Bronagh Hinds is senior associate with DemocraShe and was a cofounded of the NI Women’s Coalition. She’s on a panel discussing My skies rise higher: The rise of Women’s Leadership in Northern Ireland.
“It’s really important to engage women and it’s strange because we used to shy away from role-modelling – thinking that we were just promoting ourselves – but it is important to talk to women about what is possible and to engage women in what they have achieved in their lives.”
And there’s a role for men in this process too?
“There are two parts to this. I do quite a lot of international work, most recently in relation to Syria, and some of the UN work is particularly focussed on men taking some leadership both in changing themselves and in leading change. You see that a lot internationally … male leadership is part of a strategy to bring about change as well.”
Hinds says that “there is nothing worse than men just deciding that they’re [going to promote opportunity for women] and then you see a whole group of only men doing it, with women further disempowered. It’s about women exercising their own power and men taking responsibility for the cultural and behavioural changes that they need to make breathing space.”
Bronagh Hinds was appointed UK Woman of Europe in 1999 by the European Commission, recognising her role in getting women’s voices heard in the Northern Ireland peace process. The NI Women’s Coalition launched in 1998, a party with women-only candidates. I asked Hinds – one of the cofounders – about the reasons for its formation.
“It brought together many of those women who had been very active in women’s groups and in women’s liberation, feminism but also grassroots women who wouldn’t necessarily have seen themselves in that role but were quite clearly doing that in their own homes and communities.
“It was very clearly anger about women being pushed out of the discussions on conflict and conflict resolution but also the fact that men had often failed in political leadership in actually not running what we would call a proper and inclusive democratic process – a real participative democracy – particularly in relation to conflict. One’s not saying that there aren’t women involved in conflict but it is mainly characterised as male …
“It’s best summed up by one of my friends involved in the Women’s Coalition Annie Campbell who used to talk about ‘the audacity of these men thinking that they are going to do it without engaging any women’. And also past negotiations have failed and they were primarily men.”
Hinds recognises that there were some women – though very much a minority – involved in the talks.
“I would not want to marginalise or make little of the few women who were involved in the talks in other parties: Eileen Bell, Bríd Rodgers and Bairbre de Brún. But [some] worked behind the scenes and weren’t there all the time.
“It was really important to have women at the table all the time and that was only guaranteed by the Women’s Coalition and the mass of women working in behind the party.”
Hinds was clear that she is “a great believer that women should be represented in any political avenue that they choose”, citing Joan Carson’s involvement in the UUP of yesteryear and women like Paula Bradley who are strong voices within the DUP.
“A critical mass of women in a Women’s Coalition that was not tied to a political agenda that had predefined by men were actually able to bring both another dynamic and another agenda, which was really around encapsulating the issue of participative democracy.”
What was the legacy of the party?
“The legacy has been both good and bad, that what we were able to achieve and that which remains to be achieved. I don’t think that our politics are inclusive enough. I am absolutely delighted that when Mitchel McLaughlin was Presiding Officer of the Assembly he got up and running a piece of work on ‘women in politics’ which was co-chaired by Caitríona Ruane and Paula Bradley … We still have to see the full realisation of that but we’re seeing more women coming forward in politics. I’m also very glad that in setting up and leading DemocraShe I was able to give that a kick start in terms of training women from every single political party to advance more women within their ranks.
“Nevertheless I am really concerned about diversity in the Assembly because one of the things that the Women’s Coalition argued for was a different type of electoral mechanism that would bring in diverse voices. We actually proposed a completely different electoral mechanism than was agreed in the [Good Friday] talks.”
Those talks agreed on six-seater constituencies “to take care of diversity” and Hinds is concerned that while the recent shift from six to five seats per constituency is perceived as “saving money” and this currently “reduces the avenues towards diversity and has pushed the Assembly back into the hands of ‘big beasts’”.
The Women’s Coalition also argued for a Civic Forum as a priority to engage people “who are not totally tied up with political parties but have policy expertise in constructive participation and debate” and to “create a democratic participative pathway in Northern Ireland”.
“As we know that disappeared in the first Assembly and has not been resurrected and we are the worse for it.
“On the other hand, had it not been for women we would not have seen any references to integrated education, to integrated communities, to the advancement of women in political and public life, and particularly the issue in relation to supporting victims. That is the legacy of the Women’s Coalition but our vision of a participative and inclusive society and democracy still has to be realised.”
The Women’s Coalition dissolved in 2006. Could something trigger a similar intervention in the future?
“I meet all the time women and men who come up to me and say ‘we need a Women’s Coalition, can you not restart?’ It’s very difficult to go back to something: you can’t really go back to where you were before.”
Hinds suggests that “childcare never gets prioritised on the agenda, never gets any money, yet everybody knows that it’s the single biggest barrier to women and particularly women from disadvantaged communities being able to go out to work and get on the career ladder”.
This is the kind of issue that women politicians could work together on, perhaps through a cross-party caucus. But if that doesn’t happen then she thinks that the Civic Forum should be (re)instituted under the Agreement, with a bare minimum of 50% women in the forum.
Bronagh Hinds will be joined on the panel by Lesley Hogg (Chief Executive of the NI Assembly) and Tina McKenzie (business leader and former politician) in a session chaired by Sarah Havlin (one of NI’s boundary commissioners and Certification Officer of NI). The session is free, but registration is required (and the normal entry fee to the National Trust site applies).
A senior advisor to UN Women and their Syrian Women’s Advisory Board, Hinds has worked in many countries in which “women feel that they could intervene and create a different type of dynamic and relationships”.
“In Syria we have tried to support UN Women in empowering women to have a role in the negotiations and the political solution for Syria, particularly in circumstances not unlike the NI Women’s Coalition where women were not included sufficiently or taken account of properly in the main delegations.”
“The UN is only as good as its member states. It has passed those resolutions and it has appointed a special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura [who] did advise the negotiating parties that he expected them to have a third women in their delegations, but this did not occur.
“Therefore we worked with him to set up a women’s advisory committee directly working to him and they have been quite effective and come up with new and novel things that the special envoy and his team may not have thought of.
“The Syrian women themselves are saying ‘but we should be a negotiating party’, and absolutely they should be, but at least the UN has made a different pathway into the process when they are being blocked by other parties. But it is completely unacceptable that there are not women and civil society in that negotiating process. Why should it only be left to political parties?”
You can find out more about other conversations and activities at Mount Stewart Conversations (14-15 October) in my previous post. You can also read an interview with another contributor Prof Richard English who spoke to me about nationalism on this island and further afield.