This article is part of 5050's series on women and peacebuilding in Northern Ireland.
The 9th of February, 1996. That was a Friday evening I will never forget. When I heard the news of the Canary Wharf bombing, the breakdown in the IRA ceasefire, I stopped everything. With the support of Women Together members I started to help organise a vigil to take place outside City Hall, Belfast, at 12 noon the following Monday.
We in Women Together had been concerned for some time at the lack of progress in the peace process and were worried that the delicate negotiations would flounder. In the preceding weeks we had painstakingly cut out over 3000 little white paper doves, individually, whilst talking together and building understanding and trust between many different women. We had planned that if violence returned we would invite the people to stand together and tell the world that we wanted peace and a resolution of differences through negotiation and dialogue. At 12 noon on Monday, 12th February 1996, over five thousand people made their way to the front of Belfast City Hall and in two minutes of silence raised the little white paper doves above their heads. This image travelled the world via global media. It was a very significant message and its impact was phenomenal. The people of Northern Ireland wanted peace not violence.
The stabilization of the ceasefires brought new opportunities. Throughout the lead up to the Belfast Agreement or Good Friday Agreement in 1998, Women Together was at the heart of the moving forward together campaign. We lobbied and challenged politicians to take the risks for peace necessary to bring about an agreement as a foundation on which to build and cultivate a new inclusive society. The women involved found that dialogue became their daily focus. We helped people understand what the peace process was all about, come to terms with the proposed changes and support those who had suffered the most during the devastating decades of conflict.
It was in the light of this that Women Together began the transformation process to focus on a new initiative, People Moving On. In the early post Agreement, post Referendum period, we worked very hard, campaigning and lobbying for the full implementation of our Agreement. It was at this time that our new Assembly collapsed several times and direct rule government returned. As part of the People Moving On initiative, fed up with the lack of progress, we took a large table and chairs to the gardens of Parliament Buildings. Wearing T shirts emblazoned with the names of all the political parties, we sat down around the table and had a discussion on a big issue of the time: future maternity services for women in Belfast. We hung a loaf of bread and a pound of butter on a clothes line over the table to emphasise the importance of collectively addressing “bread and butter” issues. Several politicians joined our conversations that day. We campaigned using an iron and ironing board and the slogan “Iron Out the Differences, Implement the Agreement” and a vacuum cleaner with the slogan “Fill the Vacuum, Implement the Agreement”. We also challenged the blame game with a public poster campaign, “Pointing the Finger is Missing the Point”. Lunchtime meetings were held in the Women Together offices, planning our campaigning and discussing how we could support the moving on process.
People Moving On cheering the Mitchell agreement, Nov 1999.
Whilst our campaigning work through People Moving On was in full flow, I represented Women Together in the tentative early conversations about the need for continued dialogue amongst ordinary people. We saw politicians having conversations behind closed doors and wanted to ensure that people on the ground, from across all the divided communities, understood what our Agreement was all about and could hear one another on the difficult, challenging issues like policing, parading, sectarianism and identity. These were very quiet, very in-depth, very challenging processes to help people who had hurt, were devastated, even full of hate, to come together with the aim of building understanding and ease with difference. Community Dialogue was born, an organization still operating in Belfast. I moved across to become Dialogue and Research worker with Community Dialogue in May 2001 with the support of Women Together. We closed our office, transferred our material assets, energy and enthusiasm for reconciliation and change to this new organization.
In these two pieces, I have told the story of just some of the invaluable work done by women during the conflict to help bring about peace. It is without doubt that women in Northern Ireland were central and key to keeping society functioning and families coping during the very darkest days of the conflict. It is without doubt that women were key to the campaigning for an end to violence and the dialogue required to build enough trust to see a sharing way forward. It is without doubt that women suffered immensely, the tragedies of loss of loved ones, caring for the injured and bereaved, the fear of attacks on their children, picking up the pieces when so many men went to prison, taking the risks for peace. It is without doubt that without the women involved in the talks process that led to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement the outcome may have been very different.
Nobel Women's Initiative Bus Tour provides a women's history of Belfast
So where are the voices of women today? It is my opinion that since the establishment of our new Assembly and Executive, the voices of women have to some extent been silenced.
Pre Agreement, it was often women who direct rule Ministers engaged with and sought opinions from in relation to moving on. I spent many an evening in Stormont Castle, Parliament Buildings, sharing my thoughts on building a peaceful society, important stepping stones and creating ease with difference. It was in small community centres over a cup of tea that politicians from both John Major's and Tony Blair’s governments got a real sense of the pain, suffering, fears and also hopes, possibilities and determination of ordinary women doing remarkable things with little or no resources.
To date, the Civic Forum, an integral part of our Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, has not been properly put in place, save for a short period in the late 1990's when a brief Forum was established and then brought down again. The Civic Forum was an initiative of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition and was to be the crucial and central voice for ordinary people, community and voluntary organisations, church groups, young people, older people, a wide and varied representative body that could be the centre of the peace building dialogue processes underpinning the work of politicians in the new Assembly and Executive. We were told very clearly that the Agreement would be implemented in full - "no cherry picking" was the term used by politicians. The process of building a sharing community was never intended to be implemented by politicians alone.
As we still have a serious under representation of women in our Assembly, Executive, Local Councils and in other decision making roles, a Civic Forum would be the ideal place for these crucial voices to be heard. Indeed, why not have women in Northern Ireland drive the Civic Forum, create the sort of inclusive processes that would really start to address the difficult issues like dealing with the past, flags and emblems and creating a shared future. Women could be the essential missing catalyst for change, really lead the way and give politicians the opportunity to follow.
Women’s organisations like Women Together, Women's Information Group, women's centres and women’s community groups led the way in challenging sectarianism and violence during the darkest days of our conflict, provided the havens of calm and support for so many injured and bereaved. They kept families together and children off the streets and safe and did the hard lifting in campaigning relentlessly for an end to violence and common sense inclusive ways forward. The few women present in the recent Haass/O'Sullivan talks process and the many criticisms I have heard from working class women on the ground that nobody asked their opinions is so sad.
When we as a society really start to value the important role so many women played in keeping this society together during the darkest, bloodiest days; played in campaigning for an end to the violence; play daily in challenging sectarianism and building relationships across divides; and play in supporting those who were bereaved, injured and traumatised; maybe, just maybe we will create an environment where compromise is not only possible but embraced enthusiastically.