1998 Good Friday Agreement

The Role of Women in Northern Ireland’s Peace Process: Q&A with Monica McWilliams

Members of the Good Friday Agreement negotiations: (front L-R) academic and peace activist, Monica McWilliams, former Northern Ireland first minister Seamus Mallon, former Irish Premier Bertie Ahern, former US special envoy George Mitchell, and former Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams; (back L-R) British diplomat Jonathan Powell, former Alliance leader Lord Alderdice, former First Minister of Northern Ireland David Trimble, former leader of the Ulster Unionist party Reg Empey and former Northern Ireland Secretary of State Paul Murphy. (PAUL FAITH/AFP via Getty Images)

Nearly twenty years ago, the Good Friday Agreement on how Northern Ireland would be governed went into effect. The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, a grassroots political party, won two seats in the peace talks that led to the agreement and played a critical role in building consensus, as one of the few parties that worked across Catholic and Protestant communities. Monica McWilliams, one of the founders of the coalition, spoke with the Global Observatory about the agreement, what has been learned since it was signed, and the state of peace in Northern Island.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What would you change about the Good Friday Agreement, given what has transpired since it was signed?

Ms. McWilliams: Going back now, I would put many of the aspirations into firmer guarantees. One is the issue of having the right to be British, or Irish, or both, which is really what the conflict was about. It was an unforeseen consequence that we were ever going to face Brexit and leave the European Union, because the agreement speaks of many places as being connected to the European Union. It should have been a guarantee, and it wasn’t, and that has now turned out to be very problematic.

I would have also rewritten the section that said we should scope the advice on a bill of rights for Northern Ireland because of how scope ended being interpreted. When the draft bill of rights was passed to the UK government they decided: “Thank you very much; you’ve scoped the advice and we don’t necessarily have to bring forward in legislation a Bill of Rights.” So there’s never been a bill of rights, though it was in the Peace Agreement and we all assumed it would come about.

Also, the proposal for the rights of women to full and equal political participation turned out to be an aspiration because there was no guarantee other than political goodwill. There were no affirmative action clauses and no temporary special measures introduced, although they had been introduced in relation to police reform. It’s interesting that so-called “hardware issues” got taken care of in some form of benchmarks and timetables, guarantees, or special measures, but issues of gender were all left to this notion of political goodwill.

Another proposal in the agreement we were very happy about was the civic forum, which was very imaginative on the part of the Women’s Coalition. This forum was to sit alongside parliament and represent civil society sectors and advise on socio-economic and cultural issues. It’s one of the outstanding proposals from the agreement that has just gone into a vacuum.

I would have also included a more pluralist electoral system in the agreement. The one that brought us to the talks should have been the system we retained and kept, because it was creative and inclusionary.

What approaches did the Women’s Party take during negotiations that built consensus and helped overcome some of the obstacles?

Ms. McWilliams: When we went into the talks we saw this idea of specialty of consensus that had been adapted from the South African approach. We negotiated with the two governments with the idea of not just relying on the two majorities or big parties, but that a sufficiency of consensus should mean a sufficiency of smaller parties and other parties around the table. This proved to be a really good procedural mechanism because everybody had buy-in and it protected the process from the veto of any spoilers.

So as we went along, the sufficiency of consensus amongst such a diverse group of opinions meant that people had confidence that the referendum would probably pass.

Also we believed in inclusion, so we agreed that we would speak to parties if they breached any of the rules, and would keep them involved once they were outside of the room, to enable them to come back. This was very contentious, but really important.

We ultimately paid attention both to the process and substantive issues, and both are important. For example, not every party would speak to each other. Some took a view that it was strength never to say “good morning” to some of their enemies, and we said: how do you know what their interests are if you don’t talk to them? So we engaged in an inclusive process as facilitators, mediators, and negotiators. We split ourselves into teams to do so, but we had to be careful, as women not everybody saw us as just mediators or facilitators. That was the hardest room to get to take women seriously.

What are some examples where you sensed that the Women’s Coalition Party was being treated only as a mediator?

