Peace Heroines: Spotlight on Stormont
by Allan LEONARD
21 September 2022
The Herstory project, established in 2016 to elevate the stories of women in national histories, launched an art exhibition at the Long Gallery in Parliament Buildings, Belfast. “Peace Heroines” features nine vibrant, largescale individual portrait paintings by artist FRIZ — women who have made an indelible mark on the Northern Ireland peace process, including Monica McWilliams, Pearl Sagar, Linda Ervine, Pat Hume, May Blood, Ann Carr, and Saidie Patterson. Several took part in an event discussion with Herstory creative director, Melanie Lynch.
After a musical performance by Tyler Gilmore from Hazelwood Integrated College, Fiona Lowe welcomed guests. She explained how while working on its first light show in Belfast, she got “a very apt phone call” from Lynch, about the need to showcase the stories of Northern Ireland peace heroines alongside women from science, the arts, business, and history. Since that call, Lynch and project manager Katelyn Hanna undertook “tireless work to bring this project to fruition”.
Lowe suggested that the exhibition venue and launch date — Parliament Buildings and the International Day of Peace — were auspicious. She reflected on what life was like for many before the peace accord of near 25 years ago:
“Controlled explosions, suspicious packages, incendiary devices, and bomb scares became our lexicon. Men, women, and children were daily confronted with trepidation and fear, whether going to a café for a cup of tea, a hospital appointment, school, the cinema, a wedding, or a grocery store to buy a pint of milk. To the soundtrack of helicopters, bags were searched, cars were checked, loved ones were hugged all the tighter leaving home, hoping and praying for their safe return. All the while, most of this worry was etched internally, whilst a stalwart show of bravery remained the exterior façade.”
Lowe said that it was important to acknowledge that Northern Ireland has had “both a difficult and contested history”:
“Although we have a shared past, we don’t have a shared memory. This exhibition presents a diverse range of opinions and identities, but does not seek to achieve consensus or to provide a comprehensive history of the period. The aim of Herstory is to explore the essential role of women — individuals and collectives — who operated from grassroots to government levels.”
She added that it was only possible to capture a selection of women’s stories in the exhibition, but hoped that it would spark curiosity and inspiration to research local peace heroines.
The event was sponsored by Naomi Long MLA, who was unable to attend due to illness. In her place was Alliance Party colleague, Patricia O’Lynn MLA, who promptly explained that Long once shared with her that a woman is like a teabag — you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water:
“But fast forward six years, five election campaigns, and three hours’ notice of giving this speech, and I am now starting to wonder if I am not only that tea bag, but the teacup, the spoon, the kettle to boil the water in, and the electricity coming from the mains. And I can only imagine that at times throughout history, that is how our heroines have also felt.”
Joking aside, O’Lynn said that for too long and in the imaginations of too many, the story of Northern Ireland has been one of conflict, one of hard-headedness, one of hardliners, and one of the hard men: “But all of us here this evening know that this is an old song sung too often. It is a version of history that has never told the full truth or complexity of this place or the women who made peace happen. I am delighted that Peace Heroines is heeded to change this misrepresentation.”
O’Lynn remarked that the role of women in the Northern Ireland peace process is often omitted from the history books and “it isn’t really taught in our school curriculum”:
“However, history is not only recorded through the written word. It is embodied by the behaviour of our new emerging leaders and in the legacy we seek to commemorate… The pictures hung in the Long Gallery paint the promises of a brighter future. And in them, I see the images of my hopes and dreams for a better Northern Ireland.”
Jayne Brady, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, began her speech by marking the loss of Queen Elizabeth II: “Her leadership in building relationships and her commitment to reconciliation has had a lasting impact on this island. She was a woman of resilience.”
Brady continued the theme of resilience in speaking of the women featured in the exhibition: “Each… relied on their resilience, to push through, to bring hope into situations where it was neither wanted nor recognised. They kept moving forward despite the impossible and worked to sustain peace long after the attention had moved elsewhere.”
She spoke of her upbringing in north Belfast, a place she described as among the areas most significantly impacted by “a continuum of violence and an insidious and lasting trauma”: “It was only due to the lamps that were lit by Baroness Blood and Professor McWilliams, among others, that I was able to find my way in the dark.” Leaving Northern Ireland in 1995, “seeing no future here”, she returned: “Now, gratefully, I find myself home.”
