As we witness so much violence in different countries, let us take inspiration from the knowledge that there is hope for peace in all these places. I think we can take hope, and share it, from the knowledge of our own experiences. In Northern Ireland, during our Troubles, things often looked hopeless and we could see no way to break the vicious cycle of violence in which we were trapped. But this cycle of violence was indeed broken when the civil community united, and demanded in one voice ‘end all the violence, there is another way’. The peace movement, the women’s movement, the trades union movement, faith groups, the business community - all offered an alternative to violence, militarism and para-militarism, and called for an end to all violence and for dialogue to begin.
People liked what they heard and responded. The message was simple, ‘we reject the use of the bomb and the bullet and all the techniques of violence, we dedicate ourselves to building a just and peaceful society’. The method was love, non-killing, nonviolence, and interconnection with each other and people around the world. We offered love, not condemnation and self-righteousness, we offered forgiveness and reconciliation, and a vision of a Northern Irish society based on equality, fairness, and justice.
Peace gathering, Belfast, 2013. Demotix / Trish Semple
It is worth remembering that in the mid 1970’s at both the height of the violence and beginning of the peace process, the voices of women were an important part of the driving force for peace and disarmament. In the early Peace People rallies, almost 90% were women, some of whose own families were involved in ‘armed groups’ who mistakenly believed violence would bring political change. You can only imagine the enormous courage it took in the 1970’s for many women to break the silence and face the dangers within their own homes and communities to take a stand against violence and walk for peace, into different communities, but they did! Our call to make friends with your enemies, and enter into an all inclusive, unconditional dialogue, offered an alternative to violence. In the first six months of the formation of Peace People, violence decreased by 70% and it never returned to the high records of pre ’76. That spirit of courage of the women, and men, (many suffered in different ways) is our heritage and it is one to take hope and inspiration from, and I believe, should be remembered as an important part of our peace history.
We have come a long way since then, with reforms, a Peace Agreement, an Executive and an Assembly. Northern Ireland is very beautiful, and its people retain a warmth and kindness in spite of many years of suffering. However, we have further to go and it would be remiss of us to believe all the hard work is done, and we have fulfilled our vision. Our system of politics is costly and divisive and needs to be radically changed. We still live in a deeply divided country with walls up between some communities in Belfast. Not only physical walls but walls in our mind-sets of ‘them’ and ‘us’, and it is our minds we need to change, to acceptance and celebration of ‘otherness’ and diversity.
Riots after flag protests, Belfast, 2013. Demotix / Mariusz Smiejek
Our economy is stagnant, and the austerity cuts being forced upon us are causing much suffering to people struggling to survive and living below the poverty line. This particularly affects women many of whom either cannot get a job, or are on part-time contracts. A stagnant economy can be solved by a change in Government policy and priorities. Cancelling trident, abolishing militarism and war would free up billions to help job creation in providing human security for people's real needs, such as childcare, affordable homes, heath care, the elimination of poverty and a clean environment. The ‘old’ enemy of the emigration of our youth has returned with full force, and there is hardly a family now without a member living in another country in order to earn a living. We have yet to get ‘A Bill of Rights’ and many of the things promised in the Good Friday Agreement remain unfulfilled. This leaves us in a precarious situation, because unless the economy is improved, jobs provided, and real change takes place, our youth have little hope for a better future.
As the ‘Marching Season’ reaches its climax on July 12th, with the contentious issues in the headlines, we are all challenged to increase our efforts for peace, reconciliation, political accommodation and change. Our politicians have a huge responsibility to give leadership by their example of partnership, fraternity, compromise, and co-operation. They must put Northern Ireland above their own party politics, and lead the way to a shared future which will bring peace and prosperity for all. Political leaders also need especially to recognise the role of women in helping bring peace and recognize peace as a priority and a right for all. They need to give space and rights to the women and youth of Northern Ireland who together can help build a new vision for the future.