Women's participation in peace negotiations in Northern Ireland made them less likely to fail

Women's participation in peace negotiations in Northern Ireland made them less likely to fail
© Getty Images

Twenty years ago, the landmark Good Friday Agreement ended 30 years of violence (known as the Troubles) between British Protestant unionists and the Irish Catholic nationalists. While many are marking this anniversary by heralding the contributions of leaders like chief negotiator former Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine), a critical factor that helped secure and preserve the peace is too often overlooked: the participation of women.   

Before peace talks began in 1996, public elections were used to determine which political parties would be allotted seats at the negotiation table. Taking advantage of this unusual design, Catholic and Protestant women’s groups led by Monica McWilliams and May Blood joined forces to establish the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition. They won enough support in the election to gain access to the talks, and were joined by one other woman representing the Sinn Fein party.

ADVERTISEMENT
These women helped the Good Friday Agreement take shape and take hold. It’s a contribution that women around the world have made: research suggests that women's participation in peace negotiations makes the resulting agreement 64 percent less likely to fail and 35 percent more likely to last at least 15 years.

 

Our interactive report tracks women's participation in formal roles in peace processes from 1990 to the present, exploring how women’s inclusion in peace processes advances security. Here are five ways in which Northern Irish women influenced the success of the 1998 peace accord:

  1. Worked across lines

Through the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, Catholic and Protestant women’s groups joined forces to establishing one of ten political parties popularly elected to participate in the peace negotiations, and one of the few that worked across Catholic and Protestant communities.

  1. Acted as honest brokers

Because the women’s coalition leaders were respected as “honest brokers” who represented both communities, officials turned to them for help at critical moments in the process. They worked back-channel to gauge opposing parties’ positions on critical issues, and when the leading Irish Catholic party, Sinn Fein, was temporarily barred from the talks, the NIWC maintained communication with them and eased their reentry to the process.

  1. Broadened the agenda

Women’s coalition leaders secured language in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that specifically referenced victims’ rights and provided for reintegration of political prisoners, education, and mixed housing. These were issues that the main parties to the conflict had never brought forward but that ultimately contributed to advancing the social cohesion needed to sustain peace.

  1. Built public support

The women’s coalition set a precedent with its inclusive process of cross-community dialogue. Leaders of the NIWC held regular meetings with the general public to learn more about the needs and concerns of both the Catholic and Protestant communities and to relay updates on the peace talks. Helen Jackson, a member of the British parliament and observer at the negotiations, later reflected that the women’s coalition “gave a human face to the conflict, and highlighted the personal consequences of war.”

  1. Ensured a successful public referendum

Drawing on the trust they had built through their public consultations throughout the process, women’s groups organized a massive civil society campaign that was essential to the 1998 approval of the peace agreement in a public referendum.

Post-conflict status

Northern Ireland has enjoyed relative peace and economic growth since the 1998 agreement. More recently, some observers fear that the United Kingdom’s forthcoming departure from the European Union may threaten the stability of the agreement. Some divisive issues related to sectarian and national identity were left unresolved by the accord and contribute to occasional discontent and violence.

The issues that the women’s coalition brought forward in the peace process, including education and mixed housing, had previously gone unaddressed by the main parties to the conflict, but have ultimately proved to be fundamental to promoting social cohesion.

Although the final agreement included commitments to support women’s full and equal participation in society, women remain underrepresented in politics and in the economy. The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition was formally dissolved in 2006 and twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement, only one woman has been appointed to a monitoring body for the peace process. “The diminution of women’s contribution to peace building has meant a loss of the plurality and creativity that was so beneficial to the peace negotiations in the first place,” McWilliams observed.

Given the valuable contributions that women made in securing and sustaining the Good Friday Agreement, those who seek to maintain peace ought to put women’s participation higher on the security agenda — both in Northern Ireland and around the world.

Jamille Bigio is a senior fellow for Women and Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Find her on Twitter @jamillebigio. Rachel Vogelstein is the Douglas Dillon senior fellow and director of the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a Visiting Fellow in the Center for Global Legal Challenges at Yale Law School.