talks about the process of setting up the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC). The NIWC did not adhere to a particular political party, but campaigned principally to get women’s voices represented in the multi-party talks in Northern Ireland in 1998 and to oppose all sectarian violence.
You can find out more about the Troubles in Northern Ireland in Race, Place and Nation.
What do you think were some of the challenges faced by the NIWC from other parties?
Some women decided not to join the NIWC because they felt it was making them choose their identity as a woman over their political identity and aspirations. What do you think of this division of loyalties? Which would you put first, your political affiliation or your gender – or would it depend on the issue?
Is there a common women’s experience that can transcend all political and religious divides, such as those in Northern Ireland during the Troubles?
I remember speaking in County Cork on International Women’s Day in 1998 about a possible impending election to multi-party talks and I made a plea about people not assuming that their view of the extreme was the extreme, because in fact we had had many years of supposedly centre parties who couldn’t get on and were never making a deal, that it needed to be a more inclusive process and absolutely saying if this is going to happen at this time I’m adamantly sure there will not be any women’s voices there. And we need some pressure on to make sure that women are included. I had no idea on the 8th of March 1998 that within weeks we would have a Women’s Coalition, that’s how sudden it was. I got a phone call from somebody, Chris McCabe actually in the Northern Ireland office, who said that they’d received the Women’s European Platform submission. So we brainstormed, we came up with a party, we called it – we said, ‘No, we can’t have this, we can’t have that, that name’s taken,’ so we came up with the Women’s Coalition. And then we said, well we’re not going to run with Women’s Coalition alone for two reasons; number one it’s shortened to WC, and we know what everybody will make of WC [laughs] and secondly, if we put Northern Ireland before it it’ll move it up the voter lists. That’s how we came up with the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition. And so the Women’s Coalition was formed just like that. We did it on the basis of two things. We ran regular weekly meetings, bringing all of the women together to discuss policy and we also ran technical meetings in terms of the technical management of the election and to put a team together to do that. And this is where the work that we’d done on the research and policy positions for Beijing, because suddenly they became adopted as the Women’s Coalition policy positions, because so many women had been involved in developing them and we didn’t have time to draw up a whole new set. But we focused on three policy positions; one on human rights, one on equality, and one on inclusion. The next difficult thing was to get women to run and of course – and we see it continuously currently in women not all the time coming forward for politic, thinking they have to be 150 per cent perfect and everything when men are prepared to run on thirty per cent. But women in the Women’s Coalition, very difficult to convince them to come forward because they didn’t think that they had the capability. So we tried to put in support, capacity building. But I have to say, one of the selling points was to say to the women, you are not likely to get elected, alright, but we need you to run. I had set us a target of getting 10,000 votes to be safe. We got 6,600 votes and we came in in ninth place after the eight known groups that were there. So it was tremendously successful. The international media said, this is really peculiar, there’s a women’s party running, we’ve never seen this before. And only because they did it, our jaded media came in behind and started being interested and I knew all along from the way the votes were going that we were going to make it. It was a tremendous day of celebration.