To support women and the next generation of women leaders, Brady highlighted some key good relations programmes aided by Northern Ireland’s Executive Office. She cited the Falls Women Centre and Shankill Women’s Centre; the “Shared Threads” project of the Causeway Rural & Urban Network; an ambassador leadership project for young women; and The Next Chapter project, led by Politics Plus in partnership with NICVA and Irish Rural Link.
Brady concluded with a look at the potential of this place: to be world leaders in trauma-informed approaches to social and economic challenges; to be sought-after experts in what works in post-conflict societies; to be the go-to example of how to adopt innovative interventions, green growth, and system-wide approaches to deal with complex societal change:
“If we continue to collaborate and draw on our resilience, we can sustain the peace and grow this incredible place. We have an opportunity, and we should run with it!”
The audience watched a film extract that featured Susan McCrory and Eileen Weir from the Falls and Shankill Women’s Centres. In the film, Weir remarked how the negotiating peacemakers shook hands upon reaching the agreement, while among her community worker colleagues, “We weren’t shaking hands. We were hugging each other.”
After the film screening, there was a panel discussion among Weir, McWilliams, Hinds, and Linda Ervine. Weir elaborated on her statement above: “You have to understand, it’s not just women from the Shankill and the Falls; when you work in community, you work across all communities.” Indeed, she framed her work as one of human rights, working across communities — she doesn’t like the term “cross-community” because of her work with others such as those of Indian and Polish descent: “You know, our communities are quite happy, they’re not cross at all!” Likewise, she doesn’t restrict herself to geography: “Although I’m based in the Shankill, I’m not a ‘Protestant community worker’… when you become a community worker you become a community worker, and not just in the one area.”
Monica McWilliams referenced a painting of the collective members of the new Northern Ireland Assembly, hung in the Senate chamber on the floor below. She calls the painting, “Where’s Wally”, because “you literally have to put your fingers somewhere to see the women”. McWilliams said that what you see there are women from the past: “When we were elected as the Women’s Coalition, we were standing on the shoulders of the women who went before us.” She cited women involved with the Women’s Information Group, the Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform (NIWEP), and the Women’s Resource Development Association.
McWilliams gave a brief history of the creation of the Women’s Coalition, after convening NIWEP members. The thought was, “if we could only get all of the networks together and get women organised”, which is exactly what they did over six weeks, spreading themselves across the country and getting 70 women to sign up for the new party. (She suggested audience members read her book for more information.) McWilliams finished by saying that she was very proud on the Good Friday of the agreement to say that “we had interrupted the culture of failure”.
Bronagh Hinds explained how her activism originated during her schooldays: “Everybody wanted to watch Top of the Pops [but] I wanted to watch the news because everything was starting to unfold in Northern Ireland and myself.” Her drive was the need to do something because something was wrong: “There was an injustice… We had to do something.” She noticed that there was no Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association branch at Queen’s University Belfast, so she with others set one up. At the time some argued that you had to achieve civil rights before women’s rights, but “we weren’t having any of that”, and helped set up the Northern Ireland’s women’s rights movement as well. She put this period in context by reminding the audience that during her running for the Queen’s Student Union president, one of her campaign managers, Mickey Mallen disappeared and was found dead (21 May 1974).
Hinds paid tribute to the work of Community Dialogue, in which Anne Carr and her were involved, for bridging divides: “[We had] very difficult debates about the critical issues of the conflict and then going in and having those debates in separate communities and facing them with what compromises needed to be made if we were going to create peace… While the big guys were up thinking they were negotiating the peace, the community activists… were having the difficult conversations on the edge and across communities.”
She recalled how other politicians and the media thought the Women’s Coalition was naive or not up for the challenge, while it kept calling out the bad behaviour: “We knew perfectly well what we were doing… We were trying to change what was normal for politics. And we knew this demonising behaviour was a way of interrupting the negotiations, not allowing it to get to the next stage, poisoning people’s minds against them.” Hinds argued that when the public saw this behaviour visited upon women, there was a negative reaction to it and that it had to stop.
Linda Ervine shared her “accidental” story of how she became passionate about the Irish language. About ten years ago she was part of a cross-community women’s group that met alternative weeks at East Belfast Mission and Short Strand Community Centre. Ervine fell in love with the Irish language after an introductory lesson. She noted that at the time her Catholic friends from Short Strand were much more interested in the forthcoming wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton. At a subsequent class, someone said to her that she’d never believe that there’s a fellow Protestant learner from Belfast and who’s a member of the Progressive Unionist Party. That man is Brian Ervine, Linda’s husband.
