Irish talks: men posture, women progress

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"SOME OF the men at the table think that compromise is a very weak word," says Monica McWilliams, speaking before yesterday's bomb. "We believe we can show it to be a very strong word indeed."

McWilliams, a university lecturer and mother of two, is one of only two women delegates to Nothern Ireland's all-party peace talks.

The faces around the negotiating table had looked set to be those of the usual suspects: Ian Paisley, David Trimble and John Hume, with Gerry Adams conspicuous by his absence. But in an historic moment for Northern Ireland's male-dominated political history, Monica McWilliams and her colleague, Pearl Sagar, are there too.

The pair represent the Women's Coalition, a party set up just six weeks before the peace forum's election with the aim of both rupturing the traditional unionist-republican debate and counteracting the invisibility of women in Northern Irish party politics.

The coalition is determined to find common ground among the people of Northern Ireland across the green-orange divide.

"We may believe in compromise, but there is nothing wishy-washy about us," says Bronagh Hinds, a founding member of the party. "We come from a range of very strong positions."

Sagar comes from a staunch Protestant Loyalist background while McWilliams is a Catholic. May Blood, part of the delegates' back-up team, belongs to a working-class unionist and trade unionist clan, while Hinds is from a Catholic family, although her children go to a Protestant school and have not been baptised. The coalition includes women from left and right, green and orange, anti-abortion and pro-choice, rural and urban backgrounds.

While the media bemoans the lack of progress at the faltering talks, coalition members remain optimistic. "The media focus on the positions of just two or three parties which can't agree," says McWilliams. "In fact there are nine parties at the table - and 10 elected to the table - and the smaller parties are constantly finding out how much we have in common. The issues facing Northern Ireland are not just constitutional, but involve health, education and civil rights and on those there is common ground. We feel that we have made so much progress, yet the focus is always on one or two parties who make better stories."

They do not underestimate the difficulty of the task ahead, they say, but they feel that the intransigence of the personalities and parties involved has been exaggerated by the media and, to some degree, by the politicians themselves.

The Women's Coalition is so new that it does not yet have a headquarters. On 16 April, the British Government agreed it could field candidates in the election and the following day a meeting of about 70 women approved the creation of the party.

In the next six weeks they drew up and agreed detailed policy statements, distributed manifestos to 655,000 households and fielded 70 candidates with the aim of coming in the top 10 parties, thereby ensuring two seats at the talks.

They also petitioned all parties to take equal opportunities measures aimed at bringing women into the political mainstream. Only Sinn Fein and the Democratic Left parties responded, while Michael Ancram, the Northern Ireland minister, agreed to meet the coalition "at some later date".

The women involved are not full-time politicians: they have jobs and families. Last Wednesday, a vital day at Stormont, was also McWilliams' youngest son's school sports day. "How do you explain to a seven-year- old that you can't be there?" she asks. On Thursday, when we meet, it's her eldest son's tenth birthday and she's rushing off between meetings to organise a party.

Since their formation the political mainstream has regarded the coalition with suspicion. Controversially, the women support the admission of Sinn Fein to the talks without pre-conditions, leading some to suspect a Popish plot. "It is part of our policy of inclusion," explains Hinds. "We feel that everyone has to be there and listen to one another if we are to find a way forward." They would take the same stance should the political wing of a Loyalist paramilitary group be excluded, she says.

The Women's Coalition is unequivocally opposed to violence, however. "Women have suffered badly from the troubles," says McWilliams. "They have been beaten, abused, shot, terrorised." Many of the weapons of the struggle end up being used to perpetrate crimes of domestic violence.

The coalition has also faced derision: on the streets, on radio talk- shows, even at the talks themselves. "People keep asking: Where have these women come from? What do they know about politics?" says Hinds, who has sat opposite Trimble before, when she was a radical student union president at Queen's University in the 1970s and he was her law lecturer. "As far as I am concerned I have been in politics since I left school and so have most of the other women in the coalition."

Almost 20 years ago the Nobel Peace prize was awarded to two women from Ulster, Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, for founding the Peace People, a women's movement that bridged the Catholic-Protestant divide. After picking up the cheque, the two fell out over policy and Williams later moved to America. Members of the Women's Coalition are determined that history will not repeat itself. There is too much to lose.

Inside story, page 17