Why are the hopes of the Good Friday Peace Agreement still unfulfilled?

At the launch of 50.50's series on women peacebuilders in Northern Ireland, we explore the connection between the failure to include women at all levels of political life in building a shared future and the ongoing search for peace in Northern Ireland.

Niki Seth-Smith
5 May 2014

The work of peace building is still ongoing in Northern Ireland. International media, when they accept a simplified story whereby the conflict often called the ‘Troubles’ has ended, can overlook this reality. Yet the upsurge of civil unrest played out in the flag protests since December 2012 and the recent row over the On the Run revelations demonstrate that the peace process is far from being complete, and there are signs that it is regressing. The recent arrest of Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the second largest party in the Northern Irish Assembly, over the murder of Jean McConville in 1972, shows again that the past has not been dealt with in many cases, but brushed under the carpet. Why have the hopes invested in the Good Friday Agreement not been fully met, sixteen years after it was signed?

The Good Friday Agreement was much more than a power-sharing settlement between political parties. It harnessed the knowledge and insight of civil society to envision a transformed Northern Ireland. Central to this vision was the input and leadership provided by women, who not only played a key role in these negotiations through their work in women’s centres, organisations and networks and through the Women’s Coalition, but who throughout the conflict held communities together and helped to build a shared future. The ‘Agreement’, as Beatrix Campbell sets out in her book of the same name, was intended to address gender inequalities, as well as the disadvantage and exclusion suffered by both Protestant and Catholic working-class people. There was a commitment to build a new Northern Ireland on the foundations of inclusion, equality and human rights.

That vision of a transformed, peaceful and stable Northern Ireland is yet to be fulfilled. This series of articles will make  the case that this failure, and the failure to deliver on commitments to women’s full and equal participation in Northern Irish society made in the Good Friday Agreement are intimately linked. The argument that state security is best achieved through implementing gender equality has been convincingly made by Valerie Hudson in her book ‘What sex means for world peace’. Her observations on the correlation between a country or region’s treatment of women and the likelihood of conflict are acknowledged in part by the United Nations resolution 1325 on Women and Peace building. Yet that resolution has not been implemented in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, the history of women’s role in peace building since the conflict began has been written out of most history books.

A new round of negotiations is now underway in the shape of the ongoing, although stalled, Haass / O’Sullivan talks. This is an opportunity to recognise the key role played by women peace builders in Northern Ireland, and propose that women’s voices must have equal weight if current challenges to the region’s fragile and compromised peace are to be confronted. It is also an opportunity to engage with a wider global audience, and allow for a sharing and comparison of transitional justice perspectives. 

The ongoing protests over the flying of the Union Jack at Belfast City Hall began on 3 December 2012, when Belfast City Council voted to fly the flag only on days of celebration or commemoration in line with the rest of Britain, rather than all year round as had been the practice in the region for more than a century. In response, loyalists began holding street protests throughout Northern Ireland. While many were peaceful, by November of last year 560 people had been charged or reported over the protests, following riots and clashes with police. The Haass-O'Sullivan talks, which began in late 2013, are part an attempt to address this latest upsurge of civil unrest. There is also a growing security threat from dissident Republicans, with bomb disposal officers called to more than one alert per day during 2013. The Haass-O'Sullivan talks, named for the negotiation chairs, Richard Haass and Meghan O'Sullivan, were launched with a remit to contend with the past and to deal in particular with 'parades and protests' and 'flags and emblems'.

The arrest of Gerry Adams last week looks set to destabilise the peace process still further. The leader of Sinn Fein turned himself in to police on Wednesday 30th April, over allegations of his involvement with the killing of Jean McConville in 1972. McConville is one of the fifteen Disappeared, having been accused by the IRA of being a British informer. To date, only eight of the bodies have been found, including McConville's, on an Irish beach in 2008. Adams, whose party is active in Northern Ireland and the Republic, has now been released without charge after five days of questioning. He has never denied involvement with the IRA but branded the McConville accusations a "sustained, malicious, untruthful campaign" against him. Deputy first minster and former IRA commander Martin McGuiness had warned that Sinn Fein could withdraw its support of the Northern Ireland police if Adams was charged.


