No longer a footnote: women and the Good Friday Agreement
by Madison POULTER
20 March 2023
On 20 March, at an Imagine Festival event, “25 Years On: Women and the Good Friday Agreement”, Queen’s Radio’s The Scoop hosted acclaimed journalist Emma DeSouza, women’s sector lobbyist Elain Crory, and student activists Jenny Steele and Roisin Keenan, to discuss women’s role in the peace process.
Kirsty King chaired the conversation, which began with celebrating the work of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition. DeSouza and Crory underscored how this new political party, formed in 1996 and led by Monica McWilliams and May Blood addressed areas and gaps that the other leading political actors were not. And while part of the power of the Women’s Coalition was in bringing the voices of the community to the table, it was for this the same reason they were not taken seriously. Crory explained that at the time: “…This negotiation was about resolving the conflict — or parts of it at least — and the conflict was not about or did not involve women. The conflict was about arguments between men.” The women were the voices for their communities, exposing that while men might have been the predominant fighters, everyone was deeply impacted by the violence.
But their contribution to the peace agreement did not stop at bringing civic society into the fold. Some of the most important aspects of the agreement — school desegregation, victims’ rights, and a civic forum — came from the Women’s Coalition. However, these important contributions remain unfinished, and their unfulfillment is not inconsequential. For instance, DeSouza emphasised that 93% of students continue to attend schools segregated along ethno-sectarian lines. In addition, a civic forum has yet to be restored, and victims’ rights remain contentious and unsolved. DeSouza shared: “Do I think it is a coincidence that the proposals brought in by women have been left to languish? No, I don’t.”
While the conversation shifted to the women’s individual experiences, their stories highlighted the institutional barriers to greater participation from women in politics. They exposed the glaring, ongoing culture of downgrading and berating women. While each of their stories varied in specifics, what united them was an underlying theme: not only was harassment expected and acceptable, they were made to feel as if they did not belong. This ugliness experienced by the panellists — and realistically most women listening — mirrors the toxicity women in the Women’s Coalition faced at the time of the agreement. Keenan highlighted that seeing these types of behaviours can be extremely off-putting and prevent women from joining political spaces. While women might now hold more roles in Stormont than at the time of the signing of the peace agreement, the panellists asked why we have continued to sideline women and discount their voices.
As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the peace agreement, we must reflect on the ways in which women continue to be left out of the greater conversation. Perhaps in the future, women’s work in the peace process will not be its own panel, but rather part of the larger story. Indeed, research suggests that women’s participation in peace processes results in agreements that are 64% less likely to fail and 35% more likely to last past 15 years we cannot continue to segregate. As Steele pointed out, “It’s just so important that we are taught about female leaders in our education for young women to look up to. And even for men to realise that women do hold a place in these discussions, in our community.” Women are not a footnote in history; they are integral to its unfolding.