuals to change their identity but rather to leave themselves open to both the identity of others and to dialogue.17 The women’s coalition was an attempt to create a model of inclusive political dialogue that would then form the basis for dialogue with the established political parties.

Building Relationships

Peace negotiations—particularly following years of armed conflict—invariably take place in circumstances of distrust and even animosity. Many of the leading protagonists are perceived to have inflicted pain, and to have suffered themselves, as a result of the violence. Contested communal and governmental narratives have been honed over many years to demonize and marginalize the political representatives of “the other.” Consequently, in the case of Northern Ireland, women’s coalition members were tasked with establishing personal contact with individuals in other parties represented at the peace talks in order to build relationships. This was successfully accomplished at various levels within the respective parties and governments. Talking with political advisers was quickly recognized as more rewarding in the long term than meeting with party leaders, so coalition members were posted in communal facilities—particularly the coffee room. Early signs of political tension could be picked up and communicated back to the coalition negotiating team, as well as individual party views and musings. The politics of the casual encounter proved invaluable in ensuring that the women’s coalition remained up to date on fast-moving events.

NIWC members also built relationships with the staff in the independent chairperson’s office, particularly with Martha Pope, who had been chief of staff for U.S. Senator George Mitchell, and with the other international facilitators. From time to time, backroom international staff were invited to meet with local women and other community activists working in neighborhoods across Northern Ireland. This deepened staff members’ understanding of public opinion and broadened their view of the ongoing peace process beyond the details of the negotiations. It also put media reports into context. The women’s coalition quickly came to understand the relationship between established politicians and the local media: politicians would issue a statement and newspapers would report it as fact the following day. Those same politicians used the media reports as the basis for the next day’s negotiations. The coalition felt it was essential to circumvent this cycle.

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Renjie L. Butalid

The coalition also built relationships with parties outside of Ireland. At the time, the role played by the U.S. administration, and particularly by then U.S. ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith, was seen as crucial. Equally, there was the Irish-American diaspora, with people such as Bill Flynn and Tom Moran (of Mutual of America), who worked behind the scenes in the U.S. to preserve the lines of communication between the U.S., British, and Irish governments and the parties to the negotiations; the Irish institutes and immigration centers in places like Pittsburgh and Boston; Trina Vargo (chief of staff to Senator Kennedy); and other key players. At the same time, the coalition met with Hillary Clinton and began a discussion about why women were needed in peace negotiations. Clinton established Vital Voices, an initiative run by Melanne Verveer (now the U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues) that championed and encouraged women in conflict societies to get involved in peace talks.

Within Britain and Ireland, the NIWC responded to as many invitations as possible in order to build a base and to explain the coalition’s perception of challenges and opportunities. This took time but was rewarding for both the coalition itself and for the ongoing peace process. For example, coalition members were in contact with Marjorie “Mo” Mowlam long before she was appointed British secretary of state for Northern Ireland. In her capacity as the Labour Party’s representative on Northern Ireland affairs, Mo Mowlam was aware of the important role of women in peace building and introduced individual members of the women’s coalition to Tony Blair. When he later became prime minister, the coalition already had a good working relationship with him and, with Mo Mowlam, he became a key British government figure in the peace process.

Finally, there was relationship building with external experts. The women’s coalition recognized that specialist organizations and individuals with particular knowledge could enhance the party’s technical expertise. In the area of human rights, for example, the coalition had regular contact with organizations such as the NGO Committee for the Administration of Justice. Similarly, seminars were organized to glean insights about voting systems that incorporated affirmative action or about cross-border economics (the border being between the states of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which were established in 1921).

Other meetings with community-based groups enabled the NIWC to advance the priorities of constituencies such as neighborhood-based women’s centers, self-help groups for survivors of the Troubles, and recently released political prisoners. At a delicate and tense stage of the peace talks, the women’s coalition visited the Maze high-security prison at the request of a Loyalist party that wanted to reassure its political prisoners that their interests were being fully represented. To facilitate this dialogue, Monica McWilliams and two of her colleagues agreed to be escorted by prison officers to a mobile hut and to be locked in with paramilitary prisoners for several hours of private discussion. It was this kind of relationship building—and the information and insights that it provided—that underpinned the relationships already established with the “constitutional” political representatives.

