Monica McWilliams on Women Contributing to Peace in Northern Ireland and Beyond

22/12/2023     11 min read     By Ahlem Khattab

Monica McWilliams

The academic and former peace negotiator talks about her journey navigating politics and sexism, what has evolved in how women are viewed during conflicts, and what lessons we can draw from the past.

On April 10, 1998, the Good Friday Agreement put an end to the Troubles, a 30-year period of violent conflict in Northern Ireland. It took two years and a lot of negotiating to make it happen. 

Monica McWilliams was one of the two women who were elected to take part in the peace talks, and help craft the accord. She was originally an academic. She had written on the lack of women in politics and in conflict resolution negotiations. Then in 1996, she found herself compelled by her beliefs to co-found the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition and start campaigning with a diverse group of women peacebuilders who felt their expertise would help the negotiations.

In the 25 years following the agreement, Monica has contributed to further legislation on gender-based violence. She has also worked on the civil inclusion of former armed groups.

She took the time to tell us about her journey navigating politics and sexism while doing her best to stay focused on the negotiations, what has evolved when it comes to how women are viewed during conflicts, and what lessons we can draw from the past.

You’re one of the very few women in modern history to have their signature on a peace treaty, namely the Good Friday Agreement, in Northern Ireland. You won a seat at the negotiations table through an election in 1996 and after a campaign by the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, which you co-founded. Do you recall how it felt at that time to be part of it all?

Monica McWilliams – It was such an unusual election. Two parties affiliated to small armed groups wanted to be at the table so they devised a particular list-system election, which we had never had here. And so it was parties that stood, not individuals. And that was a protection for us women, if we were standing as a coalition, as a group. But we had not really decided ourselves that we would stand.

When the peace talks were declared, we called public meetings, and the women said, “Let’s write to the parties and ask if they are going to put women at the table.” But they didn’t respond, apart from a couple of small parties who said that they didn’t expect to get elected. And so we said, “Well, why don’t we frighten the other parties by saying we’re going to stand ourselves?” But even then, we didn’t have the intention of – well, we were unsure if we would get elected.

And so, to make the long story short, we had six weeks and we were unheard of. We just simply advertised in the newspapers, and went around the country calling public meetings. And the women activists who had been running the women’s centres, the advice centres, women’s groups, and working across the peace line with the communities on either side, said: “You know, we’re always told to stand back when these peace talks are declared as if we haven’t done the work ourselves and know what resolves conflict and what creates conflict. We should have a place at that table.” Civic society leaders are never at the table. So a combination of women’s leadership and civic society leadership led us to say: “Right, we will form our own party.”

“The local media just thought that we were a novelty and not serious. So we had to develop some very serious political positions.”

We called it a coalition because the women came from such diverse backgrounds: conservative, progressive, feminist and those who didn’t identify with that, as well as the identity of nationalities. At times, it took a lot longer to get consensus, but it was worth it because you heard every opinion in the room.

And we chose “wave goodbye to dinosaurs” as our slogan. We used a lot of good humour and we used a lot of creativity. It was a very colourful campaign. We chose the suffragist colours – green, white, and violet, which stood for “give women the vote” – and we wore suffragette sashes at our press conference. So everything caused a stir. Everybody volunteered and gave their skills. And six weeks later, we got elected.

Were you aware while doing all of that and living all of that of how unprecedented and incredible it was?

We weren’t. It was just one of those times when you were so busy, and you were so focused on what needed to be done. And this moment of history was never going to come back again. I was a university teacher and had written many scholarly articles about the lack of women in political leadership and in conflict resolution negotiations. And so we thought we had to walk the talk. And it wasn’t easy.

We didn’t really have a moment where we could be euphoric. We did on the night that we got elected, but more reality sank in than euphoria. Because we said, “What do we do now? We better start getting prepared for the next stage.” Which was the talks. And most of us had small children. We had domestic responsibilities as well as political responsibilities.

So it was just a busy, busy, busyness that kept us direct and moving forward every stage, and banking everything that we got as a success and just building on that. The international media paid more attention to us than the local media. And I had to be aware that they didn’t vote for us. It was the local media that we needed to concentrate on. And of course, the local media just thought that we were a novelty and not serious. So we had to develop some very serious political positions. And we did.