Flag protesters at City Hall, March 2013. Demotix/ Sean Harkin

This latest upheaval comes on the back of the On the Run letters revelations in March, which led to a stall in attempts to resurrect the Haass talks that had failed to reach consensus by the deadline of 31 December 2013. The On the Run letters relate to a previously secret scheme involving individuals suspected of crimes relating to the conflict. First Minister Peter Robinson accused Westminster of sending out 'get out of jail free cards' to suspects fleeing justice without his knowledge. Details of the scheme were only made public in March this year, when the trial of John Downey led to Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly stating that 187 people had received letters assuring them that they did not face arrest and prosecution for IRA crimes. The shockwaves this sent through the Assembly, with Robinson threatening to resign, and the arrest of Gerry Adams causing anger and dissent amongst nationalists and Republicans, has brought up once more the issue of problems of the past having been ‘plastered over’ or ‘swept under the carpet’ in Northern Ireland.

Haass / O’Sullivan had a mandate to contend with the past and “seek the views of, and evidence from, interested stakeholders on how best to address the issues that cause community division.” In its consultation process, the Panel held over 100 meetings with over 500 individuals, and received more than 600 submissions from individuals and organisations. It offered confidentiality but some chose to make their submissions public. The Women’s Resource and Development Agency, an umbrella organisation that supports women’s groups across Northern Ireland, provided a submission to the talks in writing and in a meeting. It was drawn from the concerns expressed by 200 women who attended an October 2013 conference on dealing with the past. The Northern Ireland’s Women’s European Platform also made its submission public.

These submissions both express a number of concerns including the ongoing influence of paramilitary organisations in controlling communities; the insufficient support for sufferers of mental illness; the inequalities experienced by women in participating in public discourse and policymaking; the extent of socio-economic inequalities and the high rates of domestic and sexual violence. These concerns were not reflected in the Haass-O’Sullivan draft proposals, which only mentions gender explicitly once, in the list of issues to be covered by a new Commission on Identity, Culture and Tradition, to be created in order to “increase the understanding among citizens of the appropriateness and importance of identities in Northern Irish society”.  According to MP Naomi Long, Northern Ireland is once again facing "an incredibly volatile and extremely serious situation." Long was one of only two women on a panel of twelve participating in the talks.


Richard Haass and Meghan O'Sullivan, Dec 2013. Demotix / Kevin Scott

The failure of the Haass / O’Sullivan talks reflects a larger failing of Northern Irish society to fulfill commitments made in the Good Friday Agreement to "the right of women to full and equal political participation" and for the government to pursue "the advancement of women in public life". Today, women make up only 19 per cent of MLAS and have occupied around a third of all public appointments for the last two decades. A further obstacle is the failure to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which requires signatories to adopt gender perspectives in post-conflict reconstruction. Disagreements over the definition of conflict in relation to Northern Ireland have prevented the implementation of UNSCR 1325 in Northern Ireland, an issue we will be publishing on in the series.  Despite links being made between the Good Friday Agreement and UNSCR 1325, there has been little real action to ensure women's participation in the latest round of negotiations for a peaceful, safe and stable Northern Ireland.


The Beacon of Hope or 'Lagan Lady'. Flickr / AidanMcMichael

Peace building is still considered to be a man's business, and accounts of negotiations in Northern Ireland tend to tell of political parties and paramilitaries, not of the actions of civil society and the women's movement. As Margaret Ward describes in a piece that helped inspire this series, the role of women in the peace process has been overlooked, and the opportunities for women to speak and share their views have only decreased throughout the peace process. Yet Northern Ireland cannot deal with the past and move towards a shared future without recognition of the differential impact of the conflict on women. The legacy of conflict, including chronic mental and physical health issues as well as drug and alcohol dependency – Northern Ireland has the highest recorded levels of PTSD – have produced a set of gendered problems. There is a perception among communities that domestic and sexual violence in Northern Ireland is increasing, while sexual exploitation of young girls within paramilitary settings continues. Some women living in areas with issues of anti-social behaviour and criminality, say they felt 'safer' during the conflict. These are only some examples of the many ways in which the experience of the conflict and violence, its legacy and of the peace process, is gendered.

As more than 50 per cent of the population, women are entitled to equal representation and participation in peace building. A convincing case has also been made that such full and equal participation is in fact a necessary requisite for building just societies and sustainable peace. Research such as Cynthia Cockburn’s work on Northern Ireland, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Israel-Palestine shows common patterns across conflict and post-conflict areas in the relation between the treatment of women and state security. The argument for the full inclusion of women in peace building in Northern Ireland is strengthened further by the central role that women have played in the history of building a shared future in the region, one that has to a large extent been written out of history. 

This series of articles aims to profile the critical perspectives of women peacebuilders in Northern Ireland as they build the argument. At a time of resurgent tension and renewed negotiations, this is an urgent task. As the series will set out to show, without women’s voices included at all levels, Northern Ireland’s currently fragile and compromised peace may be further jeopardized, and a true and lasting peace can only be established when the voices of all are heard. 

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