A journalist wrote up an article about Ervine’s learning of Irish. A positive response was an increased demand for courses, which set off a regular programme at East Belfast Mission. A negative reaction was found on social media, with comments like Ervine was leading folk down a green brick road to a united Ireland. Yet she remains motivated to give other people and her own community an opportunity to learn the language, where there is no problem to get parents and children signed up, but ensuring financial sustainability remains a challenge.
Another short film was screened, featuring FRIZ, the artist of the portraits. She explained that she really wanted to make the portraits loud, colourful, and unavoidable: “Just wanted them to jump out of the canvas… so you can’t avoid looking at them.” Justifying the palette, FRIZ said that in Northern Ireland people can associate certain colours with certain communities and that as she got to understand her subjects’ stories and how they didn’t put themselves in boxes, she wasn’t going to restrict herself but rather make the portraits as colourful as possible: “All of the colours basically and make them really joyful.”
The Peace Heroines project was supported by the Reconciliation Fund of the Department of Foreign Affairs, represented at the event by Ruairi de Burca, who immediately apologised for Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, attending the UN General Assembly. It was in New York where one of the strands of the project originated — a discussion between Herstory chief executive, Melanie Lynch, and Ireland’s permanent representative to the UN, Geraldine Byrne-Nason, on how the role of women in Northern Ireland’s journey to peace is used as a case study by the UN to inform others.
De Burca pointed out that the example of the women of Northern Ireland remains the exception in peace processes globally, and not the norm: “But when women are meaningfully involved in peace negotiations, it is demonstrated that there is a far more significant chance of a longer-lasting and more inclusive peace. That is why I am inspired by the exhibition’s deliberate inclusion of young peacebuilders. I cannot think of a more effective way than by educating and inspiring future leaders to show the same grit and determination as those women we celebrate tonight.”
As well as being an excellent education resource, de Burca hoped the project would encourage discussions and reflections in schools and homes across Northern Ireland and beyond: “I am looking forward to seeing the reconciliation and lesson-learning skills this exhibition has the potential to unlock.”
Accompanied by her friend Marion, Anne Carr performed a poem she titled, “RAP” — reflection, acknowledgement, and pushing for progress — elements of a community development process that she devised. Sung in rapping style, it concludes:
So what we want is peace, not war; and women to be at the fore To mediate and plan and care and read the streets of all nightmares To shift and shake and shape and meet each other fairly So let's go get informed, empowered. Is it our turn yet? Oh yes, it is.
Melanie Lynch, Herstory chief executive, gave some reflections, thanking Fiona, Katelyn, and her “small, brilliant team”. Lynch explained the genesis of Peace Heroines coming from a realisation that the story of the role of women in the Northern Ireland peace process wasn’t one that she heard when she was in school. She consulted teachers in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, who agreed that “we have to do something about that”. Beyond this exhibition, Herstory plans to turn this into a permanent legacy education tool.
Lynch thanked everyone for attending, because “we’re all ancestors in training, [you] will be an ancestor someday … and you have huge power and choice in what you pass on to the next generation”. She also thanked men, not by inverting the familiar cliche, “but actually, I like to think it’s more besides [every great woman/man]. We can turn this into a dance to equality!”
After expressions of further gratitude to her board of directors, the Department of Foreign Affairs, and the team at Parliament Buildings, Lynn returned to her vision for the project:
“I think 100 years from now, I can only imagine what the young kids are going to be writing about you — the art, the stories, the movies. We’re going to inspire the students all around the world.”
The event closed with a poem written and recited by Nandi Jola. “Crossing Borders” was specially commissioned by Herstory for the 2021 Parallel Peace Project and includes the verses:
The line can be crossed Walls can come down Sky was never the limit Just, infinite. … Land Inconceivable world Below the surface Olive branch, For us Into the cycle of infinite Existence of hope.
Peace Heroines will be exhibited at the following dates and venues:
- 22 September – 31 October 2022: Glencree Centre for Peace & Reconciliation, Co. Wicklow
- 13 January – 24 March 2023: Derry Tower Museum, Derry/Londonderry
- April – June 2023: Enniskillen Castle, Enniskillen
- July – September 2023: Linen Hall Library, Belfast
- October – December 2023: Down County Museum, Downpatrick; and Newry & Mourne Museum, Newry
- January 2024: North Down Museum & Ards Arts Centre, Newtownards
- February 2024: New Shankill Women’s Centre, Belfast
- May – July 2024: Coleraine Museum, Coleraine Town Hall
Peace Heroines was made possible with the support from the National Museums Northern Ireland, the Government of Ireland, The Ireland Funds, and the European Union.