Coalition unites behind peace

Religious and social barriers have been cast aside, writes David McKittrick
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The Independent Online
Probably the most cheerful, relaxed and apparently self-confident of the 20-odd groupings contesting Thursday's forum elections in Northern Ireland is one of the most unorthodox - the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition.

The hastily-assembled association is attracting much attention, partly because of its novelty value and partly because, with this election's unique voting system, it stands a reasonable chance of winning one of the ten places at the talks table.

The 70 women standing for the coalition typify a large number who have shaken off the traditionally deferential stance of women in this conservative society. Many play important roles in the vibrant community and voluntary sector to which women have tended to gravitate in preference to mainstream politics.

This pattern was described yesterday by one candidate, Fidelma O'Gorman: "Through my job as a health visitor I work a lot on development with community groups. Over the years I've seen women in action cooperating with each other in a cross-community way on social, economic issues, local issues. It's not high-profile stuff, so a lot of people aren't aware of all this really good work."

Women in the coalition say it encompasses Protestant and Catholic, unionist and nationalist, republican and loyalist. They are pressing for a new ceasefire, and they emphasise that talks should be all-inclusive.

According to Avila Kilmurray: "People ask us what new things we can bring. Our answer is that we're not going to bring anything new in terms of constitutional politics, because all those views can and should be represented at the table.

"We're looking to try and facilitate solutions or actions rather than a point of view. We want the size and shape of the table, we're asking whether there are other ways of actually helping the process forward."

Pearl Sagar, a community worker from Protestant east Belfast, reflects the fact that many Catholic women have become more politicised more quickly than many Protestants. She says a lot of women she knows do not vote: "I would have been one of those, I wouldn't have dreamt of voting.

"Women in general are often unsure of themselves, they tend to take on the politics of their husband or their father, because they're not sure or confident, but there's no reason why they shouldn't be."

Ms Sagar, who was wearing a ribbon in Suffragette colours, added: "We have to learn to negotiate with one another. You just can't get up and act childish and leave the room if somebody says something you don't like. This is the time to do it, because if it doesn't work this time we don't know what's going to happen."