In your 2021 memoir, you recount the sexist remarks and attitudes you’ve faced as a delegate to peace talks. Along with your Women’s Coalition colleague Pearl Sagar, you even started an “Insult of the Week” noticeboard. How did you manage navigating that while staying focused on the negotiations?

We had very mature thinkers and analysts who were very strategic. Those insults – as said, the “Insult of the Week” noticeboard – were of the week, and we were longer term. The stakes were higher than just how we were being treated. But we said we weren’t going to turn our back on the insults and the misogyny. And we called it out. Long before the Me Too movement. And occasionally we would say to some of the other men in the parties, you guys need to step up and call this out. But they didn’t really. We were very much on our own.

One day a week, we had to gather together in a public forum. And each of those Fridays I felt like I had to put on body armour because I knew the minute I walked in there, I was going to be attacked.

It was men behaving badly. It was men bonding together in sexism. Sometimes it was sectarian, as well as sexist. But it was all in the public record. And I don’t think today they would let themselves do that. Because every time they did it, we got more and more support from the public. People came up to us on the streets and in the supermarkets and kept saying, “Don’t let them get to you.” And I’d say, “No, they’re not getting us down. This is more about them than it is about us.”

But that was my public voice. My private voice was always, “What have I done to deserve this? Why are they saying these things? Why are they hammering us like this?” It was humiliating, and it was horrible. One day a week, we had to gather together in a public forum. And each of those Fridays I felt like I had to put on body armour because I knew the minute I walked in there, I was going to be attacked.

It must have been a lot to bear. On top of the political, the personal and the childcare responsibilities. 

Yeah. But in a sense, your family responsibilities keep you real, keep your feet on the ground. Because you have other things to do. And so you can’t afford to focus on these guys. If they take away your time, they take away your power, they are a worm in your head, then they win. And I was determined, as were the other women.

We also had super support amongst each other, and that’s what kept us going. And these were highly skilled women who were writing really good policy papers. And these guys eventually realised that.

Were there elements that you and the Women’s Coalition have contributed to the peace negotiations that you know wouldn’t be there otherwise?

There’s a whole section in the agreement on reconciliation and the needs of victims, and we put that entire section there.

On the last nights, we realised that there was a lot on security sector reform, police reform, demobilisation of armed groups and the army, disarmament, release of prisoners, governance sharing power… But there was nothing on the civil society side, on what we were going to do for health, housing, education, and integrating children – learning and sharing together from a young age. 

Because we had lived in segregated communities and were schooled segregated as well. The whole system was segregated. It still is, but it’s changing. We drafted a clause about a civic forum to sit alongside the parliament with civic leadership involved and to advise on social, cultural and economic matters. We drafted clauses on human rights and equality, on public decision-making, on the right of women to full and equal political participation.

The two governments afterwards said to us, “You know, for such a small party, you got a hell of a lot into that agreement.”

“The first thing that the politicians do is set up governance structures, talk about power and a lot of stuff falls off the table. And that’s where I think we are much less systematic in how we approach peace negotiations. It has to be before, during and after.”

If you’d been more than two women on the board, do you think you could have made an even bigger difference?

The numbers wouldn’t have mattered. It’s how progressive you are. It’s your policy. We had an equal number to all the other parties. That’s what most people don’t understand. The bigger parties had three delegates at the table, but all the other parties only had two. 

Now, if we were to go back, there are things that I would have worked harder at. We dropped the proposal to have a commission to deal with the legacy of the conflict, like what we called a Peace and Justice commission. When I was writing my book, I found our papers on that, and I thought, “Well, that’s a good idea. Why did we let that go?” Because 25 years later, we’re still talking and trying to establish one at the minute.

We didn’t do enough on how to genuinely reintegrate the armed groups into civil life, on civilianisation. They lived next door to us. They lived in our streets and our neighbourhoods. But they were probably isolated on one side because they didn’t succeed politically. And we should have thought more about how to normalise a very abnormal society that had lived with 30 years of violence, and the enforcement of many of those clauses.

Many people say that we have managed the violence, maybe stopped the violence, but we haven’t transformed the conflict. Although we stopped the assassinations and the bombings, we actually didn’t pay enough attention to what actually works in terms of peacebuilding in the longer term.

I’m still doing it. I’m as busy today as I was 25 years ago. I’m on the commission to end the paramilitary. And you might ask, “How are they still a problem?” Well, they’re a problem because in every society, when a conflict ends, if these guys don’t find themselves a position, then they go into criminality and gangsterism. They need a process to transition. 

