With the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), April 2018 was a milestone, filled with numerous events and discussions about the legacy of the peace settlement and its future prospects, both on the island of Ireland and internationally. Given my research on gender and post-conflict transformation, I was invited to the U.S. to speak at an academic event to mark two decades since the signing of agreement. As speakers, we were asked to reflect on the GFA’s legacy in bringing an end to decades of political violence and building peace for Northern Ireland. My aim was to discuss the implications for women’s citizenship that emerged throughout the peace process, drawing upon my research and over a decade spent in Belfast.
I began my contribution by acknowledging and discussing the role of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC) as co-architects of the agreement. At the same time, I pointed out that the peace process has been ambivalent in addressing women’s demands for inclusion, equality and social justice, remaining therefore incomplete. My talk was abruptly interrupted by another participant who rebuked my assessment for “being ungrateful”. He then took his turn and offered what, he felt, was the proper account of the conflict and of the peace negotiations’ complexities. The gist of his intervention suggested that gender is not relevant to understanding the conflict in Northern Ireland. This is because more men than women died during decades of political violence. While acknowledging that women have suffered in the conflict, it was implied that the extent of this suffering was mostly confined to losing or caring for family members caught-up in the conflict.
I wish to dwell on this short-lived, yet telling, exchange to develop a reflection on the gender politics underpinning narratives of the Good Friday Agreement, as well as its 20th anniversary celebrations. Starting from the use of the word “ungrateful” to dismiss research that foregrounds women’s experiences and claims (how dare we critique the legacy of the peace process?), the arguments raised in response to my points offer a glaring example of a deep-seated reluctance to acknowledge that women and gender matter greatly in the politics of conflict and peace-making. To begin with, I was struck by the failure to even acknowledge evidence and research documenting the varied impact of conflict in women’s lives, such as the unequal economic and social hardship experienced by women in working-class and rural areas; women’s safety and gender based violence in relation to forms of paramilitary activity and sectarianism; the long-term effects of violence on health and well-being, and increasing caring responsibilities for women as a direct result of the conflict – for example, when family members were injured. Women’s (unequal) care and emotional labour, mentioned by my co-speaker, is indeed a poignant example of the gendered legacy of the conflict!
What is more, obscured in such gender-blind narratives are the complex ways in which women, in their diversity, participated in the conflict and peace process. It has been documented that some women were actively involved in protests, marches and more overt forms of political activism. Others explicitly engaged in the conflict as combatants in republican/nationalist paramilitary groups, and through supportive/less visible roles in loyalist groups. Some women were involved in community groups and grass-roots organisations that emerged predominantly in working-class areas, as a response to the deficiencies of direct-rule government in dealing with the social and economic needs of communities fractured by conflict and deprivation. In some instances, these kinds of supporting networks would also extend across divided communities. Although conflicting views on the constitutional issues and on the identification with feminism remained, civic activism provided a crucial platform for women’s active engagement during the conflict. When prospects for the peace settlement emerged in the late 90s, it offered a springboard for a more cohesive, and collective, albeit short-termed, mobilisation which led to the formation of the NIWC.
Not only do the arguments on gender’s irrelevance to understanding the complexities of the conflict suggest a partial view of its history, but this logic also sustains the tendency to dismiss women as full-fledged agents in the politics of the peace process. Beside my own experience at the international conference that prompted this reflection, this attitude has been on display during the GFA’s celebrations on occasions where women’s stake as co-architects in dealing with the legacy of conflict and building peace has been omitted or downplayed.
We should remember that when the Agreement was negotiated, women were unusually visible. Dr. Mo Mowlam, the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, played a tremendous role both in her personal and institutional capacity. Liz O’Donnell, as junior Minister of Foreign Affairs, also contributed to the talks as a member of the Irish government delegation. Martha Pope, Senator George Mitchell’s chief of staff, coordinated the involvement of the US delegation, playing an important formal and informal role during the negotiations.
Crucially, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC) participated in the multiparty negotiations through their elected representatives, Monica McWilliams and Pearl Sagar. As a cross-community party, the NIWC put an emphasis on maintaining the inclusive character of the negotiations process and in keeping open the lines of communication with civil society and political groups excluded from the talks. Particularly important was the Coalition’s achievement of a separate clause in the Agreement affirming the right of full and equal political participation for women. While we agree that the NIWC was not perfect and that not all women felt represented in their political stance, their contribution was remarkable on many levels. As Danielle Roberts has written, the coalition introduced the principles of inclusion, human rights and equality through their engagement in the negotiations. In the process they also had to find creative ways to navigate the hostile terrain of the male-dominated peace talks and establish working relationships with a wide array of actors. That women’s presence and contribution to the making of the GFA are dismissed in narratives of the peace agreement’s legacy is simply unacceptable.
What a reflection on the GFA’s 20th anniversary should also not downplay is that the aspirations for inclusion and equality included in the agreement have remained peripheral in the subsequent implementation and negotiation of the settlement. As I have argued elsewhere, the divisive nature of ethno-national politics has taken centre stage, also as a result of the power-sharing consociational formula deployed in the agreement. Gender concerns have been relegated to the margins of the dominant political agenda and often left unaddressed. Numerous reports highlight the continued economic and social hardship experienced by women living in divided and interface communities, and the lack of social services and education for young people in these areas. Women have continued to express concerns around issues of safety, violence and ‘new’ forms of paramilitary activity. Community activists report a lack of attention to the persistence of entrenched gendered violence and discrimination. The fight for reproductive justice and bodily autonomy, challenged by conservative attitudes of major political parties, also continues thanks to huge efforts by individual activists and groups such as Alliance for Choice. As both Claire Pierson and Kellie Turtle point out, while there have been some gains in the field of political representation and in the leadership of major NI parties, women have had limited access to key institutions and processes that focus on unresolved legacies of conflict and crucial contested issues, such as the parade commission and more recently the ‘Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition’ Commission.
Generally, women’s and feminist groups have expressed dissatisfaction with a peace process wherein women and women’s claims are too often side-lined in favour of matters that are deemed of more immediate interest, such as ‘community relations’, ethnonational identity and stability/re-establishment of institutions. This marginalisation has been intensified in the recent political deadlock that led to the suspension of NI devolved institutions, as well as in discussion around the uncertainties over Brexit. In October 2017, I attended a consultation to discuss the implications for women, peace and security in the current moment of political crisis and uncertainty. Organised by Yvonne Galligan and Fiona Buckley, as chairs of the Gender Politics specialist group of the Political Studies Association of Ireland (PSAI), the meeting included NI activists, community development experts and interested academics. Participants expressed concerns over the unfinished gender equality politics of the peace process, as well as over the return of zero-sum positions spurred by controversies in NI local politics and Brexit negotiations. Our discussion brought to the fore a sense that, yet again, a gender perspective and an attention to wider women’s concerns about the equality and rights agenda have been absent from political discussions over the future of the Agreement.
As fellow researchers and activists have argued, it is time that women’s contribution to building peace and their demands for social justice, equality and inclusion are fully acknowledged and taken seriously. That 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement these complexities continue to be dismissed in discussions on the legacy and future of the peace process is why we insist that women’s and feminist critiques, in their diversity, are not only heard but amplified at every opportunity.