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Northern Irish Women's Party Gaining Clout

Friday, March 16, 2001

For years, Irish women avoided divisive mainstream politics, working independently in their own communities. Today, however, women of all political and religious hues have a new, nonsectarian party: the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition.

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BOSTON (WOMENSENEWS)--The streets of this city and many others around the nation will be filled this weekend with Irish Americans and those who are Irish for a Day celebrating the rich and passionate history of Ireland. Most of the parades and religious rites will be lead by men, a tradition that reflects the political status of women in the homeland, especially in the strife torn region that spawned so much immigration here. But just as a smattering of parades will be led by female grand marshals, so too are women pushing their way into the leadership of Northern Ireland.

The North of Ireland has historically excluded women from its political process. Since its founding in 1922, there have been only three women members of the British parliament, no female member of the European Parliament and women hold only 13 percent of local council seats.

Because of the "Troubles," the women's movement that electrified and changed forever the lives of women in the Republic of Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, seemed to bypass Northern Ireland.

The British election, scheduled for May 4, is expected to energize Irish women, and one catalyst is the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, a new non-sectarian political party formed in 1996 and now coming of age. Seats for Parliament and for the European Parliament will be filled.

In the mid-1980s, I spent many months in Northern Ireland, researching a book about its women, giving them a voice in the tumult and violence that had become the political stage in the North. I met and interviewed hundreds of women. Many became and have remained friends.

They were, and they remain, a passionate force, an energy waiting to be released. Although these women--community leaders, teachers, farmers, trade unionists, nuns, homemakers--were natural politicians, articulate and forceful, they all avoided mainstream political activism.

"We can do more in our own communities if we are not associated with a political party," they would say, because party labels meant they were identified with particular neighborhoods, limiting their acceptability to their communities as a whole.

Because of history and tradition in a patriarchal society, and more recently because of fear during years of siege in Northern Ireland, women were locked out of the political system. They could be threatened or injured if they strayed from acceptable party lines. They were also fragmented.

Once,Women Of Different Religions, Politics Could Never Meet

In those days, it was impossible for women of opposing religious and political leanings to meet with one another, listen and talk, and get to know each other.

An outsider often became the communications link. "What was she like? Did you meet her?" "What did she say?" they would ask, and the outsider would answer.

If these women could meet on neutral ground, outside of the political minefields of the North, they would learn that their aspirations, goals and histories were very similar. Years passed, and, with the help of some influential and concerned women appearing on the Ulster horizon, a meeting seemed possible by 1994.

Lady Jean Mayhew, the wife of Sir Patrick Mayhew, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, reached out and met women of all persuasions in the North during the early 1990s, something none of her predecessors had done. And then the energetic, Mo Mowlam appeared on the scene, the first woman secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and the first secretary of state to gain first the trust and confidence of the nationalists and finally, their respect and admiration.

Her common touch, her earthy humor and her dedication to bringing peace to the troubled province won the hearts of Northerners.

A women's conference, "Reaching Common Ground," began to take shape, and money was raised to make it a reality. In an unseasonably warm Boston November in 1994, 100 women convened in the halls and dining rooms of Boston University to get to know one another. Women from the Republic of Ireland, from the North and from Boston came together.

A Unity Conference In Boston Draws Irish Women From North, South

They told stories that pierced the heart, and some that brought on laughter. There were song fests, fun and many late night parties. Shirley Williams, former British lawmaker, now at the Kennedy School in Cambridge, opened the conference:

"We all know that we cannot build a world for our children to live on the foundation of violence. There has to be a better way," she said. "And I believe that women are a large part of that better way."

Rabbi Julia Neuberger, chancellor of the University of Ulster, asked with eerie prescience in her closing speech, "Suppose we could have a women's coalition in Northern Ireland?

"Suppose the women could change part of the political agenda, suppose they were actually able to insist that they were consulted in all the negotiations, in all the framework agreements?"

The message to the Northern women took shape and became the mantra of the conference: "Get organized. Get political."

