Valuing the women in the room #GFA20

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Valuing the women in the room #GFA20
by Ludovica TORRESIN for Shared Future News
4 August 2018

As part of Féile an Phobail, St Mary’s University College hosted an event to give well-deserved space to the stories of those women whose contribution has been vital for the success of the Good Friday Agreement and for the challenges that have come after it.

During the several events held in honour of the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, a peculiarity was noticed: the absence of the women who were involved in the negotiations and who have been working on the peacebuilding process ever since. Relatives for Justice, as part of its UNSCR 1325 women building peace project, organised this event, to value the female presence during the signing of the peace agreement and to reflect on its effects after two decades.

Dolores Kelly (Social Democratic and Labour Party), Monica McWilliams (Women’s Coalition), Dawn Purvis (Progressive Unionist Party) and Michelle O’Neill (Sinn Fein) shared their experiences as female politicians and the difficulties that, as women, they’ve faced in being recognised as an important part of the political panorama.

Andree Murphy (Relatives for Justice) introduced all and pointed out how women’s contributions to post-conflict society has been overlooked. A video was shown to celebrate two women whose role was presented as essential for the success of peacebuilding: Mo Mowlam (the then British Secretary of State) and Siobhan O’Hanlon (a Sinn Feist activist and IRA volunteer).

The first to take the floor was Michelle O’Neill, who works to expand the conversation around women’s rights. She remarked on the importance of this anniversary year of the Agreement, by asserting that is vital for Northern Ireland to recognise how much has been achieved since the Agreement, without however forgetting the work that still needs to be done, such as social and economic inequalities and educational underachievement. She also spoke about the deep sorrow that still remains inside all the people who have been affected by the conflict and the dangerous and still present tendency to sectarianism. Lastly, she brought up the matter of Brexit by stating her concern towards its consequences on the still-fragile Northern Ireland society.

Monica McWilliams, Queen’s University professor and founder leader of the Women’s Coalition, mentioned the threat of the radical sectarianism and added that those who were considered part of the problem should be also part of the solution. She referred to the women who saw the negotiation as an opportunity to speak out as “accidental activists”, who focused mostly on the politics of poverty, childcare and community development. The first step was setting up of women centres in Northern Ireland, in order to bring together women from both sides to share information and be heard. A whole group of individuals from civil rights movement, the trade union movement, the women’s studies programme in the university and mainly from the communities started gaining awareness of the impact it could have into the political decision-making, and the idea of a women’s coalition began to take shape despite not being taken seriously by the already existing parties initially.

As well as her colleagues, Dawn Purvis, ex PUP leader, expressed her admiration for Mo Mowlam and her attitude, which she defined a “I can do, we can do”. She also named Senator Mitchell and the women of his team, emphasising the key role they played in the Agreement outcome. She quoted the Good Friday Agreement:

“We are committed to partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between these islands. We reaffirm our total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues, and our opposition to any use or threat of force by others for any political purpose, whether in regard to this agreement or otherwise.”

She then asserted that the current situation in Northern Ireland does not reflect these statements and many others from the Agreement, and that it is necessary to restore mutual confidence between the various political factions.

Finally, Dolores Kelly talked about her experience of getting into policy as a young mother of three children. She was first elected in 1993, so she had the chance to stand for the District Council and to come into contact with common women that she realised were the ones who held society together by delivering hope. She mentioned the condescending and often disrespectful attitude of male politicians towards their female colleagues that lasts even today. She also agreed that the reconciliation is not being managed in the best way possible and that Brexit constitutes a huge risk for the process.

The common view emerged by all the speakers was the lack of trust between the parties and the gradual loss of the principles of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, as well as the power of women to find solutions and the need of valuing more the ideals of equality and respect.

Image source: Feile an Phobail

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