20 years since the Good Friday Agreement – It’s time the value of women’s peace building work is recognised

In the latest part of our sHERed Future series, Kellie Turtle (Feminist Activist and WRDA’s Women’s Sector Lobbyist) writes about the role of women in peace building in Northern Ireland

In any discussion of women’s participation in building peace in Northern Ireland it is important to say that women have always been politically active agents of change here; from the suffragettes who were the first hunger strikers in our prisons, to the trade unionists who fought child labour and exploitation in Belfast’s linen mills and factories, to the young mothers at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement because they didn’t have decent homes to raise their children in. We have always participated in the stories that shaped this place; we’ve just never been allowed to be the protagonists in those stories and in fact we’ve been lucky not to have been written out of them all together. This is also true of the women who quietly built peace.

Long before the male leaders, religious, political or paramilitary, began openly talking to each other women had been doing it for years. For example, in the 70s the first women’s refuges were established by women from both communities who had to resist the power and control of the paramilitaries and state security forces, squatting buildings to give women a place to be safe from violence. Throughout the 80s women community leaders held monthly information sessions on issues like health, childcare and housing; bussing women in and out of each other’s communities and crossing huge physical and personal barriers that men in Northern Ireland didn’t come close to until years later. Women organised campaigns together against Margaret Thatcher’s removal of school milk, against the closure of each other’s women centres and for changes in the law to protect women from discrimination or violence, or for access to family planning services

It has to be stressed that these women were not exclusively focused on building peace. They were concerned with equality and rights and with the gendered impact of the poverty that blighted their communities, but inevitably that also meant they wanted an end to the conflict because without doubt it was having a hugely negative impact on women’s lives. So when the political landscape shifted dramatically in the late 90s and it became clear that the parties at the negotiating table would be entirely dominated by men, those same woman with all that wonderful practical experience in community dialogue, building partnerships and articulating what society based on equality and rights should look like, had to become politicians almost overnight. Through the mechanism of the Women’s Coalition they had to insert themselves in the process because no one was going to pull up a chair for them at the table and in fact many tried to pull the chair out from under them.

I want to leap two decades now to talk about where things are for women’s participation in our ongoing peace process. The Good Friday Agreement predated UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security which is designed to address the unique impact of armed conflict on women and ensure that women’s participation in peacebuilding efforts is supported and recognised. Since being passed unanimously at the UN Security Council 18 years ago, there is mounting evidence that, when implemented successfully, UNSCR 1325 and the gender equality that it espouses at all levels in conflict transformation processes, can result in longer term stability and reduced resurgence of conflict. However, despite repeated calls from the women’s movement and international bodies the UK government has never agreed to include Northern Ireland in its action plan and there is therefore no accountability mechanism around women’s representation and inclusion. Regardless of this, the principles of 1325 have had a huge impact on women’s participation in political and public life since the Agreement but the fact is we have had to do it all ourselves. The women’s movement has organised conferences and large-scale consultations with women across Ireland, we have facilitated an Assembly all party group to keep it on the political agenda, and we’ve even written a toolkit on exactly how to implement 1325 in a way that would help strengthen the peace and improve women’s lives. But with no formal accountability on this and therefore no political will to embed these principles in the mainstream political process, we have to a large extent been talking to ourselves.

It pains me to say that because I know the women’s sector has done some incredible work over the years. Women’s lives have been transformed because of it, communities have been transformed and the peace has been strengthened, but it has never been embedded, valued or adequately resourced. As the last few years have revealed some of the most serious fault lines in the peace process around issues like legacy, cultural expression and identity, the exclusion of women has never looked so stark. A report published last year called ‘Peacebuilding in the Women’s Sector’ confirmed what many of us knew has been going on for some years now; women’s participation is regressing. The new-ish Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition has 1 woman appointed and 14 men. As public appointments this kind of inequality is unacceptable, not least because it resonates right through to the platforms for dialogue and negotiation of difficult issues at community level. When tensions over flags, emblems and parades reached a peak in 2013 and a delegation of political and community leaders went to Cardiff to try and talk it out, only 2 of the 27 strong delegation were women. This is indicative of a general shift in power dynamics in many communities as grassroots women’s groups are finding it increasingly difficult to exercise real leadership, with many facing intimidation if they disagree with the agenda of the male gatekeepers. Despite recent commitments in the Fresh Start Agreement to ‘increase the participation and influence of women in community development’ and ‘the advancement of women in public life’, the programme currently being rolled out offers short term personal development opportunities to a relatively small cohort of women with nothing built in to either ensure the long term stability of the women’s community sector or address the structural barriers which arguably have a much greater impact on gender inequality than women’s lack of access to training opportunities.

In the current pressure cooker of issues destabilising our institutions and our peace process the marginalisation of women over the last 20 years is looking extremely foolish. Obviously this discussion takes place in the knowledge that the leaders of both the main parties are women – the irony is not lost on us in the women’s movement. Increased representation of women in electoral politics is something that is to be welcomed. However, it is does not negate the need for formal commitments to acknowledging the equal validity of women’s experiences of the conflict, women’s priorities and aspirations, and the same equality and rights issues which women here have always organised on. We will keep on providing that in the grassroots women movement and as we all look for new energy and direction for Northern Ireland we hope this time the value of women’s peacebuilding work will be recognised.

This article was delivered as a panel contribution at the Peace Foundation event, Women for Peace; Lessons from Northern Ireland in Blackburne House, Liverpool on 8th March 2018

A sHERed future:

A sHERed Future project, a Community Relations Council funded resource, seeks to make visible how women have shaped the region’s political present throughout the last two centuries pressing for gender equality progress. Through an examination of five lesser-known women from Northern Ireland’s history and interviews with female MLAs, academics and activists, we seek to explore the barriers women face, the impact of the conflict and the gender blindness in our narrative of history.

The project is directed at young women to help them consider their role in Northern Ireland’s political future. As well as oral histories and interviews with prominent political figures, there are free teaching resources and a toolkit for anyone who wishes to use the material to organise their own session with young women. To find out more about the project, check out our website or email [email protected]