For relationship building to influence a developing politics, however, there needed to be a collection and analysis point within the party structures as well as the opportunity for broader reflection. In the case of the women’s coalition, this was a twofold system that included the peace talks negotiating team, which held regular meetings, and the monthly political briefings for the broader coalition membership. The former represented the point of analysis; the latter maintained perspective, given the potential for the hothouse atmosphere of the peace talks to distort perception. The collective feedback also ensured that the bedrock of public opinion, as represented in part by the general coalition membership, was factored into the equation.

Identifying Points of Political Acupuncture

In her account of the forging of the Belfast Agreement, journalist Beatrix Campbell noted the comments of an Irish government negotiator concerning the efficiency of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition office, with its flip charts listing priorities right up to the final hours of the negotiations.18 This reflected the organization of the coalition, since any points of influence that were still on the table (or flip chart) had to be selective, relevant, researched, and fought for. It was clear that a small party like the coalition would have limited political capital to effect change at any level, and, consequently, two main courses of action were identified: first, the coalition advocated issues that would leave the group’s fingerprints on the final peace agreement; second, the coalition indirectly introduced a range of other issues that the larger political parties could adopt as their own and take credit for. The latter approach required a generous view that privileged the longer-term vision of politics as the struggle of ideas over short-term political credibility. The argument, for example, that victims and survivors of the Troubles must be given recognition and recompense was an issue initially raised by the coalition that later became an important part of the peace talks—albeit often presented in deliberately divisive terms. Equally, the suggestion that it would benefit broader political representation if elected members could only hold one council, assembly, or parliamentary position at a time was initially treated with scorn but was later adopted by many of the parties involved. The women’s coalition quickly realized that, when political kudos are to be won, most politicians have a ready amnesia about where ideas and concepts originated.

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Renjie L. Butalid

However, it was also important to select issues that would have maximum impact on the political process—points of political acupuncture, so to speak. For example, the coalition promoted the concept of a civic forum—a kind of citizens’ assembly made up of representatives from community groups, trade unions, employer organizations, women’s groups, and so on that would act in an advisory role to the directly elected Northern Ireland Assembly. This civic forum was provided for in the final Belfast Agreement, though the body was later disbanded by mainstream political parties that thought it could undermine their “representative” role. In hindsight, the women’s coalition should have advocated an electoral system that would increase women’s political representation (such as the mixed-member system in which the proportional representation party list system sits alongside a constituency-based system). It proved a mistake to emphasize the “big ideas” of participatory democracy and a new form of politics represented by the civic forum over the more technical mechanism of an electoral system. There was also a failure to think through how gains included in the Belfast Agreement, particularly in relation to women, might be safeguarded from future renegotiation or meddling.

The other tactical consideration that the women’s coalition failed to take sufficient note of was who was tasked to do what in terms of implementing the peace agreement. Thus, while the NIWC won wording about ensuring greater representation for women in decision making in Northern Ireland, it was the British government that signed up to implement that statement of intent, and in the years following the agreement, the influence of the British government waned once the devolved government was in place in Northern Ireland. Local politicians could, in turn, argue that they were not committed to any action in this regard. What the coalition should have done in addition to scrutinizing the wording of the peace agreement was to ensure the longer-term implementation of its proposals, inserting timetables and targets. Similarly, the coalition could have campaigned for such priorities in a more public manner so that a groundswell of support could have rallied against quietly shelving initiatives such as the civic forum or affirmative action for women.

Whatever these lessons teach in hindsight, few could accuse the women’s coalition of not doing its homework on the wide range of issues under discussion during and following the peace talks. From its inception in 1996 to its dissolution in 2006, the NIWC pored over and responded to every document circulated for consultation by the British and Irish governments and the independent commissions appointed to oversee the various parts of the peace process. Whether it was the decommissioning of weaponry, the nature of electoral systems, or the reform of policing, the coalition negotiators used these issues to seek meetings with the parties involved in the negotiations as well as with nonelected interest groups.

When it came to proposing its own areas of priority, however, the women’s coalition learned the importance of understanding how agreements are drafted in technical terms. Unless it was possible to influence the “chapeau”—the preamble to a section of the peace agreement—other issues could not be inserted into the following paragraphs. For example, when the coalition negotiating team challenged a draftsperson as to why women were not mentioned in a central section of the agreement that dealt with human rights and the outworkings of the Troubles, the women’s coalition was told that the conflict was between nationalism and unionism—what had that to do specifically with women? Thinking rapidly, coalition members responded that during the Troubles women had been affected because they lived within “an armed patriarchy.” With a weary sigh, the draftsperson conceded the point and “the right of women to full and equal participation in political life” was inserted. For its part, the coalition team started to critically examine preamble paragraphs to ensure there was sufficient breadth within them to encompass additional issues. The coalition also learned that convincing drafters that gender matters required a certain set of skills and not just a sense that (gender) justice should happen.