When we talk about conflicts and wars, we often talk about women as victims, as survivors or as saviors, helping and caring for men and children. But we rarely think of them as solvers, as peacebuilders and peace contributors. Why do you believe that’s the case? Have things really evolved?

Well, women are concentrating in victims and survivors, and that’s important to have at a peace table. Even broadening the agenda by the dint of the fact that it’s women, that there are things that happen to women that don’t happen to men, that’s an advance. And then you build on that experience by bringing all the other issues on top.

The Colombian agreement is a good agreement because they had a gender committee and they also had submissions from civil society. And it was women who organised that. So we have made history.

The problem is that often those pieces don’t get enforced, don’t get implemented. That’s where I see less progress because they say, “Oh, that’s a really good agreement. Look how well women did on that clause.” And with the 1325 UN resolution, they’re now able to get constitutional clauses and actually promote things that wouldn’t be there if they weren’t there. But are they delivered? Are they enforced?

“Strange power brokers prefer small circles. They want everything done quickly and they don’t want to have to take time to reach consensus. But that isn’t how you build peace.”

Because the first thing that the politicians do is set up governance structures, talk about power and a lot of stuff falls off the table. And that’s where I think we are much less systematic in how we approach peace negotiations. It has to be before, during and after.

And the after peace is very poor. Women revert, they regress activism. It happened in Vietnam, it happened in Nicaragua, and it happened to us in Northern Ireland.

It feels like once you reach that peace agreement, it’s over. But it’s not actually over.

Correct. You have to have very progressive leaders. And you have to have expansive thinking, keep the circle wide. Strange power brokers prefer small circles. They want everything done quickly and they don’t want to have to take time to reach consensus. But that isn’t how you build peace.

Ireland, the Republic of Ireland on the other side of the border, has got Citizens’ Assembly. They are resourced by the government and they’re for civic society. The people who go to the Citizens’ Assembly are selected randomly. They took up really difficult issues like abortion, legalization, same sex marriage, the decriminalization of drugs, and they succeeded in every one of those. And this was a Catholic, predominantly conservative society.

As a result of the citizens’ assemblies, the government took the recommendations and produced legislation that overturned everything that went before. And that was what we had hoped would be our civic forum. So there is a proposal now to combine the civic forum and Citizens’ Assembly as we move forward in the future. 

You often cite the US civil rights movement and the South African struggle against apartheid as inspirations. With all that is happening today in the world – Palestine, Ukraine, Congo, to only name a few – are there “lessons” that we can draw from the past?

Totally. I mean, civil rights and the right to self-determination are hugely important. I was a civil rights marcher based on what I saw was happening in the States. It was a non-violent, peaceful social movement. The same here with the anti-apartheid movement, and the campaign for nuclear disarmament – Greenpeace, as we knew it then. And now there’s climate change.

There are connections, but there’s also huge divergence. I wouldn’t even know where to start. The Syrian conflict is all carried out in Moscow, in Brussels and in Washington. So what does that mean for the frontline women? They get locked out. I also worry about the Ukrainian situation because I don’t see many women at the tables. And I’ve worked for a long time on the Palestinian issue and on the Israeli issue, and I think that’s going backwards because of the geopolitics. 

So, yeah, our work is just as hard as it’s ever been. But civil rights and human rights make the foundation of peacebuilding. International human standards mean something. And if you breach those standards, you should be held accountable. But first, put them in place and adhere to them. Otherwise, you’re just creating more dictatorships.

And for journalists reading this interview, is there something you want them to know or keep in mind when covering conflicts?

It’s really important that male journalists just don’t talk to other male journalists, that they just don’t create networks that promote more male journalists into their circle. That if they are serious about inclusion and diversity, they start practising it themselves. And then show the value that women bring to the table. Other women journalists, but also other women that they’re going to interview in a conflict.

Because when I look back, none of the male journalists interviewed us. We had to rely on a couple of very good female journalists, and that was shocking. The male journalists probably thought, “What have these women got to say?” And as it turned out, I think now they probably regret that they didn’t interview us, because the 25th anniversary this year showed how important we were.

Be creative, be curious, because that’s the angle that the readers will be interested in. And don’t make it hard for the women who are doing this work. When the women have raised an issue, maybe it doesn’t sound very important at the start. But when a good journalist gets their teeth into it, they actually can bring it out into the open.

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