The role of Women Activists in the Northern Ireland Peace Process – Lecture summary

On November 30, the Minerva Center for Human Rights at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Mount Scopus hosted a lecture by Prof. Monica McWilliams, who was active in politics and in women’s groups as part of the peace process in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics.

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Women played key roles from beginning to end in the process of resolving a conflict that had raged for centuries.

Here are the main points of her lecture:
• In conflicts as well as large and small issues, the question must be asked: What can civil society contribute?
• In the Irish conflict, people constantly asked, “When did this begin?” The answers varied according to who was asked. There were even those who dated the beginning of the conflict as far back as the third century BCE.
• Northern Ireland is a tiny country that makes so much “noise” that it gets constant international attention.
• Both sides are heavily armed, and soldiers were always on the streets, along with many military vehicles.
• Walls and fences separated the two sides.
• People left for work or school without knowing where the next bomb would explode.
• There was constant concern over the safety of children on their way to school and adults going to work.
• The warring parties were side by side but not set among each other.
The process:
• During the peace process, the walls and fences grew.
• More and more separation barriers were set up.
• There was a realization that perfect peace was unattainable, and romantic notions of peace were discarded.
• The process was lengthy and required patience, commitment and pragmatism.
• There was a ceasefire—there can be no peace talks without a ceasefire. “It’s impossible to make peace when there is war all around,” said Nelson Mandela.
• It was not easy to achieve a ceasefire.
• Immediately with the establishment of a ceasefire, the sides started the process.
• The parties visited South Africa to study the process there, meet with the parties, talk to them and listen to them and to the local residents.
• Women—it was clear that women, who demonstrated for a ceasefire and an end to the killing, must play a part in the process.
• Feminists, pro-family activists, human rights activists and women’s rights activists took part from the beginning, and it was clear that human rights in all aspects were not excluded from the peace discussions.
• There was a sort of “women’s army” that accompanied the process in the streets with demonstrations, assemblies and proclamations.
• Women from both sides built strong coalitions and pushed for completion of an agreement.
• The consensus among the women was that the main problem was religious discrimination.
• It was clear to them that war and tension repress creativity in all spheres, while peace enables creativity.
• During the negotiations—always be aware of what the other side wants.
• During the long negotiations, it was necessary to translate from English to English. Even when both sides speak the same language, it is important to translate concepts and intentions and be exacting about what is said.
• There was a need to stop using certain words, and alternative terminology was developed for terms whose meaning was eroded. For example, neither side liked the word “compromise,” and its use harmed the discussions.
• At all times it was necessary to think and speak in terms of what each side would gain, and not what each side would concede.
• Violence did not cease with the signing of the accord or in the period after it. It took time, and even today there are tensions from time to time, especially among groups of youths.
• It was emphasized that each side won and each side lost, not that one side emerged victorious.
• British Prime Minister Tony Blair was actively involved in the process and moved it forward.
• International figures were involved in the process and contributed to it, including Nelson Mandela, Hillary Clinton and others.
• The process received international backing.
• With the release of “terrorists,” there was an outcry and a demand to deal with their victims instead. The accord included a program for rehabilitation of the victims of violence on both sides
Monica McWilliams

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