Speaking at a conference on peace building in Belfast in 1999, organized by the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, Naomi Chazan, then deputy speaker of the Israeli Knesset, warned delegates not to become distracted or to lose attention during a peace process, because when that happened in Israel it resulted in the assassination of a progressive prime minister.19 This warning could have also applied to the implementation of the Belfast Agreement. Subsequent renegotiations, and recasting of political priorities and payoffs, sidelined important objectives—for example, the creation of a “shared” societal future and a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. And although elected representation from the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition was in place until 2003, the British government’s approach of solely negotiating with “the main players” made safeguarding concessions increasingly difficult. There was a need for some mechanism to keep watch on political developments and to develop a public outcry as gains were removed. It is also true that sheer peace process weariness can drain the energy from both the public and politics.

The Micromeshes of Politics

An important balancing exercise for those involved in the politics of peace negotiations is between the pressurized demands of the negotiations themselves and the ongoing demands of the political parties or overall political structure. Kate Fearon and Monica McWilliams write that, in the case of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, “essentially this entails internalising the requirements of participatory democracy within the Coalition itself, and steering a path between the dangers of hierarchical decision-making and the ‘tyranny of structurelessness.’”20 On the one hand, the coalition wanted to be as open and inclusive of its members and the wider women’s sector as possible, but it also had to maintain discipline and effectiveness to win the respect of the other parties involved in the negotiations.

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Renjie L. Butalid

In short, while all views and opinions are valid, negotiating teams require a particular skill set, including the ability to analyze political positions, articulate a position, and respond to the positions of others. Expertise in detailed note taking is also required, as is an ability to identify shifts in political positioning and nuanced use of language and argument. Negotiators need to fully comprehend the narrative and mindset of parties caught in the contradictions of their own certainties—particularly when such parties are in the process of shifting political positions while having to bring their supporters with them.

From early on in the peace negotiations, the women’s coalition accepted that one of the contributions it could make was to create space for compromise, or “the accommodation of alternative positions,” as some parties preferred to call it (compromise was often viewed as close to selling out). Being careful with language, avoiding verbal “boxing” and “hearing” what other parties to the negotiations were saying, made the coalition “valuable contributors” to the process and “serious, important participants.”21 As a relative outsider to the peace process, the women’s coalition was able to bring a freshness of perception that other, more vintage political representatives sometimes lacked due to preconceived assumptions. However, all too often in peace negotiations the very skills that are learned by the core negotiating team can divide that team from its membership base, giving rise to feelings of exclusion within the latter.

Over time, there can also be a growth in the sense of exclusiveness in the key personnel involved in negotiations, irrespective of political allegiance. The feeling of being part of a historical process can be seductive, and the pressure of late nights and quick changes in political positioning can exert pressure and a sense of high drama. This feeling is amplified by running the gauntlet of local—and, at times, world—media that camp outside the peace-talks venue. Yet, over an extended period of time, what would usually be considered abnormal has a tendency to become the norm. Scarce resources can crowd out the time and attention necessary for broader communication. And there is always the danger that overemphasis on meeting the demands of one’s own support base can get privileged over taking the time to meet with parties whose views stand contrary to one’s own. It is all a question of balance and structuring internal party roles to ensure that inside-out communication demands are met alongside those of the inside-in negotiations.

Entanglement in the political micromeshes of the peace negotiations made it difficult for the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition to satisfy other objectives that it set for itself when it first formed—increasing the overall representation of women in politics and addressing the issue of the representation of women in the media.22 While arguably the coalition, by shocking established political parties to promote their own women members and because of the media coverage that it received, had a positive impact in both these areas, there was little time to go much beyond simply describing these issues. Additional analysis and organizing did not happen, which resulted in the coalition having a more short-term impact rather than achieving longer-term structural changes. Although a number of consultative conferences were organized during the peace talks to maintain contact with the wider women’s and community movements (outside of the membership of the coalition itself), there was little time for broader alliance building around a platform of issues. Indeed, the coalition discovered that many community-based organizations feared they would suffer locally from being perceived as aligned with any particular political party. For example, during the peace talks, in 1997, the Windsor Women’s Centre in a Protestant/Loyalist community was attacked and burned following a visit by the Irish president, Mary Robinson. The paramilitary organization claiming credit for the attack threatened the staff in an attempt to prevent them from continuing their progressive cross-community work on women’s issues, driving the center’s previously open association with the women’s coalition underground.