Ms. McWilliams: It would often be acknowledged that women had played a good role in the communities and that that was their job, but to leave it at that. So basically they’re good community activists. As political activists and as a political party we were surplus to requirements.

We often felt like outsiders who had become insiders, but weren’t welcomed as insiders. Remember, all the parties negotiating the agreement had been around for a long time, we were the newcomers, along with some other small parties at the table. We had to very much gain and earn respect, and so we prepared ourselves very well every night before we went into negotiations the next day on what the potential questions might be and what the contentious issues might be.

We were very strategic in our approach, in that we wanted to know as much as possible about the parties for negotiations. We were also very tactical in how we went about doing that; we weren’t everybody’s friend. We called people out, we named and shamed individuals when they became content with hate speech and misogyny. It was a very difficult process, as you can imagine.

What were some of the other personal costs to women in the party? Whether yourselves as delegates or the party in general.

Ms. McWilliams: The sexist remarks were humiliating, and we had to remind ourselves that it wasn’t about us but it was about them. If it’s personal attacks, you have to be very strong to not take it personally when a person is screaming abuse at you. I mean, it was endless, it never stopped.

We had a name and shame notice board we used to write the insult of the week on it, and that used to work a little. Personally, it was very time consuming. We were mothers with small children, and we still had a lot of domestic responsibilities, so we had to also find a means of coping. At the same time we had to be very resilient and make sure that we worked as a team.

Women often face these structural barriers, but also we find that we had to organize childcare, organize cash, we had to build confidence, and we had to engage with a culture that wasn’t very inviting. We called it the “four C’s.” Of all of those I think the one that people remember the most is the humiliating comments we had to deal with. The comments were caught on television, and journalists made them too. When we first got elected, one of the papers said “The Hen Party Comes Home to Roost.”

How would you describe the current state of peace in Northern Ireland?

Ms. McWilliams: The Peace Agreement has had a very stabilizing influence in the sense that we had ceasefires and they have been maintained. We had to reform policing and that’s been a success. The criminal justice system was reviewed and renewed and there is some confidence that it’s working. But the government arrangements haven’t been very stable and we’re currently without a government for two years.

The reconciliation part of the process has not been attended to and victim reparations have not been done. The commission for dealing with truth recovery hasn’t been put in place, although all the mechanisms have been agreed to for how it should be. We still have fractured groups engaged in criminality who attempt to coerce local communities. These are all post-conflict scenarios where it’s a question of who benefits from the peace dividend. People who tend to benefit are those who get jobs in the peace and security sector or the criminal justice system, whereas the people who really should be benefitting are those who are most disadvantaged by the conflict in the first place. We wrote into the peace agreement that for sustainable peace we needed social and community development, economic development opportunities, and integration of our education system. These still have not happened.

Another way to put it is that the software of the process, the positive pieces that create long term peace, have not had the commitment necessary and we are now paying the price. On the other hand, the actual violent pieces of the process have more or less disappeared, although there is a threat that potentially they might return as a result of Brexit.

What is at stake, in terms of peace, with Brexit?

Ms. McWilliams: The uncertainty with the current stalemate has created a great deal of friction within the community. In some sense, civil society is speaking up louder than anybody else because businesses are the first to scream when their pocketbooks are hit, and they are being hit. So, civil society, church leaders, trade unions, and community activists are all speaking up and saying “This cannot be allowed to happen.” It’s not good for our own peace process given how we thought we had settled in relation to our identity and our territory.

If you’re someone like me who still has a memory of how bad it was all those years ago, you say  we cannot go back. Whatever we do we cannot harm the process, and we cannot drag everyone back. We’ve spent all this time seeing what works, and we know what works, and we have to keep moving it forward.

Do you have any final thoughts you wanted to share?

Ms. McWilliams: Learning from other peace processes is incredibly important. Much of what I’m telling you is not unique to this post-conflict situation, but there are some contexts either geopolitically or locally that have different features attached to them. You need a lot of leadership in these situations, but you also you need a very active civil society that is resilient. That is one of the things I’m very heartened about in our context, as civil society has maintained the peace process.