If it hadn’t been for diversity, women would not achieved what they did in negotiating the Good Friday agreement, according to Monica McWilliams founding member of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition. She was speaking at an IWF Ireland event to mark the 25th anniversary of the agreement which was also addressed by Liz O’Donnell, former Minister and TD. The moderator was Catherine Day.
Asked how women made a difference to the talks, Liz said that the difference came around their openness and flexibility. They didn’t come from “tribal politics”. But it was a rollercoaster and a case of one step forward and two back.
Monica gave insights into the challenges faced by the Women’s Coalition in mobilising women. The Women’s Coalition looked to the Women’s Political Association in the south for inspiration. In the north, there were no female MPs and few women councillors – the women either decided to stay out of the process out of fear for themselves and their families or weren’t given the option to be included
Consensus was difficult, she said, as it was important that the Coalition was inclusive and not a middle class movement. Some women were married to British soldiers, others were marred to communists.
Many women were expected to continue to carry out domestic roles as well as their roles in politics. It was necessary to provide childcare at these meetings. Monica spoke of the misogyny they faced, adding that some of the resentment came from jealously of the competence of the women involved.
Liz said that the high point of the talks was the IRA ceasefire and the low point was the Omagh bombings. They never considered something like Brexit would happen – so much of the Agreement was predicated on the free movement of people and trade that came with EU membership.
Reflecting on Northern Ireland as it is today, Monica spoke about how many people are leaving. They are the highly educated but the less educated are not. The important thing now is to focus on these young people, keep them away from paramilitary groups and invest in their futures