At the time, no one realized the first seeds had been sown. The Northern Ireland Women's Coalition came into being in the spring of 1996, a non-sectarian party of women of all political hues and religions: Protestant, Catholic, Unionist, Nationalist, Republican and Loyalist.

To an outsider with even a minimal knowledge of Northern Irish politics, this was an extraordinary achievement.

For Over 30 Years, Upheaval and Violence Made Dialogue Impossible

For over 30 years, Northern Ireland has been dominated by political upheaval and terrorist violence between sectarian paramilitaries. On one side were the Unionist or Loyalist groups (loyal to the British crown and their Protestant religion) fighting against Catholic paramilitaries such as the Irish Republic Army and other Irish Catholics in the North known loosely as nationalists.

The British government, the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary attempted, not always successfully, to keep an uneasy peace. Then former U.S. Senator George Mitchell was sent as a special envoy to the North and brokered a truce on Easter weekend 1998.

The women put forward an agenda of "reconciliation through dialogue, accommodation and inclusion." The coalition was comprised of women working in the home and in business, members of trade unions and community groups as well as representatives of the voluntary sector and educational institutions.

They agreed on two goals:

  • Ensuring women are on par with men
  • Achieving a political accommodation on which they can build a stable and peaceful future.

Short on funds and lacking political experience, 70 candidates ran in constituencies throughout Northern Ireland for a seat in the Peace Talks. Pearl Sagar, a Protestant, and Monica McWilliams, a Catholic, were elected from the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition.

Through two tortuous years, Senator Mitchell presided over the all-party talks in Belfast. On April 10, 1998, he announced that all parties and the two governments, Britain and Ireland, had agreed to the principles laid down in the talks on the future governance of Northern Ireland, and a fragile peace was born.

Fragile Peace Agreement Included The Voice Of Irish Women

The agreement included the voice of women, as represented by the coalition, an achievement almost as noteworthy as the peace itself.

A new, self-governing Assembly was created out of the talks and two women from the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition won seats in the new Assembly: Jane Morrice, a Belfast-born journalist and former head of the European Commission office in Northern Ireland, and Monica McWilliams, a professor of women's studies and social policy at the University of Ulster.

Neither they nor others from the coalition have yet been nominated for the general election in May, but it is clear that the path towards political assimilation for women in Northern Ireland, littered for so long with skeletons of the past, has now been cleared, and the women there will be working together towards their common goals.

The women realize that many members of the coalition will have divided loyalties, but, as Bronagh Hinds, the chair of the Northern Ireland Women's European Platform, says, "Politicians have never agreed, so why should we?"

Peace, and in its shadow, prosperity, are tantalizingly real now in Northern Ireland. Women making political decisions will strengthen the process.

Elizabeth Shannon spent four years in Ireland when her husband, William V. Shannon, was the American Ambassador there. She wrote, "Up in the Park: The Diary of the Wife of the American Ambassador to Ireland." She traveled extensively during "The Troubles," reporting on and recording the lives of women which produced a best-seller, "I Am Of Ireland: Women of the North Speak Out." Elizabeth Shannon is director of the International Visitors Program and the Trustee Scholars Program at Boston University. She travels frequently to Ireland, both North and South.

For more information, visit: Northern Ireland Women's Coalition http://www.niwc.org



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A daily special feature of Women's Enews during Women's History Month

(WOMENSENEWS)--1957: Althea Gibson wins the Wimbledon singles tennis title, the first African American to do so.

Gibson's spectacular career included a doubles victory at the same Wimbledon and victory in singles and doubles there in 1958. She also won the U.S. Open singles in 1957 and 1958.

She was the first black player allowed in the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association tournaments. In a 20-year career, Gibson won almost 100 professional titles, including five Grand Slams. She then took up golf and excelled. She was the first African American woman to play in the Ladies Professional Golf Association.

Her skills as an athlete and competitor opened doors that Venus and Serena Williams have walked through with ease.

Fifty-one years after Gibson's debut in professional tennis, she is being honored this month with a Wheaties box in the athlete's series.--Glenda Crank Holste.

 
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