Crossing divides



This film narrates Bronagh Hinds' involvement in civil rights in Northern Ireland which led to her participation in the Women's Coalition to bring peace across the divided communities.

Bronagh Hinds has spent over 30 years campaigning for peace in Ireland, respect for all communities and religious beliefs, and the decommissioning of weapons from all paramilitary groups. Her involvement began when she joined the civil rights march through Derry in 1972, at which the British army opened fire on the demonstrators. This became known as Bloody Sunday and sparked almost three decades of particularly violent conflict in Northern Ireland.

What can a common woman’s experience bring to national liberation struggles such as those in Northern Ireland?

Film credits
Producer / Director: Lizzie Thynne
Editor / Research assistant: Peter Hart



In 1972, on the 30th of January 1972, I was on a march in Derry City for civil rights. There were some 20,000 people on this march marching for civil rights and the banner that I’m standing in front of was the banner of the Queens’ University Students Union Civil Rights Association. Civil rights had started around the whole issue of discrimination against Catholics in the Northern Ireland community by the state and by the government, which was essentially Protestant and Unionist. And it was around issues about denial of housing to catholic families, a right to vote and a number of other issues. But in 1971 the government introduced internment against mainly the nationalist community, and lifted people off the streets in august 1971, and put them in prison without any charges and a series of marches evolved around internment. Only this year I ran into a friend who had been on the same march and we were speaking warmly of the results of the Saville inquiry and she said do you remember when we travelled up in the minibus to the civil rights march on the 30th of January 1972, which became known as bloody Sunday. You wrapped this banner behind me, round your body, underneath your jumper so that we could get through whatever roadblocks were going to be along the way which were put there to stall people from getting to the march. And actually we had the minibus full of Hurley sticks, or camogie sticks, which is an Irish game. And we were pretending we were a bunch of people going to play a camogie match to get as far as we could so that we could be on the march in time.

As the march came down towards what is now called Free Derry corner there were some incidents at the back of the march, a little bit of stone throwing but not something that was out of hand. I remember the effects of CS gas because obviously the soldiers were shooting CS gas canisters to stop it. We had been led by an open-topped lorry with a civil rights banner on top of it and the speeches were being made from that lorry and we were moving up to hear those speeches, and the message was coming down bring the banners up to create a bigger visual effect around by the lorry. As we were almost up at the lorry the shooting started, and it was as much feeling it, feeling it happening in the crowd, not knowing where exactly it was coming from but everybody running. Chaos. And I know that I myself ran behind a barricade and that must have been up near the top of the march because I found myself beside at least one of the people who I know had been up on the lorry, Rory, Rory McShane at the time. And I think I said to him, I suppose quite naively at the time ‘we’ve got to do something’ and he said to me ‘there’s nothing we can do, they’re shooting.’

I think the Bloody Sunday had the biggest impact of anything in terms of what happened next in the conflict. It was the central recruiting point for people to join the IRA and it perhaps instilled fear in those of us who were in the civil rights, but it certainly instilled anger at what had happened and our determination to continue on the campaign for justice. In my view, the darkest days of Northern Ireland was in that period in the ‘70s. Random assassinations. You could be just in the wrong place at the wrong time and being picked up. There were a lot of very active women in the civil rights movement, and women had come to the fore at various periods in the civil rights movements and one of those was around internment because a lot of the men were lifted so women had to come to the fore to lead civil rights marches.

One of the problems that women faced was because the politics was so tied up with national politics and the conflict, and because the language was so militaristic and demonising there was a type of politics here that women didn’t feel included in, didn’t want to include themselves in. Some of the best work that was done in the early days, in cross-community working, was the development of women’s groups. Downtown women’s centre of the Northern Ireland Women’s Right Movement was a centre-place where women could meet across the community. But as other groups began to emerge on the Falls Road, which is nationalist, and the Shankill Road, which is unionist, in East Belfast elsewhere, these groups began to collaborate together on their common interests. Women didn’t leave behind their own politics, their own identity, their own differences, but they were prepared to collaborate together.

The Women’s Coalition came about in 1996 based on all of the work of the women’s sector over the previous fifteen to twenty years, and the Women’s Coalition was established to bring women from right across the community into membership to get women into the political negotiations for peace. What we wanted to do was actually to take ideas and proposals in from the other parties, from their set positions, from wherever else they were coming, and to judge them against the yardstick of equality, human rights and inclusion. So it was important that we made sure that our policies were able to appeal to unionist women as well as nationalist women. We had found the main sticking point for the Women’s Coalition was over the policy on human rights, the issue was about transfer of prisoners from English jails to Northern Ireland. And we discussed the issue and as we unpicked it the issue became less of a unionist / nationalist issue and more of a class issue, and we were able to resolve that issue on the basis of it is a humanitarian issue for the families: the families can’t keep travelling over. The Women’s Coalition were people who had great experience and facilitation at reading body language, which was often very absent among the normal political parties. And we were so good at doing that when it came to the top bits at the end of negotiation process they almost forgot that we had demands, we weren’t just there being nice girls helping the process. I find myself sitting with our colleague, Jane Wild, in the final days of the talks saying we haven’t got our proposal for electoral reform on the agenda or our proposal for a civic forum. Our two priority proposals, which were about changing the electoral method so that we would include more voices than the normal political parties. The civic forum was appointed and then stood down when the first assembly was suspended and it was never brought back together again. The other elements that we put into the agreement were about the advancement of women in political life, the full and equal political participation of women, the advancement of women in public life. Monica McWilliams went and said to them are you out of your minds that we are going to release an agreement which has things like prisoners decommissioning and all of those things that we want to see in it, but you don’t speak to the victims.

But two members of the Women’s Coalition got elected: Monica McWilliams in South Belfast and Jane Morris in North Down. They faced quite a difficult time in the First Assembly. Some of the behaviour was horrendous. It was jostling in corridors. It was mooing at women when they were speaking. Pearl Sagar was particularly good at standing up to it, and when the democratic unionist party was talking about ‘the good women of Ulster stand behind the loyal men of Ulster’ she stood up and sang the old country and western song Stand by Your Man in order to make a joke of it. The behaviour that had been acceptable on men on men, violent language politically became less acceptable in the public mind on mainly male suits on women. And we turned that victimhood of women into something incredibly empowering to pass the message back to the public to say to the politicians this isn’t acceptable behaviour. And part of our strategy was to change that culture, to make that culture more amenable to dialogue, so we won.

Crossing divides
Sisterhood and After: The Women's Liberation Oral History Project
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