All of this meant that while community activists were happy to relate to politics with a small p, they were apprehensive about consorting with elected representatives deemed to be capital P political and consequently possibly divisive. This, undoubtedly, was one of the legacies of 30 years of violent conflict and an even longer heritage of communal division. While understanding these reservations, the women’s coalition had neither the time nor the resources to develop effective strategies to overcome them.

Bringing It Home: Making the Personal Political

At the conclusion of the peace negotiations, Senator Mitchell, the chairperson of the talks, stated that “the emergence of women as a political force was a significant factor in achieving the Agreement.”23 Without the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, there would have been no proposals about victims, integrated education, mixed housing, children and young people, or the civic forum. Legal scholar Naomi Cahn and her colleagues have argued that if women are absent from peace negotiations, then much-needed “social services justice” (care for victims, education, health, and well-being) will also be absent in postconflict societies.24 The women’s coalition showed that mainstreaming a gender analysis could lead to a more comprehensive understanding of the realities of conflict and the meaning of security. The coalition also advocated maintaining a shared value base as a foundation for discussing potentially divisive issues. Alongside this, the coalition recognized the need to proactively build relationships, actively listen to what people from other political positions were saying, constantly engage in collective analysis and reflection, and to be open to external expertise and examples from other peace processes.

The coalition’s involvement in the peace talks showed that special support for women, such as temporary measures and affirmative action, needs to be moved from “aspirational” proposals to institutional guarantees—otherwise these efforts will disappear at the implementation stage. Promoting collective forms of decision making (such as civic forums) and introducing electoral reform (such as the party list system) should also be part of the restructuring following peace agreements. The involvement of grassroots groups, and not just the elites, in negotiations and decision making created a space for the transition from conflict to peace in Northern Ireland. Women in civic society are significant stakeholders and can act as early warning systems, preventing an outbreak of further conflict.

Since the peace-building process is multilayered, contextual, and at times formal or informal, women need to be seen and heard at all levels. The participatory and empowerment model used for marginal and vulnerable groups in reconstruction and development programs is also a useful analogy for the role of women—put simply, “there should be nothing about us, without us.” As Thelma Ekiyor, who has worked on peace building in west Africa, reminds us, the structural violence, discrimination, and exclusion that contribute to war must be countered by a commitment to social justice and inclusive political structures, which are essential to peace.25

In its ten years of existence, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition attempted to ensure that proposals for social justice were not only written into the peace agreement but that they became part of the country’s political culture. It succeeded in getting women elected to the multiparty peace talks, to the Forum for Dialogue and Understanding, to local councils, and to the first Northern Ireland Assembly. Though the women’s coalition has formally disbanded, its members continue to support the involvement of women in political and public life in Northern Ireland. Notwithstanding the UN Security Council resolutions to advance women’s roles in resolving conflicts, progress has been slow and, at times, precarious. As people everywhere know, ensuring that visible, visionary women maintain a central role in rebuilding their societies remains an unfinished project.

