Part of our series on women and peacebuilding in Northern Ireland.
In September 1990, I walked into the Women Together office, enthusiastic and passionate, driven by a deep desire to do what I could to end the devastating violence destroying lives and livelihoods on an almost daily basis in Northern Ireland.
Women Together was founded in the mayhem of 1970, those early and dangerous days when standing up to a growing paramilitary presence was so difficult. Two women founded the organization: one Protestant, Ruth Agnew, who lived in the working class Gasworks area of the Ormeau Road, Belfast; and one a Catholic woman, Monica Patterson, an English woman living in South Belfast. The violence on the streets in 1969 and 1970 was horrific with many deaths, injuries and families torn apart. Because of the rising fears of one another, many families had to leave their homes and even jobs in mixed areas and move across town to safer segregated areas. These two women came together and called a meeting of all women fed up with this mayhem who wanted to take a stand together against violence and sectarianism. The meeting was held in the War Memorial building in Waring Street, Belfast, and hundreds of women arrived, some in buses from difficult working class areas. On that night in October 1970, Women Together was born.
Twenty years after it was founded, in September 1990, I began my role at Women Together after returning to work in Belfast from Newcastle. I had lived in Newcastle, 32 miles from Belfast, since 1980 when my twins were very young. We had to seek out a community where we would feel safe to live as I was Protestant and my husband was Catholic. Belfast was just too dangerous. I had become aware of Women Together during my time in Newcastle, when I was deeply involved in the development of a new integrated primary school. I had heard that Women Together had established groups right across Belfast and in local towns and women worked together to protect their homes, families and communities. They often formed human chains across roads to keep stone-throwing youths apart, and took children out of violence-ridden areas for breaks in the country. They stood as women in solidarity together to challenge the government and paramilitary groupings to end the violence. Some husbands and families of the women involved didn't know that the women were working together in this way, such was the fear and anger of the time.
On starting at Women Together as a part-time development officer I was introduced to my new colleague Pat Campbell, a dedicated member of the Lisburn Women Together group, also starting that day. We were both brought on to help Women Together move forward as it celebrated its 20th anniversary.
As part of the 20th Anniversary events, new aims were agreed as follows:
1. To bring about a cessation of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
2. To give support to the victims of sectarianism.
3. To give women a "voice" in society.
4. To create a pluralist society where there is mutual understanding and respect for our diversities.
Pat and I became great friends and before long we were working with women from across the many divides, not only in Belfast but across Northern Ireland. We developed what we called Talking and Listening Circles, creating spaces where women could start to talk to one another about their lives, their difficulties bringing up children in a divided and sometimes dangerous society, their hopes, fears and dreams. We always encouraged open and honest dialogue. These were real women, real life situations, real pain, real fear, real challenges. We brought together women from across the divides in Northern Ireland, from the South and eventually from the Church of Scotland Guild as well: women engaged with sharing, shifting and shaping a society free from violent conflict, where every single person could feel at home and welcome.
Inspired by our visit to the Ulster Hall in Belfast to see the Aids Memorial Quilt in 1991 – a deeply moving immense quilt where each piece told a story of a loved one lost to this cruel disease – we decided to work with women across our divides to weave our own quilt. This project took on a life of its own. We collectively crafted not one but three extremely special, inspiring, memory filled quilts, which to this day travel the world as a visual representation of peacebuilding and reconciliation.
Women Together's Northern Ireland Peace Quilt
From the very early days of Women Together, the devastation of the violence and the tragic loss of life had deeply affected its members. Many had suffered loss themselves. As a little gesture of support, two women from the organisation, one Protestant and one Catholic, would go to the home of bereaved families and bring some flowers and say a very heartfelt sorry and let these families know they were thinking of them and working together to try and end the violence. We also organised many vigils following horrific events, always with the same message: end the violence and start the talking. In the aftermath of the Warrington bombing in England by the IRA on 20th March, 1993, which resulted in the death of two little boys, Jonathan Ball and Tim Parry, we organised a special service in St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast and walked together, Protestant and Catholic women, through Belfast City Centre, carrying a beautiful spray of white flowers which we lay in the Garden of Remembrance at City Hall. Following this tragedy we worked with the Parry and Ball families over several years to highlight the futility of violence and helped in the early development of the Warrington Peace Initiative.
Mr and Mrs Parry at their son's grave.
It was in the early 1990's that we became very conscious of the lack of support for families bereaved and injured in the violence that had been raging since 1969. We did our little bit and we knew of the work of CRUSE Bereavement Care and small community organisations doing what they could, but the lack of statutory support led us to start asking questions. We contacted Marion Gibson, then chair of Victim Support Northern Ireland, to ask why so little was available over twenty years after the beginning of the conflict. With Marion’s help, we managed to establish a working group to map the support available and identify the gaps in provision, of which there were many. The report from this working group raised the issue at government level and we were delighted that this led to the Bloomfield Report of April 1998, "We Will Remember Them": the first serious effort to look at support in an ongoing way to victims and survivors of the conflict.
On 9th January, 1992, the day started in the Women Together office as normal. Pat and I were working on a forthcoming women’s residential and Ann, our secretary, was getting the programme typed up.
Pat left early to go with her husband Gerry to a hospital appointment and all was well until that telephone call, memories of which to this day send shivers down my spine. Pat’s 28-year-old son Philip, the youngest of five, an innocent young man working in his burger van on the Moira Roundabout near the airport, had been shot dead. Shot eight times in the back and the watch his mum bought for him for Christmas shot off his arm. Loyalist paramilitaries had carried out this vicious attack, on a defenseless young Catholic man, a chef by profession, making and serving burgers from a roadside van. Another senseless murder, part of the tit-for-tat madness that was so commonplace at this time.
We did what we could to support Pat and her family through the nightmare days that followed. The media covered Philip’s death and the funeral and through the pain and the sorrow Pat vowed to keep on working to end this madness. Together we continued to build relationships of trust among women and to organize vigils in memory of those lost to violence from across our community and appeal for an end to violence and for the dialogue to begin.
Throughout the mid 1990’s, spurred on by the tragic loss of Philip and so many other deaths and injuries, we in Women Together stepped up our campaigning and relationship-building work. We trained women in mediation, challenging sectarianism and racism, conflict transformation and used many creative processes to encourage understanding of difference. We held seminars in confidence building, personal development, public speaking and leadership. I represented women from Northern Ireland on the Women's National Commission, attending meetings with women from all over the UK on leadership, women's representation in politics and in public life. We did what we could to make visible the needs and demands of women from across the religious and community divides.
We knew that women working together, being loud and bold and consistent in our message, would have an impact.
See Part 2: 'Women in Northern Ireland should be leading peacebuilders again'
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