Northern Ireland peace deal: Women’s role finally recognised, says activist

Monica McWilliams, a signatory of the agreement, looks back on the work of the Women’s Coalition during peace talks, 25 years ago.

Monica Belfast
Monica McWilliams says Northern Irish politics has returned to 'the old dinosaurs' [Courtesy: One World Media]

Belfast, Northern Ireland – Northern Irish academic and activist Monica McWilliams says it has taken 25 years for women to be recognised for their roles in bringing peace.

A co-founder of the Women’s Coalition political party and delegate at the multiparty talks that drove forward Northern Ireland’s peace process in the 1990s, she was also elected to the first regional power-sharing assemblies that were established by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Al Jazeera interviewed McWilliams at the recent One Young World 2023 summit in Belfast, on the key role women played in the peace process and unfinished work of the Agreement.

Al Jazeera: How do you look back on your experiences of the peace talks, setting up the Women’s Coalition, running, and getting elected to the Assembly, 25 years on?

Monica McWilliams: The system was never designed for the women’s party – it was designed for the armed groups.

We sat down and worked out that, under that electoral system, we might have enough numbers to get elected ourselves. But we were accidental politicians. We actually never thought we would go into the mainstream negotiations – we always saw them as quite elitist.

And yet we knew we’d done that work on the ground all during those years – The Troubles. We’d been crossing over the peace lines, we’d been mediating, negotiating on the front line. We had a very nuanced understanding – much more than the politicians of the causes themselves. And we figured that, if we could bring that to the table, we’d have something different to say.

We put the messages out around the country – “Wave goodbye to dinosaurs”, “Vote for change”, “A new voice for new times”. But it wasn’t just slogans or soundbites. We actually had a whole series of policies – on what to do about prisoner releases, what to do on victims and reparations – because we’d worked with all these groups. And we were back-channelling with all these groups – the people that nobody else wanted to talk about – during the talks.

[Ex-Sinn Fein leader] Gerry Adams talked about dialogue – there was no dialogue! We were the best informed at the table because everybody was talking to us, and we went out of our way to talk to them. Whereas, both sides in the conflict only talked to their own side.

I was very proud of the day I signed the Agreement. Not only because a women’s party was now a signatory to an international peace agreement, but also because, having been involved, I figured the next generation can lead on from that.

But it’s proved to be an unfinished business – we’ve had a tough time implementing that Agreement.

Al Jazeera: Has there been a clear shift or reappraisal around recognising the role played by women in the peace process?

McWilliams: There has. It was great to see people talking on the 25th anniversary about the importance of women at the peace table. But did it take 25 years? Yes!

Big [political] parties [in the peace talks] just kept telling us, “Wait until we get everything resolved and then we’ll get around to dealing with your issues. The time isn’t right.” Even the women in those parties would say that to us: “Just wind your neck in and wait until we get all this hardware dealt with.”

They saw what we were putting on the table as “software”. It turns out those soft issues, as they saw them, have become the hardest to deal with: the bill of rights that I advised on as [Northern Ireland’s Human Rights] commissioner; the civic forum, equivalent to a citizen’s assembly which would’ve been so needed, was never put in place beyond all of around six weeks. We’re now dealing with legacy in a shameful way – that’s hurt victims instead of healing – and I could go on.

Only now are they starting to see how important all of these things are. I’m very proud that we were there, and really glad that it’s a peace agreement that recognises there were women present.

Al Jazeera: With the number of seats at the Stormont Assembly having been reduced from 108 to 90, smaller parties are increasingly squeezed out. I imagine it would be difficult for something like the Women’s Coalition to have representation at that level now?

McWilliams: When the second Assembly collapsed, I said: “That’ll be us.” Because we came in on the spirit of the Agreement, and [on] people wanting to see new blood and different voices. And then it went back to the old dinosaurs, who fought it out over weapons and over which positions they were going to get in government.

I said we’ll all go back into, you know, small “P” politics. It wasn’t that we walked away from doing our work.

We had electoral reform as one of our proposals and the other parties wouldn’t agree to it – apart from the Progressive Unionist Party.

Politics is narrowed enough in a warzone or a conflicted society – and after conflict is over, you need to broaden the political space. People didn’t understand that here. And it was too short a [space of] time to get them to think: “Don’t go back to the same old status quo. Do this – we know it works.” But they wouldn’t do it.

Source: Al Jazeera