References

  1. Boland, E in Collected Poems. It’s a woman’s world, 79–80 (Carcanet Press, Manchester, UK, 1995).
  2. Blair, T in A Journey, Ch. 6 (Hutchinson, London, 2010).
  3. Wynne-Jones, R. Irish talks: Men posture, women progress. Independent, p. 7 (June 16, 1996).
  4. Rowan, B. The Armed Peace: Life and Death after the Cease-fires (Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh, 2003)
  5. Campbell, B. Agreement: The State, Conflict and Change in Northern Ireland (Lawrence & Wishart, London, 2008)
  6. Little, A. Democracy and Northern Ireland: Beyond the Liberal Paradigm? (Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2004).
  7. Moore, R. Proper wives, orange maidens or disloyal subjects: Situating the equality concerns of Protestant women in Northern Ireland. Master’s thesis (1994), available in Linenhall Library, Belfast.
  8. Rooney, E & Woods, M. Women, Community and Politics in Northern Ireland: A Belfast Study (University of Ulster, Belfast, 1995).
  9. Porter, E in Women, Ethnicity and Nationalism: The Politics of Transition (Wilford, R & Miller, R, eds), Identity, location, plurality: Women, nationalism and Northern Ireland (Routledge, London, 1998).
  10. McDonough, R & Fairweather, E. Only the Rivers Run Free (Pluto Press, London, 1984).
  11. Fearon, K. Women’s Work: The Story of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (Blackstaff Press, Belfast, 1999).
  12. Porter, E. Peace-Building: Women in International Perspectives (Routledge, Oxon, 2007).
  13. McWilliams, M. Struggling for peace and justice: Reflections on women’s activism in Northern Ireland. Journal of Women’s History 6 & 7 (1995).
  14. Porter, E & McWilliams, M. Women, Politics and the Way Forward. Conference Report (University of Ulster, Belfast, 1995).
  15. Cockburn, C. The Space Between Us: Negotiating Gender and National Identities in Conflict (Zed Books, London, 1998).
  16. Fearon, K & McWilliams, M in Gender, Democracy and Inclusion in Northern Ireland—Women’s Studies at York (Roulston, C & Davies, C, eds), Swimming against the Mainstream: The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, 117–141 (Palgrave, Basingstoke, 2000).
  17. Yuval-Davis, N in Shifting Identities, Shifting Racisms: A Feminism and Psychology Reader (Bhavani, K-K & Phoenix, A, eds), Women, ethnicity and empowerment, 192–194 (Sage, London, 1994).
  18. Campbell, B. Agreement: The State, Conflict and Change in Northern Ireland 66 (Lawrence & Wishart, London, 2008).
  19. Conference Report: Taking Risks For Peace (Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, 1999).
  20. Fearon, K & McWilliams, M in Gender, Democracy and Inclusion in Northern Ireland—Women’s Studies at York (Roulston, C & Davies, C, eds), Swimming against the mainstream: The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, 132 (Palgrave, Basingstoke, 2000).
  21. Mitchell, GJ. Making Peace 44 (Random House, Toronto, 1999).
  22. Fawcett, L in Power, Politics, Positionings: Women in Northern Ireland, Democratic Dialogue Report 4 (Fearon, K ed), Confined to stereotypes, 18–25 (Belfast, 1996).
  23. Mitchell, GJ. Making Peace (Random House, Toronto, 1999).
  24. Cahn, N, Haynes, D & Ni Aolain, F. Returning home: Women in post-conflict societies. University of Baltimore Law Review 39 (2010).
  25. Ekiyor, TA cited in Peace Building: Women in International Perspectives (by Porter, E), 41 (Routledge, Oxon, 2007).
Avila Kilmurray Director of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland and Cofounder of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition
Monica McWilliams Chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and cofounder of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition political party
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women's party

It is true that women representatives in Northern Irish political parties received little attention from the media at the time of the peace negotiations. It is true too that the NIWCoalition were treated as though no other women were politically involved. In part that was a function of media hunger for something 'new'. It's also true that, like any political party, the personal account of the leadership will emphasise the importance of a party's contribution. However, the NIWC was a unique and remarkable achievement of a small band of dedicated feminists supported by a range of women's groups and networks. Many supporters held opposed political commitments and had different experiences of the state and the war. They saw too, however, that the aspirational dimension of the coalition was worth supporting and voting for. The party was elected and it 'made a difference'. The phenomenon of the coalition has received very little thoughtful attention. This article is a welcome opener. It deserves critical engagement in return.

typically self-serving account

It is nonsense to say, as this piece does, that "At the commencement of the peace talks, the NIWC was the only party with women delegates at the table". The NIWC was an irrelevant, ephemeral fringe party with negligible support. Thirteen women from other parties were elected to the Northern Ireland Forum in 1996: five from Sinn Féin, three Democratic Unionist Party, three Social Democratic and Labour Party, one Ulster Unionist Party, one Alliance Party. Those five parties between them amassed 86.3% of the popular vote; the NIWC, 1.0%. Unfortunately the failed leadership of this micro-party constantly exaggerate their impact and importance; the web has multiple instances of claims by McWilliams to have been the only woman to have "signed the Good Friday Agreement" of 1998, which no-one actually signed. Take anything these people say with a large pinch of salt.